Frank Rich on the National Circus: Michelle Obama Has Come a Long Way

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Photo: Justin Sullivan/2012 Getty Images

Ann Romney's task at last week's GOP convention was to humanize her husband. Michelle Obama's task last night seemed to be to defend her husband's record (and attack Mitt Romney's campaign) under the guise of a rousing speech about her family and upbringing. What did you think of FLOTUS's star turn?

I don’t think there’s a soul in America who doubts that Michelle Obama’s speech was a triumph of content, tone, delivery, and high-wattage glamour. (Or at least a soul who was watching; we don’t know yet if the post–Labor Day Democratic infomercial is improving on the dismal pre–Labor Day ratings for the Republican show in Tampa.) Of course, part of Michelle Obama’s task was to humanize her husband, too — and to pound in the president’s record on women-friendly issues like choice and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Not only did she do all this, but she did it without Ann Romney’s defensiveness. (Romney’s exclamation “I love you, women!” was redolent of Sally Field’s “You like me.”) What’s more, the Obama narrative of early-on roughing it (dumpster furniture, a rusted-out car) topped Romney’s sorrowful tale of having to eat what she apparently considered a welfare diet of pasta and tuna fish. Michelle Obama is going to be a tough act for anyone to follow now and in the future; if Hillary Clinton is really contemplating a presidential run, as the inevitable convention-week bloviation has it, you have to wonder where the current First Lady might fit into the political mix in 2016.

In 2008, Michelle Obama was occasionally a liability for her husband. At this point, is she his most effective surrogate?

I will answer uncontroversially: yes. It’s hard to believe that just four years ago Christopher Hitchens was ominously arguing in Slate that Michelle Obama’s Princeton thesis might link her to the black separatist radicalism of Stokely Carmichael, or that conservatives in general were portraying her as an entitled, insufficiently grateful American of questionable patriotism. Then again, the GOP right that put Bill Clinton on trial for impeachment and turned Hillary Clinton into a five-letter word at Republican conventions is now so nostalgic for the last Democratic presidency that you have to wonder if Jimmy Carter will undergo a revisionist restoration in conservative circles next.

San Antonio mayor Julian Castro gave the night's keynote speech, with many pundits wondering whether he was "the next Obama." What did you think of his introduction to the national stage?

Well, I think everyone of all political persuasions can agree that he was a huge step up from the 2008 Democratic keynoter. (Remember Mark Warner, anyone? I thought not.) Like many Americans seeing Julian Castro for the first time, I was impressed by his incipient star quality and moved by the story of his single mother, who overcame unfathomable hurdles to raise not one but two accomplished sons. (Castro’s identical twin brother, for those who weren’t watching, is a candidate for Congress in Texas this year.) What’s more — in stark contrast to the GOP keynoter, Chris Christie — Julian Castro actually spoke (and enthusiastically) about his party’s presidential candidate. Whether or not he proves “the next Obama,” it’s safe to say that he’s giving apoplexy to a GOP that is desperately trying to placate Hispanic voters who are appalled by Romney’s concept of “self-deportation” and his party’s embrace of the ethos of the thuggish Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio. So eager was the GOP convention to prove that Republicans really really like Latinos that Mitt Romney accentuated his father’s birth in Mexico and his son Craig came on stage to recite a few sentences of Spanish. (A bilingual feat considered so astonishing by the audience in Tampa that it rewarded the Romney scion with applause.) Somehow those panders — and the speech by the rising Cuban-American star Marco Rubio — seemed insufficient to the task. If you want to see how worried the GOP is about the Hispanic vote in swing states, you need look no further than the usually unflappable Karl Rove’s response to Castro’s speech in its immediate aftermath on Fox News. Rove was sputtering and overheated, calling the speech both “average” and “a little weird.” Weird? 

Paul Ryan's speech last Wednesday, also a hit with his party’s base, has been seriously scrutinized. Some have argued that Ryan has a rather fast-and-loose relationship with the facts, from marathon times to auto-plant closings. Romney pollster Neil Newhouse said the campaign was not going to be "dictated by fact-checkers." Are we in a post-truth election? And if so, how much should that concern us?

It’s utterly fascinating to me that conservatives who once decried what they saw as the rise of cultural and moral relativism on the left have now turned against empiricism, whether it is applied to Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent WMD, earth science, evolution, or the timing of a GM plant closing in Janesville, Wisconsin. (This isn’t to say that the Democrats aren’t also capable of such dishonesty, though so far, in 2012, on a far less cosmic scale.) This should concern us for the obvious reason that once the country stops agreeing on the facts and lets fictions drive political and policy debates, any ensuing governmental actions will be built on sand, with potentially disastrous consequences. Witness the Iraq War.

Last week's GOP convention had its share of buzzed-about speeches. What for you was the most significant moment?

Clint Eastwood’s moments — all twelve minutes of them. He hijacked the convention on its biggest night.

But for all the fuss made over his improvised ramble, did it hurt Romney? Or is Eastwood going to be merely a highly amusing footnote in future American history educational apps?

Even if you think that Eastwood’s ramble was funny — a minority that not only includes some on the right but Bill Maher — the fact remains that television viewers were greeted by a Hollywood star’s notion of performance art on the night when they were tuning in to take the measure of the presidential candidate (whose own speech would be pushed past 11 p.m. in the East). Eastwood upstaged all that came after — Rubio as well as Romney. He played into the trope that the GOP is the party of angry old white men. The vulgarity of his spiel seemed to mortify Ann Romney — both as seen in the audience and in morning-after interviews. If Mitt Romney wins, Eastwood’s turn will be relegated to a highly amusing footnote; if Romney loses, it will be seen as the beginning of the end. Meanwhile, Democrats who have launched a petition-and-Facebook boomlet to draft Betty White to make a counter-Eastwood appearance in Charlotte should be careful what they wish for.