This piece was going to go on Bloomberg Politics, but now it is going here so that it is not lost forever. Pretend it’s 12:02 a.m. on Tuesday morning, when it was filed.
Republican National Convention speakers on Monday night, reviewed, with qualities of presentation, pizzazz and general Trump-ism valued over matters of substance, content and value
For all the jokes about the “Duck Dynasty” guy leading off National Security Night of the Republican National Convention, it is undeniable that Robertson is a skilled communicator. Like Trump, he’s a performer, but he’s a natural at it, in fact a better actor than Trump is. Whereas Trump will wander off script, Robertson is disciplined, focused and skilled at not just delivering lines, but repeating them without ever feeling like he was droning on. (He must be a much easier edit on “Duck Dynasty” than Trump ever was on “The Apprentice.”) His mantra of “Donald Trump will have your back” was professional-grade work, almost inspiring a call and response interaction with the crowd, a remarkable achievement to pull off as the opening speaker. Robertson came across as genuine and charming, a believable non-politician talking directly to his ideal audience. Also, it’s worth noting that he’s the only one of the first four speakers who endorsed Trump from the beginning. Mock all you want, but Robertson, in a lot of ways, is an On Message Trump. And unlike Trump: He tells you he hunts and fishes and prays, and you believe him. Robertson isn’t a politician. But he sure gives a speech like one. A good one.
While it made sense for Robertson to be up there – reality star, built in “Middle America” fanbase, a stance on issues combined with actual popularity that, worthy or not, is at least relevant to the current conversation – Baio made … less sense. Baio was a joke of an actor even when he was popular, and now, his name is essentially nothing but a punchline. Even CNN’s chyron seemed to be mocking him, running “Sitcom Star: We Have a Choice in November.” Baio seemed to have no natural skill at deliver and no natural constituency. He boasted of how Trump personally asked him to address the convention. Even allotting for Trump’s naturally erraticism, it’s baffling as to why.
In an alternate universe, Rick Perry is the perfect Presidential candidate. He’s tall, he’s forceful, he’s emphatic, he has the George W. Bush Texas swagger that he comes by more naturally. (And few would doubt, if the two men ever had a Texas dust-up, who would win.) His issue has always been one of timing. His big moment four years ago happened to land precisely when he was struggling with staggering back pain that required painkillers; he’ll never live down the “oops” line. (It’s a main reason he was never taken seriously this cycle either.) Perry was the first candidate this year to go after Trump, calling Trump a “cancer on conservatism,” and it backfired on him, in a way that might have scared off other candidates, lest they suffer his same fate, and after dropping out, he endorsed Ted Cruz. He’s finally on the Trump Train now, but only barely: He in fact never mentioned Trump’s name once in his speech. Instead, he introduced the next speaker, a man with whom he has a close relationship and a man for whom he clearly felt much more comfortable praising.
The “Lone Survivor” of the film of the same name, Luttrell is one of the more celebrated soldiers in the public imagination today. He has essentially taken the Chris Kyle mantle of Representative of American Heroism for Generation X, and as a member of Generation X myself, it was a bit jarring to see it Luttrell so closely connect it to the military. (He called us “the X-Men,” which is the only time my generation has ever been considered badass.) Luttrell was an unpolished public speaker, which just made his words that much more powerful, particularly when he went off script and began speaking passionately about “the next war.” (It is worth noting that he might have still been reading off the prompter.) Luttrell was unquestionably moving, prompter or no, and while his argument that millennials don’t have to go searching for their war because “their war is here” – which sounded a lot like a guy encouraging street warfare – was a little sloppy and worrisome considering he had just finishing talking about All Lives Matter, he’s a difficult speaker to shake. Donald Trump is a germophobe Manhattanite talking about protecting and honoring the troops. Luttrell exudes it from every pore. He was the most effective speaker of the night.
Pat Smith is the mother of Sean Smith, one of the four Americans killed in Benghazi. (He was a computer technician who died of smoke inhalation.) Her grief is, a few years later, still palpable and raw … maybe a little too palpable and raw. She had to be helped to and from the stage, and she seemed – quite understandably – to be near breaking down throughout her entire speech. She is pleading and plaintive and still obviously in immeasurable pain to lose her only son. Only a robot would not be affected by her words, but one couldn’t help but feel that perhaps this was not all that appropriate for a political convention. Smith blames Hillary Clinton for her son’s death, but she didn’t make the political case for it; she just raged and quaked in torment, and we all watched uncomfortably, as if we were seeing something we were not meant to see. Her line about Hillary – “She lied to me and then called me a liar” – is memorable, but having her there still couldn’t help but reek of exploitation. (Especially considering not everyone who died in Benghazi has family who blames her. ) By the time she yelled, “she deserves to go to prison, she deserves to be in stripes!” this suddenly didn’t feel like it had anything to do with politics at all.
John Tiegen and Mark Geist
Two soldiers from Benghazi, who co-wrote the book “13 Hours” (which was made into the Michael Bay movie) together simply tell the story of what happened that day, like they surely have hundreds of times. It was a little unnerving how the crowd would cheer when Tiegen would talk about shooting an enemy, as if it were a video game rather than a horror show. Geist mentioned that it was like Whack-a-Mole, explaining how you shoot one, another one would pop up, but Each time he said “another one popped up,” the crowd cheered, like you got points for each one rather than the terror of another person trying to kill you. The men didn’t seem to notice, and they even tried some comedy, which led to the first time I’ve ever heard the word “tampon” at a political convention. This section was the longest of the night, including Donald and Melania Trump’s section, and networks took advantage of the break by cutting away for the entire thing. Almost no network other than C-SPAN showed their talk, including Fox News, which, oddly, was airing an interview with Donald Trump, the guy who had asked these guys to talk, after all. (The same thing happened to Pat Smith.) Either way: It would seem what these people were saying would have a lot more relevance than whatever Scott Baio had to say. Baio obviously didn’t agree: He was giving interviews to CNN and other networks while they were talking.
Antonio Sabato Jr.
The great joke of Sabato Jr.’s appearance, of course, is that it is legitimately possible that the Trump campaign – who scheduled him to speak right after Kent Terry and Kelly Terry-Willis, who lost their brother, a border guard, to a Mexican drug cartel – thought he was Latino rather than Italian. (The Times made the same mistake.) Sabato inspired another great CNN chryon: “Soap Star: I’m Concerned About Our Country’s Future.” At one point, Sabato said he had never spoken out politically before, as if it were a big sacrifice, as if he was giving up part of himself, as if the real reason he’d never spoken wasn’t actually because no one ever thought to ask him.
Mary Ann Mendoza, Sabine Durden, Jamiel Shaw
These were thematic repetitions of Pat Smith’s speech earlier, all of whom lost family members to people who were in the country illegally. They were all less raw than Smith, and it seemed strange, particularly in the case of Mendoza, who lost her son to a drunk driver, to blame illegal immigration for the deaths. (Americans kill people while driving drunk all the time.) Either way, not a single network showed these.
Rep. Mike McCaul
The chairman of the Homeland Security Committee says, first thing, that he was born and raised in Dallas, Texas, receiving the requisite applause and hometown cheap heat. McCaul, oddly (considering this is a convention for a political party), is the first person to speak who currently holds public office, and you can tell: The air goes out of the room almost immediately when he begins speaking. He does win considerable points for being the first speaker to wear a damned tie. He loses those same points for being perhaps the worst chanter of “U-S-A” ever to grace a public dais. He said it like he kept forgetting what the next letter was, each time he said it. “U … SA! US … A! USA!”
Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke
Clarke, an African-American sheriff in full uniform, tossed out the red meat at the very beginning of his speech, yelling “Blue Lives Matter” into the microphone at a commandingly loud level. He later called the Black Lives Matter movement “anarchists.” He’s a clear, simple communicator who appears to be auditioning for either a Fox News talk show or … well, a Fox News show. (He did once fill in for Sean Hannity.) Clarke has his talking points down and has the fact-check-proof candence of a natural-born Trump surrogate. At one point, Clark cites a Gallup poll saying that more people are concerned about violence than they were a few years ago, which may be true, but strikes one as strange that a sheriff would be more concerned about a poll about criminal violence than actual criminal violence. (Which is of course down nationwide, and down even more in Milwaukee.) Not that any of that made a difference. The minute he yelled, “Blue Lives Matter,” the crowd was putty in his hands. He is going to be on your television very soon, very often.
Rep. Sean Duffy and Rachel Campos-Duffy
Duffy is a former “Real World” house member, who met his wife on the show, and I’m pretty sure he’s the first person to become famous solely through reality television to reach Congress. It seems like more should have been made from this. Anyway, he and his wife talked about their eight children, joked about Hillary’s email server and had a well-rehearsed schtick that felt a little like your friends who put a little too much work into their yearly holiday card.
Also, this part was strange:
Glenn is the county commissioner of El Paso County in Colorado, who won his party’s nomination for Senate but is way behind his opponent in polls. An African-American, he has the Obama role, the out-of-nowhere up-and-comer who theoretically represents the future of the party. (And is black.) Glenn parrots Obama’s line about “no white America, no black America, a United States of America,” an effective way to both conjure the former President and also use his words against him. A good line: “The only thing we have left in our pocket is change.” A decidedly less good one: “Someone with a nice tan needs to say this: All lives matter.”
Sen. Tom Cotton
Cotton is one of the more accomplished and up-and-coming politicians to speak at the convention, one of the few to show up and play ball. He is a good speaker, and a veteran, and skilled at hammering the Clintons while without having to say that many nice things about Donald Trump. The needle for him to thread was to raise his profile and shiny up his star without getting dragged into the muck of “hey, was Scott Baio just up here?” He threaded the needle eloquently. If Trump doesn’t win in November, he may be the only person to speak tonight who’s back speaking at the RNC in four years. No matter what happens, he’ll be welcomed.
The mother of a Navy SEAL killed in Afghanistan, she gave a standard political speech that may have lost some power simply because of the almost primal power of Pat Smith’s speech earlier in the night. She felt like a warm-up act, and one supposes she was. She deserved better than this spot in the lineup.
Sen. Jeff Sessions
The Senator thought to potentially be Trump’s running mate – and one of his earliest proponents – is a major anti-immigration advocate, though as a speaker, he comes across as affable, even impish. He almost looks kind of cute hammering Hillary; it might be the little hop in his step that happens when he emphasizes a word. He appears to have tried to coin the term “Obama-Trade,” which is something that is probably not going to happen despite his attempts to make it happen. Also, he is a sitting Senator whom CNN didn’t cut away to feature, unlike Scott Baio and Antonio Sobato Jr. Actually, CNN did show Sessions’ speech briefly: When a protestor interrupted it.
The former New Yorker mayor has always been a demonstrative speaker, but as he has become more of a cable television staple and less of an actual political figure, he has become, well, an old man yelling at a cloud. Giuliani screamed, and screamed, and screamed, with the vigor of a man who was incredibly happy to have a national audience again. If he had the status that he did a decade ago as America’s Mayor, his spittle-inflected tirade may have looked tough and strong and formidable. Here, he looked … well, a little unhinged, perhaps? Maybe a lot? He sort of looked like that bit on “The Office” when Dwight Schrute gave a speech where he pounded the podium like Mussolini . It was a stemwinder, sure. But it was also this:
It made you miss the Giuliani-Trump duets of the past.
Donald Trump and Melania Trump.
In his signature style of low-key modest for which he has become famous, Trump came out to Queen’s “We Are The Champions,” bathed in shadow, like a professional wrestler, saying “We’re gonna win so big” several times. It is perhaps not an accident that Melania’s introduction was more heartfelt, professional and concise than the one he gave Mike Pence just last week. But then it was time for Melania.
Traditionally – with the obvious exception of Hillary Clinton – the wives of candidates have been mostly off-limits for public mockery at events like this, but, to judge from Twitter, the rules are off for Melania, or at least for her accent. (She has an accent, so she must be a Bond villain, apparently.)
Considering this was her first major public speech, with the entire country and a lot of the planet fascinated to essentially meet this mystery woman for the first time, she was remarkably composed, delivering an empty, content-less speech impressively well. Everyone was watching her every move, and she easily exceeded expectations on the stage. So, all good, right? Well ... except it’s always important to remember that if it seems too good to be true, it is. It turns out that — perhaps inevitably — sections of the speech were plagiarized which, unfortunately for Melania, is now all anyone will remember from her speech. (It’s important to remember that, her claims that she wrote it herself aside, this is a massive unforced error on the part of the campaign, particularly because the plagiarism came from a Michelle Obama speech.) Her fans won’t care, but Melania was even being praised by those not inclined to support her husband for anything. Not anymore. It took Joe Biden 20 years to shake off the time he plagiarized a speech. It may take Melania longer.
And it makes you really wonder about this campaign. Though you probably should have been doing that already.
Gen. Michael Flynn
The on-time rumored Trump VP candidate and former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency had the misfortune of going on after Melania Trump — when was the last time a speaker followed the potential First Lady ... or the candidate, for that matter — but tried to make it for it by bugging out his eyes and yelling emphatically. It was far more intelligible than Giuliani’s veins-in-the-neck explosion, and he did draw blood by jabbing Obama for his infamous “red line” comment about Syria. If you think Obama has made America weaker — which Flynn clearly does — this was a rather excellent pep talk; he is definitely a guy who you’d follow up a hill. He may have gotten a little too fired up by the crowd, though, eventually chanting along to the “Lock Her Up” chant from the audience, not exactly the calm demeanor one might prefer from one’s military leaders. It also seems insane that Obama ever appointed this guy to anything.
Though that “War is not about bathrooms. War is about winning” line is going to haunt him. I wouldn’t bring it up to his face, though.
Sen. Joni Ernst
It is to Ernst’s eternal credit that she gave a solid stump speech about the military that:
a) sounded imminently sane and reasonable after Gen. Flynn’s tirade;
b) looked enthusiastic and cheerful despite being booted out of prime-time because the show ran late and despite the fact that the audience in Quicken Loans Arena had almost entirely filtered out.
She is one of the biggest stars in Republican politics right now, and no one was paying attention. But Scott Baio had the undivided attention of a nation. It was that kind of night.