Monday, August 02, 2004

Convention conventions: The big speech

David Remick's comment in the New Yorker touches a topic I've been mulling--convention liturgy. The reader gets a little wet from reading the first few paragraphs--Remick is spitting mad at Bush--but here's the paragraph that applies (emphasis added to make skimming easier):
It takes little from Kerry's performance to recall just how closely his speech conformed to the tactics and tropes of other acceptance speeches, Democratic and Republican, of the past several decades. Nearly all of them reach into the same spice rack of metaphor, image, and avowal. There is the affirmation that one's party is the party of uniters, not dividers; there are the paeans to the vanquished fellow-candidates; there is the moment of calibrated self-deprecation ("I'll try to hold my charisma in check," Bush, 1988; "I know I won't always be the most exciting politician," Gore, 2000); there are the bold preferences ("I hate war, I love peace," Bush, 1988); there are the cadenced attempts to draw in the delegates ("Can you imagine?" "Yes!" "Will we let them . . . ?" "No!"); there are the invocations of [candidates as] small boys—full of hope and dreams, haunted by early tragedy, comforted by heroic mothers—who turn out to be none other than the nominee (the man from Hope was exceptionally good at this in 1992, but the ne plus ultra of cornball narcissism was Nixon in 1968); and, finally, there are more rhetorical bridges than in all of Venice, more rhetorical mornings than at a breakfast-all-day coffee shop. To read these speeches is to encounter not only the expectable baloney but a form as unwavering as Hopi wedding rites or the Mourner's Kaddish. They are not called convention speeches for nothing. These are rituals designed less to broadcast detailed policy than to armor the speaker against the onslaught to come, speeches in which George McGovern waxes muscular about providing the "shield of our strength" to our weaker allies and George W. talks of "learning to protect the natural world around us" and changing "the tone of Washington to one of civility and respect." Still, conventions, like all rituals, reveal more than they seem to.

At the end of that last sentence, I had hoped that Remick would help in my search for the meaning of American political ritual. All he could glean from it, though, is that the upcoming election is going to be down and dirty. Ooooohkay.

But looking at the content of the ritual that Remick points out, there is a pattern. The acceptance speech is a message of unity and hope. Pointing out that his party "is the party of uniters not dividers," praising the candidates he has defeated, the "bold preferences" and "cadenced attempts to draw in delegates" pull the party together, patch over the rips caused by prior campaigns and make the assembly feel itself part of something larger. Self-deprecation shows that the candidate understands himself as a member of the assembly.

"Hope," whether it appears as a word or as a metaphor--the candidate's early dreams or "morning in America"--is what candidates offer. Voters may love the candidate or may choose him simply as the least worst, but either way, the election is about our future, not the candidates' future and not the candidates' past (except insofar as it represents our future).

Taken apart like this, the acceptance speech is "the expectable baloney," but the fact that it has evolved into this form, has acquired these themes, means that there is something essential to them. Their presence doesn't prove anything about the candidates. Anyone can talk unity and hope. But the themes do say something about cherished ideals that nurture the republic.

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