The guy who gets top billing

Our pop-culture critic comments on the convention.

Editor's note: This story was originally posted September 3, 2004

Finally, tonight, the Republicans had to face facts: their presidential election prospects were going to rise or fall on their president.

They could bring out an entire parade of generals and admirals who could assert, over and over again, that they knew a commander-in-chief when they see one, that they had looked into Bush's eyes and seen character, courage, and consistency.

They could send Tommy Franks out to paint gauzy pictures of the successes in Afghanistan and Iraq, pictures which airbrushed out Moqtada al-Sadr and Najaf, and present Bush as a supporter of veterans, which glossed over his administration's early attempt to cut veterans' benefits.

They could spend days attacking John Kerry's insistence on emphasizing his own military service rather than his congressional record, while spending very little time throughout the convention on any aspect of the president's first term record except for the war on terror.

They could send Michael Williams, a close Bush friend and a genuinely charming public speaker, to talk about Bush's racially diverse Cabinet, which, while true, elides the fact that Bush's personal commitment to color-blindness seems, to put it mildly, not to have trickled down to his party.

They can bring in Fred Thompson, a senator better known for his regular role on "Law and Order" to narrate a video that relied heavily on September 11 and baseball in a down-home, folksy fashion.

And they could have perky Olympians Kerri Strug and Mary Lou Retton leading the pledge of allegiance, which seems to indicate a general commitment to gymnastic excellence that I can't really argue with.

But when it comes down to it, the convention is a lot like any other stage show or movie: it's all about the guy who gets the top billing, who goes above the title. He's the one who draws the eyeballs, who puts the behinds in the seats. There can be other stars, sure: the character actors who play their usual role with their usual flair (Rudy Giuliani giving his battle-tested post-9/11 leader speech), the superstars who are slumming a bit, graciously ceding the limelight to someone else for payment on the back end (Arnold, obviously, hoping either for federal largesse to California or, in the depths of his heart, a constitutional amendment), the second-tier player who turns in the surprising performance that makes you take notice (George Pataki, rising to the occasion pretty impressively). But it's about that one guy's performance; when it comes down to it, nothing else really matters.

And this must have worried the Republicans slightly, since, not to beat old horses, George W. Bush is not the Ciceronian master of rhetoric you want to rely on as a speaker when the chips are down. But Bush has always thrived on low expectations, and had clearly practiced his speech to within an inch of his life, even barely breaking stride when the speech was briefly interrupted - twice - by protesters. But the result was something like, say, Bruce Willis in "Tears of the Sun" rather than "Die Hard", or fellow speaker Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Eraser", rather than "True Lies" or "The Terminator": a perfectly adequate performance, but nothing you're going to remember in years to come. A lot of vague generalities and small-bore policies, unsurprising if affecting anecdotes about Iraq and American soldiers (how could they not be affecting?), a tremendous number of tried and true poll-tested phrases, and one fairly mediocre mantra (as slogans go, "nothing will hold us back" is no "I'll be back".)

But the qualities that make Bush such an effective campaigner peeked through, particularly toward the speech's end: whenever he went on the offensive, either against John Kerry or against terrorist regimes (not that anyone is equating the two, though occasionally you might wonder), he seemed to get a little brighter, more energetic. In his self-deprecating jokes near the end of his speech, he demonstrated the kind of personal charm that Al Gore would have killed for in 2000. And while the audience was hardly unbiased, he still managed to make a kind of emotional connection with them that was different from the strained, we-really-want-to-like-you-okay-you-did-pretty-well-I-guess atmosphere that greeted Kerry at the Fleet Center. The Democrats can't be devastated tonight, but they can't feel great, either.

The convention's over, but the movie ain't, and this one's clearly going to come down to the closing credits.

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