Tuesday, July 27, 2004

ORATORIO. In last night's Convention roundup, I neglected to mention Rev. Alston, the black preacher who delivered a tribute to his old swift boat skipper, John Kerry. Alston began his address in the punchy cadences of an old-fashioned Baptist preacher ("where we FOUGHT. and BLED toGETHER. Serving our COUNtry"). But like everyone else that night, he was rushing over the logical pauses in his speech, and soon the regularity of it became numbing.

Then the crowd started cheering the preacher's Kerry references, and Alston swelled up like a bullfrog and turned from shouting to roaring his address. His cadence didn't alter, but his fire was lit, and it changed the whole effect for the better. It was as if they were the bellows and he were a pipe-organ with all the stops pulled and the bass pedals pushed to the floor.

It is hard to feel the interplay of speaker and audience through the tube, because background sounds are so convoluted by the audio feed (which is why it is so easy to scramble obscene crowd chants in TV broadcasts of ballgames). It's not until the thing starts to pick up and the speaker himself catches fire that you realize he's going over.

Something like that happened to Ted Kennedy tonight. At first, short of breath, he was just Mayor Quimby grinding out the rhetorical sausage for a buncha librul Demmycrats in the Commiewealth of Taxachusetts. I almost stopped watching. I figured I'd get my kicks reading about it the next day in the New York Post ("TRAITOR TED SLAMS HERO OF 9/11").

But the temperature did rise, and so did the quality of the speech -- maybe because of the quality of the speech. The old ham actually had a few ideas (or someone did -- the Kennedys always had a good rolodex for speechwriters). The best of them were about American history, which he conflated, naturally, with Democratic history (New Deal, New Frontier, etc.) -- never more boldly or effectively than when he reached back to before the Democratic Party, or the United States, even existed, to remind us of the Declaration's "decent respect for the opinion of mankind," and to say this:
Now it is our turn to take up the cause. Our struggle is not with some monarch named George who inherited the crown -- although it often seems that way.

Our struggle is with the politics of fear and favoritism in our own time, in our own country. Our struggle, like so many others before, is with those who put their own narrow interest ahead of the public interest.

We hear echoes of past battles in the quiet whisper of the sweetheart deal, in the hushed promise of a better break for the better connected. We hear them in the cries of the false patriots who bully dissenters into silence and submission. These are familiar fights. We've fought and won them before. And with John Kerry and John Edwards leading us, we will win them again and make America stronger at home and respected once more in the world.
That's pretty good. Tactically, it challenges the Republicans to show how their ideas fit in with American history. Sure, tell us about Lincoln -- and get some black people within camera range so it looks less risible. Tell us about Teddy Roosevelt, if you dare risk the old warrior's coming out of his grave to mount a Bull Moose challenge to your feeble "compassionate conservatism," or to agree too fulsomely and embarrassingly with your notion of Manifest Destiny. Then tell us about Reagan, whose cartoon version of the Spirit of '76 replaced the flagbearer, the drummer, and the fife player with the entrepreneur, the evangelist, and the easy-terms loanshark.

Tactics don't matter in this instance, of course. I understand very few people are watching this thing on TV. Probably even fewer have any real feeling about the American Revolution and the remarkable ideas that ignited it. Still, as a connoisseur of the game, I appreciated seeing the round played so well.

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