Watching the Watchdog: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly RNC Speeches

08/31/2012 05:09 EDT | Updated 10/31/2012 05:12 EDT
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US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks at the American Legion 94th national convention in Indianapois, Indiana, on August 29, 2012. Romney lies neck-and-neck with Obama in national polls 10 weeks before an election that should be his for the taking, given the sour economy and an unemployment rate that is lingering stubbornly above eight percent. AFP PHOTO/Jewel Samad (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/GettyImages)

Tim Knight writes the regular media column Watching the Watchdog for HuffPost Canada.

He Made My Day -- I really don't care if Clint Eastwood was stoned, drunk or at 82, just plain senile.

He was the only speaker over the three nights of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, who I couldn't stop watching. Partly because he was the only speaker who didn't dutifully read a speech from a script written by other people then rewritten by a dozen or so party zealots until it lost all meaning.

Instead, Eastwood ad-libbed -- thus proving far too late for Republicans that he's not really invincible Dirty Harry, but just another actor who shouldn't be allowed to work without a script.

He was riveting. Not only because he didn't read a script, but also because he was the only speaker who didn't wallow in the orgy of lies, untruths, half-truths, falsehoods, fabrications, inventions, fictions, exaggerations, evasions and promises-impossible-to-keep that were the main theme of most of the other speakers during the three days.

Nor was he guilty of the river of bullshit, clichés, bromides and maudlin sentimentality that poured from the other speakers. Or all that crap about loving moms and an unrecognizable, exceptional Norman Rockwell America which doesn't exist.

Instead, Eastwood was a wonderful, mumbling, rumpled, slow-motion train wreck having a bizarre imaginary conversation with an imaginary President Obama (represented by an empty chair) and running deep into Romney's time:

"I mean, what do you say to people? Do you just -- you know -- I know -- people were wondering -- you don't -- handle that OK. Well, I know even people in your own party were very disappointed when you didn't close Gitmo. And I thought, well closing Gitmo -- why close that, we spent so much money on it? But, I thought maybe as an excuse -- what do you mean shut up?"


"So anyway, we're going to have -- we're going to have to have a little chat about that. And then, I just wondered, all these promises -- I wondered about when the -- what do you want me to tell Romney? I can't tell him to do that. I can't tell him to do that to himself."


"OK, well anyway. All right, I'm sorry. I can't do that to myself either."

Not exactly in the same class as: "Four score and seven years ago ..."

Organizers no doubt, cringed, paled and competed to pass the blame for the Eastwood invitation down the line to the flack who first came up with the idea and likely boasted along the lines of: "We can tell him Your Mittship, to end with ... 'go ahead, elect Mitt Romney ... and make my day.'"

He didn't. But enough of a doddering old actor making a fool of himself in front of some 40-million people. Back to the matter of the teleprompter and scripts and all that reading and lying etc. etc.

Signifying Nothing -- You have to understand that political conventions aren't real. In fact, they're just another reality TV show, albeit live. Think of Survivor crossed with Dancing With The Stars.

Normally (which means: with the exception of the Eastwood intervention), just like reality TV, everything that's said and everything that happens in a political convention is worked out in advance. To the second. To the last comma. To the number of mentions of Mom.

The characters are carefully chosen to fit designated roles. Then their words are written for them by people who have long forgotten what truth is and make excellent livings writing what Churchill fondly called terminological inexactitudes.

After which the speechifyers have to stand up on the stage and read those words from the 'prompter and try to make them sound as if they actually believe them. As if the words have meaning, are just freshly thought up, right there on the spot.

It's a skill that very few people do well. Because it takes hard work and courage. Much easier and safer to just read. (Canada's own TV news broadcasters themselves rank as little more than mediocre at it.)

Here's my professional report card on how the different speakers used the 'prompter:

A + -- Ann Romney ("Tonight I want to talk to you about love"), not a politician but wife of the great man, was terrific. Sure, her words were obviously written by someone else and some of what she said was nonsense, but she had so much energy, so much faith, that she obviously believed what she was saying. As did her audience. She beat the machine.

A + -- Grant Bennett and Ted and Pat Oparowski, not politicians but people who worship in the same Mormon congregation, talked of Romney as a fine neighbour who went out of his way to help others. Their words too were written by experts and put on the 'prompter. But somehow the couple came across as caring and honest. They too, beat the machine.

B -- Mitt Romney, the man who would be president, was transfixed by the 'prompter. You could watch his eyes dart first to the 'prompter on his left, then to the 'prompter in the middle, then to the 'prompter on his right. And back again. In the same order. Hypnotic. It certainly didn't support the message carefully delivered by the other speakers yesterday that he's a fine and decent man who has emotions just like real people. The machine won.

C -- Paul Ryan (Romney's running mate) just read those rolling 'prompter words in front of him. Didn't take part in them. Didn't see the scenes or feel the emotions. It was his speech on Wednesday night that set off the army of fact-checkers who went through word by word, sentence by sentence. But at least he'll be able to claim that since he just read the damned words, didn't actually think them, he's not really responsible for all those lies. Also, he simpered and smirked through most of his speech. Not the greatest possible start. Again, the machine won.

Now, next Monday is the start of the Democratic National Convention.

If the Democrats are smart, they'll have learned a lesson from all the criticism of the lies that got tossed around so blatantly by the Republicans. Trouble is, lies are part of political life. Lies are an essential part of getting elected in the first place. Lies come with the political territory. For all parties. Here in Canada too.

Maybe the best we can hope for next week is that Democrat lies won't be as blatant as Republican lies. If for no other reason than that the fact-checkers will be drooling.

As for that damned 'prompter, watch the speakers carefully.

Sometimes, if you concentrate real hard, you can catch even that great orator Barack Obama read first from the 'prompter on his left, then the 'prompter in the middle, then the 'prompter on his right. And back again. In the same order. Hypnotic.

That's when he isn't particularly convincing.

But Obama also breaks away from the machine sometimes. Thinks out loud. Sees the scene. Feels the emotion. And when he beats the machine, it's magic.