By Bruce Handy, Vanity Fair; photograph by Justin Bishop
To give the devil his due, Karl Rove knew how to run a convention. So did Michael Deaver, Ronald Reagan's media guy. Republicans used to eat Democrats' breakfast, lunch, and dinner when it came to political stagecraft; they owned it the way they also used to own the whose-big-stick-is-bigger? debate.
But in recent years a curse seems to have fallen on the G.O.P., a spell cast by partisan fairies the very night in 2008 when Barack Obama clinched the Democratic nomination and John McCain, as counter-programming, chose to give a speech in front of what looked like a flattened can of Kraft "Parmesan" cheese. Ever since, Republicans have been drinking from a deep well of flop sweat, staging their rallies and events with all the wobbly non-finesse of the party they used to call the Jimmy Carter Pussycrats before they lost their mojo.
Observations from the first two evenings of the 2012 Republican National Convention:
According to The New York Times, the stage, covered in what wants to be natural wood, was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, which you might think smacks of cultural elitism until you realize that the hero of The Fountainhead is himself a fancy architect. "We were conscious of trying to make [the set] not seem grandiose. We wanted it to seem warm, inclusive," said Eddie Knasiak, a co-designer of the convention who has done work for Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart and will thus assist the candidate in connecting to women, according to the football-field-size Univac 9000 hidden in the basement of stately Romney Manor. (Gender gap or no, Karl Rove would have opened the trap door over the shark tank when he saw Knasiak's résumé.)
The notably couch-free design would have made for a classy game-show set, but for a national-convention stage it is chunky and dull, lacking even a hint of majesty or civic moment. It's evocative less of Wright than of a 1970s-era console TV, the Magnavox the Romney family used to watch Donny and Marie on. Then again, everyone knows women love TV -- if you listen carefully you can hear them sigh just a little bit more every time Dance Moms comes on -- so maybe this blah stage set is cannier than it looks.
The backdrop to the set, 13 separate screens of various sizes, looks like a gargantuan interactive museum display, a Pop-Mondrian explosion of touch screens. (I'd blame Ed Schlossberg except he's married to a prominent Democrat.) With its overload of visual stimuli, the backdrop is both too clever and not clever enough. One speaker Tuesday night suddenly had the Statue of Liberty looming over him as if she were a parent sniffing his hair to see if he needed a shampoo. (You moms know what I'm talking about.) During Condoleezza Rice's speech, a long shot revealed that on one screen a stern-looking Rice seemed to be scowling at a goofy-looking Mitt Romney on another screen -- a Freudian juxtaposition, perhaps, suggesting her heart still belongs to W? If I were the director, I wouldn't have allowed goofy pictures of Mitt within a 50-mile radius of Tampa.
For close-ups at the podium, the directors have been using a video backdrop of either bright red, which washes out the speakers' faces, or an undulating blue that suggests the kind of oil-and-water lightshow effect that Mitt Romney would have seen when he was a student at Stanford had he visited the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco. The undulation is subtle, but just nauseating enough to distract.
Another problem with the blue is that it tends to make the speakers' faces look unusually orange. John Boehner, with a head start, turned fluorescent when he spoke. One nice touch: a mottled battleship-gray background behind Paul Ryan really helped to highlight the Potemkin baby blue of his assassin's eyes.
No thoughtful director would force Chris Christie to walk (I use the term loosely) out onstage, nor would a thoughtful director position cameras where they could capture Christie in profile. I would have had him rise onto the stage via a trap door, with smoke and flash pots, like Siegfried and Roy. Also, a mortician shouldn't have done his makeup.
Romney's own walk onstage to kiss his wife, Ann, after she concluded her speech, played like an awkward, uncomfortable afterthought -- a blooper while the credits rolled. Mitt looked like he was being "wheeled out," as Chris Matthews put it on MSNBC, then gave Ann the kind of desultory, half-hearted kiss a husband gives his wife when he comes home but his head is still back at the office worrying over the Throckmorton account. Compare that with the iconic moment at the 1984 convention where Nancy Reagan finished her speech by waving to a giant video image of Ron, looming over the stage like a benevolent, Sun Belt Big Brother. Or even Al and Tipper Gore's kiss at the 2000 Democratic convention: phony, sure, but at least you wondered if he was giving her tongue.
Mitt appeared thoroughly uncomfortable onstage, as if he didn't know where to go or what exactly to do. Matthews, having a good night, said Romney looked like Prince Charles on a visit to New Guinea, steeling himself for an exhibition of Maori dance. Didn't a director walk him through it before air? Did he refuse? I can certainly understand not wanting to rehearse a kiss with your wife; practicing might feel silly to a husband of 43 years--but then don't kiss your wife on national TV. Rule of thumb: if you're going to make a spectacle of yourself, make it a good spectacle.
Perhaps it was a form of flop sweat, but Mitt looked like he was going to cry while he was onstage, and later as well when he and Ann were sitting in a box watching Christie's speech. The box was another botched bit of stagecraft: whether it was too big, or Mitt's chair too short, or the cameras placed at an unhelpful angle, it diminished Mitt, made him look small, like a child sitting in a pram. That may have been the convention's biggest bungle, since Romney's one undeniable asset as a politician is his impressive physical stature. As for the moist eyes and pressed-lip smiles, he may have been directed to do that to appear attractively vulnerable, as if he were overwhelmed by this thing you humans call eee-mo-shun. But if so, again he was poorly directed, because he looked more unhappy than overcome. At one point, he looked so miserable I thought he was about to vomit.
As theater, this convention feels forced and conflicted. Its pieces don't quite come together. Maybe it's actually a perfect reflection of the candidate? But some good news for the G.O.P.: ratings are up slightly over 2008.
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