Politics

August 28, 2012

With such choreographed conventions, is something lost?

The Associated Press

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Ann Romney, wife of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, looks over the main stage during a sound check at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2012. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

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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."

 

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