Top Ten surprises from opening night at the RNC

Our pop-culture critic comments on the convention.

After the reports I filed from in front of my television about the Democratic National Convention, the even-handed, equal-time folks at csmonitor.com promised that they would bring me back to check out the Republican National Convention. I was excited to get the opportunity. Well, not excited, maybe, but upbeat. Well, not upbeat so much as willing to cash their checks.

Because, especially after the Democratic Convention, it seemed unlikely that anything of interest would take place during this Republican convention. Anything at all. The networks seemed to agree: only CBS had convention coverage, and for only an hour, and the talking heads at CNN and public television mostly decided to spend their coverage talking to each other rather than focus on what was happening on the convention floor.

This was probably a good idea. For those of you, who, by virtue of having real lives, missed Monday night's coverage, you will be shocked, shocked to discover that speakers like Bernard Kerik, New York's police commissioner in 2001, invoked 9/11 to show President Bush as tough on terror; that House Majority Leader Denny Hastert castigated John Kerry for flip-flopping on the war; that John McCain quoted FDR in his efforts to share his brand of bipartisan moderation wrapped in military authenticity, with his constant refrain of "my Democratic friends" and his redefinition of his party's leadership as multilateralists; that there was a tribute to the victims of September 11; and that Rudy Giuliani tried to turn his own New York brand of tough talk into a red meat, All-American rabble-rousing speech, combining personal reminiscences of the days that made him a national hero with the claim that he is grateful for George W. Bush's leadership (rather than the other way around, which certainly seemed to be the case Monday night).

But despite the Republican Party's clever plan to stifle anger, resentment, excitement, or indeed any emotion whatsoever through what can only be described as a careful plan to lull the electorate into sufficient somnolence to allow the incumbent to slide to victory, there were still some surprises that managed to sneak through. They seem to suggest not only veiled acknowledgment of some of the incumbent's problems, but some of the gaffes, oversights, and just general oddness this sort of event generates. (Discretion forbids me from speculation as to whether there's something essentially Republican about them.) Here are my Top Ten, in no particular order:

1. Seeing, after all the "mission accomplished" brouhaha, President Bush on an aircraft carrier. But there he was - President George Herbert Walker Bush, that is, speaking earlier that day on the USS Intrepid. Sure, it seems like a slam dunk - a tribute to America's veterans - but they couldn't have held it at West Point?

2. A defense of the Patriot Act on the convention floor during prime time, with an incredibly earnest former assistant US attorney explaining in detail how some of its criticisms were wrong. Reminding viewers in detail that the Patriot Act really, really doesn't pay attention to what you check out of the library is creepy as well as comforting.

3. During the veterans video, a "reporter" (who, charmingly, had a microphone that said RNC on it), asked a retired soldier if he thought it was important for young people to know what veterans did, possibly the most obvious question in the history of journalism.

4. Michael Moore, somehow in the Garden (you would have thought all the guards would have his picture), happily acknowledging the crowd's boos when John McCain referred to him as a "disingenuous filmmaker" - twice. This was the one time the crowd genuinely got riled up.

5. The first President Bush being introduced to the crowd to a Muzak version of Van Halen's "Jump"; I suppose it was appropriate to someone who celebrates major birthdays by skydiving, but still...

6. Delegates who were wearing Band-Aids, mocking the Kerry injuries that earned him his Purple Hearts. The campaign said they didn't know anything about it, and if you believe that, I've got a swift boat to sell you.

7. Denny Hastert, who, after a strained reference to the DNC as a "Boston Tax Party," attacked Kerry by saying that "this is not the time to pick a leader who is weak on the war and wrong on taxes," begging the question as to when he believes the right time is to pick a weak warrior and a wrong taxer.

8. The tribute to Gerald Ford, which was so badly edited that you couldn't focus on anything the president was doing in the video. Given that the phrase "Ford legacy", to most people, would mean some kind of four-door sedan, though, that might have been the idea.

9. Ron Silver. I'm a fan, but, you know, a little more celebrity wattage before Arnold gets out there might be helpful.

10. Including, in the Broadway medley that opened the show, a selection from "Chicago," the musical about manipulating media bias for your own gain.

I bet all of you who were watching preseason football or "Two and a Half Men" feel pretty silly now, having missed all these huge highlights. But look at the bright side - there are three more nights of convention madness.

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