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Speech Therapy

America wasn't exactly transfixed by the GOP convention, but the Philly confab did produce some worthy rhetoric -- as well as plenty of podium pentathol.

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Conventions no longer feature suspense-filled battles for the nomination, or even minor floor fights over planks in the platform, for that matter -- just speeches, speeches, and more speeches. And the prime-time speeches, usually one per night, are the only ones that really matter. Here's how the major players fared:

Best speech ever by a First Lady-in-waiting: Laura Bush. Who knew Laura Bush would be good enough to have her speech interrupted 30 times for applause? And if you think that reaction comes easily in a convention hall, just ask the senators and governors who take a turn at the podium, as Bill Clinton did in 1988, and get none. The acoustics are terrible, and the in-house audience is composed entirely of professional politicians and jaded reporters who already know the speeches will be boring. Laura Bush locked in the crowd's attention with a couple of cute jokes, and found a perfect pitch between confidence and humility that allowed her to convey the gee-I-never-expected-to-be-standing-here subtext that Hillary Clinton, the determined career politician, never could. As a former public-school teacher, she even hammered home the Bush education program with authority. (Yes, contrary to media reports, she and other convention speakers did discuss policy proposals.) Even though the conventions now have all the visibility of spring training, they're good for forecasting the regular season, so put your money on Laura Bush for the fall campaign's Rookie of the Year. Best line: "George's opponent has been visiting schools lately. And sometimes when he does, he spends the night before at the home of a teacher. Well, George spends every night with a teacher." Worst line: "George never loses sight of home plate."

Best convention speech of the television age: Colin Powell. Even the most liberal reporters had trouble naming a convention speech more inspiring than Powell's. A few argued for Mario Cuomo's 1984 keynote address, fewer still for Jesse Jackson's '84 and '88 speeches, but Cuomo and Jackson were preaching to the converted. At times, Powell was preaching to the reluctant -- sometimes even the hostile -- and converting them on the spot. You can't ask for more excitement than an African-American successfully making a case for affirmative action in front of a crowd of Republicans: "We must understand the cynicism that exists in the black community, the kind of cynicism that is created when, for example, some in our party miss no opportunity to roundly and loudly condemn affirmative action that helped a few thousand black kids get an education, but you hardly hear a whimper when it's affirmative action for lobbyists who load our federal tax code with preferences for special interests." As one of the highest-paid players on the lecture circuit, Powell has been giving variations on this speech for years, so he worked the stage with the confidence of Sinatra. If Powell were on the Republican ticket, it would get two thirds of the vote; if he were on top, the Democrats might not even poll the 5 percent required to qualify for federal funding. Best line: the affirmative-action bit above. Worst line: none.

Worst Bush line: "Does anyone, Republican or Democrat, seriously believe that under Mr. Gore, the next four years would be any different from the last eight?" In other words, a continuation of the longest economic expansion in history.

Biggest choke: John McCain. Spending his entire speech staring straight at the TelePrompTer, McCain made his traditionally conversational tone so soft he ended up sounding perfunctory. When he began, the audience was silent, ready for another ride on the Straight Talk Express. A few minutes in, when it became clear McCain wasn't going anywhere, people resumed chatting among themselves. He left the conventioneers feeling confident, probably for the first time, that they were better off without him on the ticket. Best line: "National pride will not endure the people's contempt for government." Worst line: "I am haunted by the vision of what will be" -- a badly chosen paraphrase of Tocqueville that left former Republican presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan shaking her head in bewilderment.

Most mischaracterized: Dick Cheney. Even before Cheney was offstage, a Gore press release lied that he "delivered one of the most negative Republican convention speeches since Pat Buchanan." But though California senator Barbara Boxer and a gang of Democratic spinners complained that Cheney said "It is time for them to go," he did so in the kind of dignified tone seldom heard from a convention podium. Almost every headline writer in America called the speech an "attack," but few articles mentioned that Gore used that same line about Bush-Quayle in his 1992 convention speech and even led Madison Square Garden in chanting it. Best line: "And now, as the Man from Hope goes home to . . . New York?" Worst line: "Does anyone, Republican or Democrat, seriously believe that under Mr. Gore, the next four years would be any different from the last eight?" In other words, a continuation of the longest economic expansion in history.

Best joke: George W. Bush. "Growing up, she gave me love and lots of advice," George W. Bush said of his mother. "I gave her white hair." After that, his writers mostly failed him; he harped on character so much you'd think he was a candidate for Mount Rushmore instead of the White House. Still, he did what he had to do: not screw up. Expectations were so low that his performance was something of a triumph -- especially at the end of such a well-executed convention. Indeed, he looked so comfortable and confident you could begin to see how he might even settle into looking presidential in a year or two. Best line: "Gore now leads the party of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but the only thing he has to offer is fear itself." Worst line: "For eight years, the Clinton-Gore administration has coasted through prosperity. And the path of least resistance is always downhill." Now it's up to Al Gore to convince the country that he can keep us coasting.


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