As hilarious a moment of self-parody it was when the Democrats solemnly took to their feet yesterday as The Star Spangled Banner was piped in via satellite from Arizona in the language of the Tohono O’odham Nation, Teresa Heinz Kerry topped it.
She actually spoke French from the podium.
Presumably, the litany of greetings in Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese were meant to showcase Ms. Kerry’s worldliness, which would seem a strange strategy for the wife of a candidate fighting the (accurate) perception that his foreign policy would operate at the mercy of European elite opinion. The text was changed a bit to tone down the implications: she addressed “tous les Franco-Americains” instead of, as the prepared text that was released had it, “tout les Americains, Français et Canadiens.”
Teresa was otherwise dull as a spoon; the same can’t be said for Barack Obama, whose keynote address lived up to the hype. Obama’s message is one that can resonate far beyond the Fleet Center: Government can do better, but people “don’t expect government to solve all of their problems. They know they have to work hard to get a head. And they want to… They know that parents have to teach, that children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white. They know those things.” He even seemed to challenge muliculturalism: “There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.” Alas, Obama will have to change some of his policy positions before the substance matches the style; as Republican Illinois state Senator Steve Rauschenberger hyperbolically put it, he’s “to the left of Mao Tse-tung.”
Dick Gephardt gave a pretty classy speech early in the evening touting Kerry’s record of fighting for various big government programs and insisting that Kerry will too be tough with America’s enemies; it was one of the few times that speakers mentioned anything Kerry had to offer besides a combat record. But apart from Obama and Gephardt, speakers both yesterday and Monday have generally made a mockery of the idea that this convention would focus on the positive.
Jimmy Carter’s Monday speech was so nasty it would have been shocking coming from a former president, if Carter were capable of shocking us anymore; Jon Stewart wondered on The Daily Show last night if Carter was angling for the “Nobel Who-wants-a-piece-of-this? Prize.” His old rival Ted Kennedy gave Carter a run for his money, declaring, apparently from behind a drunken haze that protects him from terrorism, that “the only thing we have to fear is four more years of George W. Bush.” (I don’t know if he was literally in the bag at the time, but I do know that he accused Bush of dividing “city against surba-, surba-, suburb,” the kind of thing that, in the mouths of other politicians, would make Democrats howl with delight.)
Like Al Gore on Monday, Howard Dean was ostensibly toned down — but just as Gore’s “jokes” about Florida sound amazingly bitter, Dean’s speech was a re-mix of his greatest hits from the campaign trail, only delivered somnambulantly, as if he had “don’t scream… don’t scream… don’t scream” running through his head the whole time. (Bill Clinton didn’t need to be toned down: he’s skillful enough on his own to get away with accusing Republicans simultaneously of exploiting post-9/11 unity and needing a divided country.)
Attacks on the other side are a perfectly legitimate part of politics. What’s irksome about all this is that calls for civility in politics are routinely used to bludgeon Republicans; the speech that Teresa Heinz Kerry gave in Pennsylvania (right before telling a reporter to “shove it”) is only the most recent example. As one conservative journalist once put it to me, “change the tone” often means “let’s all get along and raise taxes.”
Remember this convention next time you hear a shot at John Kerry dismissed as a sign of Bush’s desperation.