Carpe Diem, or Don’t

Conventions have moved beyond farce, but it dawned on me as I sat in the hall last week that the best thing about seeing one live was that it spared me from having to watch it on TV. And back at my hotel, the cable system wasn’t equipped with any of the yakfest channels, so for the duration – probably the first such week of my recent life – I didn’t have to listen to the yammering about how Bill Clinton still needs to apologize 52 more times to get right with the American people, or about the latest test they’ve concocted to prevent Al Gore from ever achieving “separation.”

That’s kind of a weird paradox: There I was, with the 14,999 other journalists, media upon media upon media, and yet it was the most media-free week I’ve experienced in years. If nothing else, the trip was useful as a defensive maneuver against talking-head overload. Taking it in firsthand granted the opportunity to come to one’s own judgments, the chief ones being that Al Gore finally seemed to break through with a truly vigorous speech – and Hillary didn’t do herself any harm.

Hillary’s best moment was not during the mega-fund-raiser and clearly not The Speech; it was the Sunday “Jewish event” at Sony Pictures, where she was actually demonstrated against by Arabs. Arab-American women, in the traditional garb, holding signs like hillary no and, referring to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, aipac is a danger to democracy. Ed Koch and Chuck Schumer would have known what to do with a moment like that: After checking to be sure the photographers were around, they would have hopped out of the van in a shot and wagged an imperious forefinger in some poor woman’s face. That’s what, in tabloid-speak, you call instant wood – i.e., a no-brainer for the front page. I mentioned this to Schumer two days later; smiling, he didn’t bother to disagree.

I’m joking a little. But: missed opportunities. A convention speech is a chance to advance the cause by saying something delightful or unexpected – or, conversely, to send the delegates out into the halls for pizza. Jesse Jackson knocked ‘em dead; once he was done, poor Tom Daschle served as snack time. Flubbing his lines, Ted Kennedy, on the other hand, seemed like a first-timer up there instead of the Democrats’ old reliable. Joe Lieberman was awfully charming for the first ten minutes of his speech; the demands of higher office haven’t yet squeezed the humanity and spontaneity out of him. Lieberman delivered his best crack, “not since Tom Hanks won an Oscar has there been that much acting in Philadelphia,” with the twinkled eye of a man who couldn’t quite believe his luck. You get the feeling that’s genuine, and it carried him through what became another ho-hum ode to a patients’ bill of rights and all the rest.

For her part, Hillary was a letdown. Going before a national television audience, in a hall full of adoring eyes, at her valedictory moment as First Lady, for God’s sake – and then saying the exact same things that have had her stuck at 43 percent in the polls for more than a year as her unfavorable ratings steadily rose – well, even her staunchest defenders would be hard-pressed to make the case that this was the best use of her camera time. She had the chance to make a new case, which is what these propaganda orgies are for. A standard convention tactic is to take what you do badly and use the occasion to turn it into a plus. To lie, in other words, but to do it with some style.

Without confronting the Lewinsky business, Clinton deftly handed Gore a way to argue around it – talk about whether this administration has left the country a more humane and forgiving place.

So at their convention, the Republicans put every black person they could bribe into the act up on the stage and talked about their concern for children. Coarse, but it does tend to work, at least for that post-convention poll bounce. Hillary had a chance to say something at odds, in a preferably compelling way, with our notion of who she is. I’m not saying she should have come out for tripling the defense budget, but let’s face it – the people who devoutly believe that we must do more for our children are voting for her already anyway.

Now husband Bill, there’s a guy who knows how to use a stage. He may have turned too many corners in that great gladiatorial march to the podium; you see that during the NBA finals or the like, and it’s usually pretty quick; the crowd was anxious for it to end about eight seconds before it did, and he almost – didn’t, but almost – lost the moment.

But, unlike Hillary, he did use the occasion to make an unexpected case. Everyone quoted the line “My fellow Americans, are we better off than we were eight years ago? You bet we are.” But to me, the most fascinating part of his speech was what came right after: “But we’re not just better off – we’re also a better country, more decent, more humane, more united. Now that’s the purpose of prosperity.”

“Prosperity with a purpose” is, of course, George W.’s line, the implication being that though the country has prospered, Clinton’s turpitude has nullified the bounty in moral terms. Republicans argue this, and the Beltway media agree and fundamentally accept it, which is why Al Gore is going to have a hard time winning this election. But Bill says, Not so fast. More united! Imagine Bill Bennett’s reaction when he heard that line.

Without exactly confronting the Lewinsky business, Clinton deftly handed Gore a way to argue around it – to talk about morality not in terms of what the chattering classes of Georgetown think but in terms that have to do with whether this administration has left the country a more humane and forgiving place than it was before. Without question, it has. The Republicans tacitly acknowledge the change, which is why they have gone from talking culture war in 1992 to talking compassion in 2000.

And perhaps Al Gore did learn something from Bill Clinton. In his speech Gore forcefully appropriated the Republican watchwords “family values” and “honor” and redefined them in Democratic terms, saying the country is closer to its stated ideal of equality and liberty for all than it ever has been, while admitting that we’re still some distance from reaching that ideal.

The people on TV I managed to spend the week avoiding probably won’t find that any more persuasive than “Bill’s a cad,” which they’ll never tire of saying. But maybe the voters, who so successfully tuned the talking heads out once before, will.


Carpe Diem, or Don’t