WASHINGTON — As Chris Christie’s moment at the microphone neared, delegates to the Republican National Convention were atwitter at the chance to hear the New Jersey governor speak. After all, who knew what might happen? “He doesn’t seem to have a filter,” said David Shimkin, a delegate from New York.
But the famously freewheeling Christie does in fact have filters: He’s using a teleprompter, and he’s reading from a speech that has been vetted and approved.
Americans hunger for authenticity — or, at least, say that they do. The explosion of reality TV is testament to that desire for the unscripted moment (even if that unscripted moment is, well, scripted). So the slick choreography of the modern political convention, while understandable, also seems odd. And, some say, it’s actually counterproductive to what the parties say they want to accomplish: generate passion that translates into votes.
“This regard for order, this insistence on order, it’s just weird,” says Richard Bensel, a professor of American politics at Cornell University.
It’s that need to control the message and the messengers that led Texas Congressman Ron Paul to hold his own alternative rally Sunday in Tampa, Fla., drawing a crowd of thousands. “It’s exactly what the Republican Party should have wanted — real spirit, real emotion,” Bensel says. “That enthusiasm shouldn’t be offstage. It shouldn’t be in an independent rally.”
But it’s the way things work these days. And Robert Lehrman, who was Vice President Al Gore’s chief speech writer for three years, says that if he were GOP nominee Mitt Romney, he would insist on an orderly convention.
“You’re trying to show a unified, strong party that represents your views,” says Lehrman, author of the 2009 book “The Political Speechwriter’s Companion.” ”And to have those kinds of debates doesn’t help the campaign.”
“Used to be 30 years ago, you had platform fights, and they would come from the floor and be debated,” he says. “Now, they had some platform stuff on CSPAN, where 30,000 people watch it. But 30 million people have no idea about those things.”
In the 19th century, the candidates mostly avoided the conventions altogether. In 1860, Lincoln stayed home in Springfield and his supporters did the work. To do otherwise, Lehrman says, “was considered immodest.”
Harry Truman was such a terrible speaker that his aides, at the 1948 Democratic convention, decided to give him a list of talking points instead of a speech. To make things worse, just as he reached the stage, a woman rushed up with a cage full of “doves of peace” — which promptly got loose and, as one aide would later write, “did what pigeons do.” The speech went on to be one of Truman’s more memorable, but it’s hard to forget the pigeons.
There was a time when a rousing convention speech could make history. William Jennings Bryan was a little-known former Nebraska congressman when he arrived in Chicago for the 1896 Democratic National Convention to make a speech in favor of the free-silver movement. Most newspapers covering the event listed him sixth or lower — if at all.
“He was technically a candidate, but in the way, say, Ron Paul is. Even less than that, actually,” says Bensel, author of “Passion and Preferences: William Jennings Bryan and the 1896 Democratic Convention.” But after Bryan delivered his now legendary “Cross of Gold” speech, he walked away with the party’s nomination — and a place in the history books.
Sociologist and essayist John Shelton Reed understands that the Republicans don’t want another “Pat Buchanan moment” — the former presidential candidate’s infamous “culture war” speech at the 1992 GOP convention in Houston.
“There is a religious war going on in this country,” Buchanan thundered from the podium. “It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself. For this war is for the soul of America. And in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton and Clinton are on the other side, and George Bush is on our side.”
“Everybody seemed to agree that was not helpful,” Reed says. “They didn’t check it in advance, I’m pretty sure.”
Christie is famous for speaking bluntly and loudly. But he understands that Tampa is not the place for winging it. In an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Christie acknowledged as much. “I don’t use text almost ever,” he said. “So most of the time I think about what it is I want to talk about, and then I get up there and I talk about it.”
Given the venue and the time restrictions, Christie said, “they want you to work off a text, and that’s fine.” But he noted that Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour reminded him that he needed to “be Chris.’”
“If that means I stray a little off the prompter every once in a while,” he said, “that’s the way it goes.”
It’s that delicate balance — preparation without overpackaging — that is so difficult to strike. Rick Andrews, who teaches improv at New York’s Magnet Theater, works with businesspeople trying to communicate better. The trick for politicians, he says, is to try to “appear casual, off the cuff — when you’re not.”
“We would be shocked if they weren’t prepared,” Andrews says. “But we also don’t want them to appear to be overly prepared.”
Republicans, including Romney, have openly mocked President Barack Obama’s use of the teleprompter. But Ann Romney, the former Massachusetts governor’s wife, seemed relieved to know she would not be up on that stage alone. She told reporters Tuesday that she had “never gone off of a written text.”
“I had a lot of input in this, I must say, and a lot of, um, tweaking where I felt like was getting what I really wanted to say and from my heart,” she said.
Mitt Romney has a reputation for being somewhat stiff. But Lehrman is looking forward to his performance Thursday evening — particularly given that the GOP nominee has been working with an oratory coach. “I see him being more impassioned and more natural,” Lehrman says. “He’s been able to fake naturalness better.”
And in the process, perhaps, something valuable is lost. That’s how Bensel sees it. By sculpting their conventions so carefully, he says, both political parties are missing out on the chance to make history.
“The problem is, when you script the speech, the crowd isn’t involved and there’s no feedback, there’s no spontaneity,” Bensel says. “The whole connection between the party rank and file as audience and whoever’s speaking is broken. You are just an audience. You aren’t a participant in the creation of a political moment.”