Barack Obama's convention speech stayed true to an important southern rhetorical tradition. Stay with me here. I'm about to teach you how to call someone a %#@&* in public and be polite at the same time. See, politics is fun!
There is a misperception that people who live south of the Mason-Dixon Line are nicer than those who live on the wrong side. True, we greet perfect strangers on the street with a "good morning," but this comes from the knowledge that we are all privately imperfect. Nevertheless, anyone who has experienced the hostility of Atlanta rush hour traffic will attest that we are as big a bunch of jerks as you'll find anywhere.
Cussing someone out is a perfect example. We don't actually say the words. We smile real big and say, "bless his heart." Watch Paul Begala sometime on CNN. He'll smile real big, call Ari Fleischer a friend, and then eviscerate the poor bastard like a friend of mine skins a deer. If you use a sharp enough knife, it's over so quick no one notices the blood all over the floor.
This comes in handy at election time when three factors make a good political attack: credibility, relevance and tone. Credibility is why we footnote claims in negative mailers and television commercials. Relevance is why it's dumb to talk about how you like to fire people in a down economy -- that much is obvious.
But to paraphrase 1 Corinthians, the greatest of these is tone, and it is the hardest for folks like me to manage in an election year after Labor Day when we put away the white shoes and start swearing a blue streak. We judge a campaign manager's competence on his or her ability to construct a sentence entirely out of the F word. The average campaign conversation would get you thrown out of most baseball games. I would be sincerely -- and, to use Joe Biden's favorite word, literally -- shocked if Michelle Obama watches a Romney/Ryan campaign ad in private without uttering the unprintable. In other words, after August everyone in politics is from New Jersey.
That's why it was dangerous for so many politicos to get together over the last couple of weeks. Just about every day a conventioneer was comparing Mitt Romney to Nazis within earshot of a reporter, but once the kids went to bed and the networks began their convention coverage, Democrats began to choose their words as carefully as the bomb squad picks the red or blue wire. Unlike most things on television, the language became tamer the later it got.
But that doesn't mean Democrats were being nice. I lost track of how many speakers began an insult with empty praise of Mitt Romney, bless his heart. Uncle Joe Biden took time to say, "President Obama and Governor Romney are both loving husbands and devoted fathers" before skinning the man alive.
The care that Democrats took when talking about Mitt Romney should not be taken as an expression of respect. It was contempt. But to reach the 5 percent of the electorate that will swing this election, you have to watch your language -- really, your tone -- lest the voters close their ears. And the more loudly speakers protested that Mitt Romney was a decent family man, the more I heard the implied "bless his heart."
Many speakers made mention that while 70,000 American soldiers are facing live fire in Afghanistan, Romney ignored them in his convention speech. Since then, Romney's been getting snippy with reporters who ask him about it.
"I only regret you're repeating it day in and day out. When you give a speech you don't go through a laundry list, you talk about the things that you think are important," Romney told Fox News.
That explains why in his speech Barack "I'm the President" Obama referred to Romney as "my opponent," ostensibly a sign of respect. From Obama's lips, however, the omission of Romney's very name was the cruelest insult of them all, revealing the bottomless disdain that Obama has for Mitt.
Bless his heart.
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