After the Final Curtain

There’s no reason Hollywood should have been making movies about Broadway ever since Jack Warner forced everyone to add sound in the late twenties. Forty-Second Street is on the other side of the country after all, and the trials and tribulations of sweet young things who want to be stage stars, and goofball guys who love to dance, are far from anyone’s experience. But there was the Broadway Melody of this year and that, and the Gold Diggers of most any year in the thirties, and every Fred Astaire movie ever made, with or without Ginger Rogers, except for the one in Rio, then London, then Paris. Otherwise it was all Broadway insider stuff. New York City’s theater district was the center of the world – but of course the reason it was had to do with adding sound. That made things different. You couldn’t have people just talk, or even shout and scream and cry. That was boring. The change in format called for spectacle – singing and dancing and elaborate sets, so folks felt that they were getting their money’s worth. Broadway offered that spectacle, preassembled and audience-tested. The new medium was great technology but there was no appropriate content available out here in the land of palm trees and, at the time, nothing much else – so we got decades of Broadway stories.

Perhaps they were all pretty much alike but they were kind of fun, especially after Hollywood exploded the spectacle with overhead shots and impossible close-ups and odd camera angles – after Busby Berkeley went wild. Still many of those movies had the obligatory scene at Sardi’s – 234 West 44th Street – been there since 1927 – the famous restaurant where all the theater people go after the final curtain on opening night, to see and be seen and drink heavily until someone rushes in with the hot-off-the-press first newspaper reviews of the new show. Hearts will be broken and backers’ fortunes lost, with dramatic complications to follow, or there’s a lot of cheering and an impromptu dance number and a kiss – fade to black and roll the credits. Those early reviews are everything.

Thursday night, September 6, 2012, the final curtain fell on the Democratic convention in Charlotte – although no one uses curtains these days – and it was Sardi’s Night in the media. The early reviews were in – a great three-day show with a strong opening act that ended with that wonderful Good Wife speech, a shaky second act but with a stunning closing number from Bubba Bill Clinton, the Big Dog, and an uneven final act with a disappointing closing. The hot-off-the-press early reviews were mixed – although there’s no printing press involved these days. Perhaps someone’s heart was broken. The final act is what everyone remembers.

The odd thing is the final act opened so well:

The convention here had barely gotten under way Thursday night, but the crowd came close to a grand-finale moment when former Rep. Gabby Giffords took the stage to lead the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Giffords took the stage, walking unassisted, alongside her longtime friend Debbie Wasserman Schultz, to raucous cheers of “Gabby! Gabby!”

Yes, the woman who last year had half her brain blown away by a would-be assassin was back, shuffling out to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The evening before, Bill Clinton had said politics shouldn’t be a blood sport. This reinforced that and the cheers went on and on, with many weeping. It was pretty astounding. Giffords pulled it off, but barely – she’ll never really recover. No doubt Rush Limbaugh will spend a day or two saying this was pretty pathetic and someone should just finish her off, and offer to pull the trigger himself, but this was a heroic opening. The crowd went wild.

John Kerry spoke too – the whining coward with all his underserved medals for bravery who ran against George Bush, the war-hero fighter pilot of the Vietnam War (the Republican version of reality) – and Kerry was far better than he had been in 2004:

“We’ve all learned Mitt Romney doesn’t know much about foreign policy,” Kerry said. “But he has all these neocon advisers who know all the wrong things about foreign policy. He would rely on them – after all, he’s the great outsourcer.”

For Kerry, the speech was at least in part an exorcism of his own foreign policy demons. As the Democratic nominee two election cycles back, Kerry was savaged as a “flip flopper” at the Republicans’ 2004 convention. This time, Kerry clearly relished the chance to do the same to another Massachusetts nominee often tagged with the same epithet.

In the most brutal section of his speech, Kerry highlighted Romney’s mixed messages on a timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan and military intervention in Libya.

“It isn’t fair to say Mitt Romney doesn’t have a position on Afghanistan – he has every position,” Kerry said. “He was against setting a date for withdrawal then he said it was right and then he left the impression that maybe it was wrong to leave this soon. He said it was ‘tragic’ to leave Iraq, and then he said it was fine. He said we should’ve intervened in Libya sooner. Then he ran down a hallway to duck reporters’ questions. Then he said the intervention was too aggressive. Then he said the world was a ‘better place’ because the intervention succeeded.”

This was good stuff and he didn’t let up:

He went on to criticize Romney for opposing Obama’s nuclear arms treaty with Russia, which was backed by an array of former Republican Secretaries of State, and for labeling the nation America’s “number one geopolitical foe.” Kerry argued actions like these reflected an antiquated Cold War mentality.

“Sarah Palin said she could see Russia from Alaska,” he said. “Mitt Romney talks like he’s only seen Russia by watching ‘Rocky IV.’”

There was also this:

“After more than 10 years without justice for thousands of Americans murdered on Sept. 11, after Mitt Romney said it would be ‘naive’ to go into Pakistan to pursue the terrorists, it took President Obama, against the advice of many, to give that order to finally rid this earth of Osama bin Laden,” Kerry said. “Ask Osama bin Laden if he is better off now than he was four years ago!”

This was killer stuff, as Romney never mentioned Afghanistan or war or our troops in his big closing speech in Tampa. The third act of the convention was going great, and went even better when Joe Biden spoke about Barack Obama:

“I got to see firsthand what drove this man,” Biden said, “his profound concern for the average American.”

Biden’s speech made explicit what Michelle Obama’s masterful Tuesday address had only implied: One of the candidates understands ordinary people, one doesn’t, and the reason is their backgrounds.

“We had a pretty good idea of what all those families and Americans in trouble were going through in part because our families have gone through similar struggles,” he said.

Biden framed this argument by focusing on his two favorite examples of administration successes: the auto rescue and the killing of Osama Bin Laden. In each case, he described Obama’s actions as guided by a profound respect for the common man and Romney’s responses from the sidelines as cold, robotic and uncaring.

Biden wasn’t kind to Romney:

“What I don’t understand – and I don’t think he understood – is what saving the automobile workers, saving the industry, what it meant to all of America,” he said. “I think he saw it in terms of balance sheets and write-offs. Folks, the Bain way may bring your firm the highest profits but it is not the way to lead our country from the highest office.”

Obama’s vice president and friend had Obama’s back:

“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m here to tell you what I think you already know, that, I watch it up close, bravery resides in the heart of Barack Obama and, time and time again, I witnessed him summon it,” Biden said. “This man has courage in his soul, compassion in his heart and a spine of steel – and because of all the actions he took, because of the calls he made, because of the determination of American workers and the unparalleled bravery of our special forces, we can now proudly say what you’ve heard me say the past six months.”

He then delivered the now-familiar line: “Osama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive!”

From Andrew Sullivan’s running commentary:

This speech is designed precisely for those Reagan Democrats and wavering Independents, especially men, who want their politics with testosterone.

This did the job. Republicans like to portray Joe Biden as a goofball and fool. That’s a bad idea.

That left only Obama’s acceptance speech, summarized by Talking Points Memo here:

Barack Obama came to the last Democratic National Convention and told America it was time to say yes to a new vision for politics. The Obama who came to the convention Thursday night in Charlotte urged voters to say no – no to going backward, no to the notion that “hope” was naive and no to what he cast as an extreme Republican agenda.

Obama painted a picture of Republican Party eager to make sweeping changes he said would halt the progress of his administration. Again and again, he called on voters to stand with him to continue on the path he’s charted the past four years.

“When all is said and done – when you pick up that ballot to vote – you will face the clearest choice of any time in a generation,” Obama said. “Over the next few years, big decisions will be made in Washington, on jobs and the economy; taxes and deficits; energy and education; war and peace — decisions that will have a huge impact on our lives and our children’s lives for decades to come.”

The two sides of those decisions couldn’t be clearer, Obama said.

“On every issue, the choice you face won’t be just between two candidates or two parties,” he said. “It will be a choice between two different paths for America.”

That was it – two different paths – a generalized discussion, although he got a bit animated:

Obama focused like a laser on Romney – referring to him as “my opponent” – using his experience as commander-in-chief to attack Romney as untested and unready to lead on the international stage.

“You don’t call Russia our No. 1 enemy – and not al Qaeda – unless you’re still stuck in a Cold War time warp,” he said. “You might not be ready for diplomacy with Beijing if you can’t visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally.”

It seems foreign policy is an issue:

“My opponent and his running mate are … new to foreign policy. But from all that we’ve seen and heard, they want to take us back to an era of blustering and blundering that cost America so dearly,” Obama said.

There is that, and the Republicans have said the election is a choice between Democrats who hate free enterprise and supporters of it, like them, and Obama said that was nonsense:

“We’re not entitled to success. We have to earn it. We honor the strivers, the dreamers, the risk-takers who have always been the driving force behind our free enterprise system – the greatest engine of growth and prosperity the world has ever known,” Obama said. “But we also believe in something called citizenship – a word at the very heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy; the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations.”

Did he say citizenship? No one uses that word anymore, and there were other details:

He spoke to criticism that his policies have led to a bigger role for government in the economy and people’s lives: “We don’t think government can solve all our problems. But we don’t think that government is the source of all our problems – any more than are welfare recipients, or corporations, or unions, or immigrants, or gays, or any other group we’re told to blame for our troubles.”

In short, government can be useful, even if it’s hard:

Describing himself as “mindful of my own failings,” Mr. Obama conceded the country’s continuing difficulties while defending his record and pleading for more time to carry out his agenda. He laid out a long-term blueprint for revival in an era obsessed with short-term expectations.

“I won’t pretend the path I’m offering is quick or easy; I never have,” Mr. Obama told a packed arena of 20,000 party leaders and activists. “You didn’t elect me to tell you what you wanted to hear. You elected me to tell you the truth. And the truth is it will take more than a few years for us to solve challenges that have built up over decades.”

He added: “But know this, America: Our problems can be solved. Our challenges can be met. The path we offer may be harder, but it leads to a better place. And I’m asking you to choose that future.”

Ah, he’s a hard-working effective manager, not the messiah. Who knew?

From Andrew Sullivan’s running commentary there are a few more items:

Great line: “A freedom which only asks what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.”

“Only you have the power to move us forward.” And this concrete and rooted speech is gaining rhetorical flight. It has been shrewdly constructed. The best way to defuse the leadership cult is to throw the leadership back to the people. You are the ones we’ve been waiting for. And “You did that” is a nice retort to “You didn’t build that.”

He has now inverted the “hope” theme. He isn’t giving Americans hope; they are giving it to him by their response to the challenges of the last few years. And I’m sure it’s sincere.

But was it enough? The first reviews are in as the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein offers this:

If you looked past the rhetoric and focused just on the policy, this was a modest speech. It was a more humble vision. What President Obama offered the country on the final night of the Democratic convention was reminiscent of what Warren G. Harding offered almost a century ago: A return to normalcy after a long period of emergency.

In the New York Times, Ross Douthat offers this:

This was a pure stay-the-course speech, workmanlike and occasionally somewhat distant, with a few inspired and moving passages standing out amid a litany of rhetorical moves that the president has made many times before. There was only the most general sketch of a second term agenda, only a relatively cursory defense of the president’s economic stewardship, and mostly assertions, rather than sustained arguments, to back up his claim that the country is headed (slowly) in the right direction.

It was safe and boring, and Will Wilkinson offers this:

Mr Obama’s speech was a pastiche of highlights from speeches we’ve heard again and again for the past four years, and will have inspired few but true-believers. He failed to defend his record half as well as Mr Clinton, nor did Mr Obama sketch as concrete and compelling a picture of the choice facing voters. The president is playing defense, and it showed. As a whole, the Democrats threw a better convention than did the Republicans. It didn’t conclude on a soaring note, but neither did it end with a thud.

Michael Tomasky was simply bored:

Let’s be blunt. Barack Obama gave a dull and pedestrian speech tonight, with nary an interesting thematic device, policy detail, or even one turn of phrase. … This was the rhetorical equivalent – forgive the football metaphor – of running out the clock: Obama clearly thinks he’s ahead and just doesn’t need to make mistakes. But when football teams do that, it often turns out to be the biggest mistake of all, and they lose.

Kevin Drum seems concerned with the narrative arc of the convention:

Overall, it was a decent wrap-up. It was a decent defense of his first term. It was a decent appeal for votes. But there was nothing memorable, nothing forward looking, and nothing that drew a contrast with Romney in sharp, gut-level strokes. Obama was, to be charitable, no more than the third best of the Democratic convention’s prime time speakers in 2012.

Josh Marshall says that this may have been deliberate:

The President’s advisors didn’t want that inspirational, rhetorical flourish avatar from four years ago. They wanted something steadier and more sober. But then it started to build, loftier and more aggressive. On balance, I think it was exactly the speech they wanted him to give.

But at the American Conservative, Noah Millman was “underwhelmed at best” with the finale:

I thought the speech as a whole was exceptionally weak. Not a sale closer – not by a long shot.

Andrew Sullivan pushes back:

Obama knows how to build a speech: “Yes, our path is harder but it leads to a better place.” The Christianity of the man shines through at moments like this. He isn’t promising heaven and earth (and he didn’t last time, either); he’s promising persistence in defending the middle class in a globalizing world economy and increasing social and economic inequality.

I don’t think it was a game-changer. I do think it sets an optimistic tone for the campaign and a stark choice for Americans this fall. This convention was much better than last week’s. Clinton’s speech alone was worth the whole thing. But this will now be decided in the debates. They will be more than usually vital. I suspect Obama kept his waverers on his side tonight, fired up his base, but failed to break away.

Still, Sullivan is clear about where he stands:

I loved him. But I’m biased. I think he’s been the best thing to happen to America in a long time and he has achieved more in tougher circumstances against historical odds than anyone has a right to expect. I cannot justify supporting this man and his ambitious attempt to re-balance America at home and abroad in 2008 and not helping him see it through to the end.

And I suspect that, even in these difficult times, many will give this sincere man a chance to prove himself and realize his full promise with four more years. You don’t vote for a man who plays a long game and call it quits at half-time. At least Americans don’t.

Yes, but when the bad or at least mixed reviews pour in there is a problem. This may be where Ruby Keeler has to step in and save the show – but then real life was never like that at all.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to After the Final Curtain

  1. DAY says:

    Thoughtful, brilliant!

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