Are ya ready for some politics? Republicans and their media surrogates tried mightily to engage in a feat of political jujitsu, turning Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama’s acceptance speech at Denver’s Invesco Field into an indictment of the candidate — further proof, they argued, of the cult of personality that surrounds his celebrity status. Yet as political theater, Obama’s football-stadium showcase delivered on a scale worthy of its setting. Coming on the heels of Beijing, the extraordinary visual tableau played like the Olympic opening ceremony of political speeches.
Strictly as a televised event, the more than 80,000 people that crammed into the stadium created a dazzling spectacle, from the royal blue carpeting that surrounded him to the musical acts that filled the intervals. Even PBS’ resident conservative, New York Times columnist David Brooks, gave the venue a B-plus or A-minus on style points — a more generous score, incidentally, than anybody would give David Brooks as a TV personality.
For those who have followed the campaign, little of what Obama said was particularly new. Still, the scope of the venue and the significance of the moment elevated the content, which wove Obama’s own self-made story into a grand vision for America, peppered with enough specifics to suit his purpose and notably sharp jabs at his rival, John McCain.
Obama’s rhetoric was crisp, incisive and carefully chosen. He spoke of facing the future in contrast to McCain, who would “keep grasping at the ideas of the past.”
The power of the response within the stadium also gave force to his words, whether it was teary-eyed women as he spoke about the sacrifices of his grandmother or the cascade of flags as he noted that the GOP doesn’t possess a monopoly on patriotism.
Obama argued for finding the grace to bridge America’s divides, yet simultaneously issued his challenges to McCain with passion. To Democrats who have fretted about a bloodless campaign, the speech exhibited a combative streak that he seldom showed while running against fellow Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Channel surfing through the four days of convention coverage, by the way, only reinforced that the best place to watch was PBS or C-SPAN. Commercial broadcast networks again mostly sat out the convention, while the ever-present cable nets preferred the blather of their insufferable in-house pundits to what the speakers were saying. Desperate to kill time, they preempted Obama’s speech with exhaustive analysis based on advance excerpts — in hindsight an especially silly exercise that ranged from MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on one end of the political spectrum to Fox News’ pugnacious Dick Morris on the other.
While these channels will doubtless extend Republicans the same discourtesy when they assemble in Minnesota, this approach underscores that CNN, Fox News and MSNBC (whose talent spent the week indulging in silly intramural on-air squabbles) are far more concerned with branding and self-aggrandizement than news.
Indeed, before Obama appeared, cable networks spent almost as much time examining the venue of the speech as its content — the perfect metaphor for a medium that invariably exalts style over substance.
The conventions are infomercials, to be sure, but as PBS’ Jim Lehrer has stated, what the organizers choose to present conveys a great deal about the parties, their strategies and their policy priorities.
Through the filter of TV, Obama is tall, handsome, eloquent — strikingly so, on that last point, compared to the current president. Even his youth — generally cast as a negative — could serve him well in debates with McCain, who is seven inches shorter and 25 years his senior. The Republican has the edge in experience and biography; but Obama comes across like gangbusters on television.
Setting politics aside, graded on his delivery, Obama met high expectations and made the sale, to the extent he can. But like so much in the media today, the distribution channel through which one consumed the speech doubtless forecasts how it will be received more than anything the candidate said or didn’t.