There is the Sarah Palin you saw on television, and there is the Sarah Palin I saw in the XCel Center here in St Paul, Minnesota. I don’t know how it played on TV. I don’t know what the news media said. I don’t know how the pundits assessed the speech. I don’t know what narratives the blogs are spinning. I only know what I saw. I only know what I felt. I only know what effect Sarah Palin had on the thousands of men, women and children assembled to hear her accept the Republican nomination for Vice President of the United States. I only know what word describes all that best.
The word is electric.
It is difficult to express how dispiriting this Republican convention has been. Compared with the victory-fest in NYC in 2004, the RNC here at St Paul has been a muted affair. Enthusiasm was dampened for myriad reasons: John McCain is everyone’s second choice; Hurricane Gustav threatened the whole celebration; the party is at a historical nadir; and most of all, the George W. Bush Administration has indulged in compromise of principle after principle. Earlier today I went on Cenk Uygur’s radio show as the conservative punching bag, and got hammered on a series of points that I had to concede — civil liberties, wartime management, fiscal responsibility, and more. It’s a tough spot to be in, when your partisan standard-bearer has forced you into making excuses. I’m not the only one in that position and its accompanying state of mind; and I was not the only one to feel that this convention was more funeral than sendoff — more a goodbye than a beginning — and more pro forma than joyous.
Then came Sarah Palin.
The Vice-Presidential pick was immediately popular with the conservative base by reputation alone, but she did nothing in the past week to capitalize upon that popularity. She spoke at a few perfunctory rallies, and she waved at some cameras in passing. Meanwhile, the media of all stripes went after her with a savagery reserved for those outside the circle of the chosen. Her public record was scrutinized and attacked where deserved — and disparaged where undeserved. Her private life was subjected to speculation that forced the public exposure of her own child — how could it not have humiliated that child in some fashion? — and made her mothering a subject of open debate. In response, she said nothing. She did not defend herself, and she did not excuse herself. She asked for no apology. She said nothing. And here, at this passing epicenter of Republicanism in America, wonder arose at when she would riposte — and how she would do it.
This evening, after a series of speeches by the also-rans and first choices of the party — reason in itself for the muted enthusiasm of this convention — Sarah Palin struck back. When she walked out onto the stage, alone and small in the vastness of the hall, the eruption was far beyond what came before, for Huckabee, Romney, or Giuliani. All the indignation and righteous anger, all the defensiveness and protectiveness aroused in the preceding week, welled to the surface as the crowed roared. This we’ll defend, said the crowd.
Sarah Palin replied: I need no defense. And the crowd was subsumed in awe and adoration. There is no need to go over the speech in detail. If you saw it, you saw it — and if you wish to see it, you may. Know this: every cheer you heard on television was magnified a thousandfold in the great hall. She was quite nearly perfect, faltering only when stepping a bit too quickly over her own applause. She slid the knife into her opponents with a sly deftness — how delicious it will be to see her up against the groping, pompous Senator Biden! — and she presented herself with a disarming candor. Her diction was that of the upper Midwest, and her demeanor was of the stern but friendly mom. She invoked the memory of Harry Truman, and if there was presumption there, there was also truth. Sarah Palin is all up front, and we saw her this evening in full. Neither nervous nor quick, neither stricken nor strident, she led the crowd along with a confident cadence, till, at the end, they were in her hands.
When she finished, they cheered.
When John McCain emerged, they cheered louder.
When he commented on her greatness, they cheered loudest of all.
Lest it seem that all was untarnished glory, it should be noted otherwise. The stage design was crude and inept. Mercifully inapparent on television was the absurd and awful PowerPoint slideshow that played on the jumbotron behind her. Over and over, we saw: the Washington Monument, Old Faithful, Mount Rushmore. The stage upon which she stood looked like a cheap dance club — black plastic rimmed with a glittering hot pink stripe. Meanwhile, in the crowd, functionaries could be seen openly passing out pre-printed “handmade” signs, and spotting the repeats was too easy.
Worst of all, in the long run, is the difference in enthusiasm between that for John McCain, and that for Sarah Palin. This evening, the Alaskan Governor could form an army from her faithful legions. John McCain is more uncertain. The Arizonan, in his few moments on stage, was squeaky and halting where she was firm and compelling, and his war-crippled movements went poorly with her practiced grace. Suddenly, unexpectedly, the bar for him tomorrow is set not by his opponent — but by his surprising, surpassing running mate.
We here at the RNC, this evening, are not so much Republicans … as we are Sarah’s people.
My photographs are available here.