A Pox on Both Their Houses: Political Conventions and Shakespearean Theater

The political theater that passes for convention season is over for another four years, and audiences can now sigh with relief.

For two weeks, stages have been prowled and platitudes mouthed; lines have been scripted and fourth-wall promises have been made to be broken.

If a distinction is to be drawn between the RNC and the DNC, then dark threats in the wings have been contrasted with effervescent hope front-and-center in the spotlight.

This quad-annual playbill is perhaps the singular aspect that makes America first, and makes America great. Nowhere does it better.

At the RNC, Trump's bombastic temperament, combined with his political naiveté and an ever-revolving auditioning of advisers, meant his board-treading was heavy-footed and amateurish. Trump played his own narcissistic Iago, motivated only by nihilism and malice, in a cameo that eclipsed vice president nominee Mike Pence's hapless Othello. Ideally, and with some admirable combination of fidelity and duplicity, Trump would play Iago only unto himself; of course, his real role is to feign ignorance as the fool.

The DNC, on the other hand, was a magnificently orchestrated - if entirely contrived - production, as slick as winter asphalt after the first spring rain. Monday saw headliners Michelle Obama, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren addressing President Obama's legacy and Hillary Clinton's promise, in a chorus with an undulating crescendo. Tuesday saw Bill Clinton deliver a rambling soliloquy that bettered Hamlet; Wednesday saw the president himself deliver a triumphant oratory worthy of Caesar.

Do I believe in Hillary more after her convention performance? Not particularly. Does she believe in the role she has cast for herself after Thursday evening? Perhaps. Like Iago, her motivation seems more about ambition than grand idealism.

But then I'm not part of the audience who needs to suspend their disbelief. Since few theatrical villains are worse than Trump, she would have my vote. A strong moral argument can be made in that regard; I am white and male, after all. But sheer political pragmatism has equal force: as a thundering op-ed in the Washington Post has specified, even the mighty American Constitution may not be strong enough to cage Trump's authoritarian tendencies, not to mention his belligerence in international affairs.

The 10 percent or so - according to polls - of Bernie supporters who refuse to back Hillary won't be swayed either, but then nothing short of Sanders' kingship or sainthood would. Neither will the even larger majority of Trump voters likely be convinced, because their beliefs in his ability to resolve their grievances, whether legitimate or otherwise, are too firmly entrenched.

But, for all her faults, Hillary seems to believe she can avert catastrophe - not alone, but by being stronger together. Who, then, is the intended audience for this carefully constructed and well-paced appeal last Thursday night, a speech that hit all the right notes? And for this week-long, brilliantly-produced piece of carnival?

The short answer is that it's the centrists who would never vote for Trump, but wouldn't necessarily buy tickets to see Hillary's coronation. It's likely not that they particularly resent her; it's just they don't find her character compelling enough to turn out for. By her own admission, she has been better at the "service" part of public service, and this is a disabling trait in political theater.

The DNC this week has concentrated on highlighting Hillary's strengths as well as candidly assessing her flaws; complexity has dramatic allure, though it must be carefully managed. She delegated speaking Spanish to her vice president pick Tim Kaine; Rev. William Barber II - a man too honest to play a character other than himself - stood in briefly as a brimstone narrator preaching unity.

The inescapable pachyderm, of course, is Hillary's gender. As a potential Hippolyta to Bill Clinton's Theseus, she faces the essential and infuriating dilemma of any female leader: whether to summon Amazonian strength, or whether to capitulate, and be damned for doing either. Visually, however, the closing shot of the pair hugging on-stage was a masterstroke of political optics. While the phrase is mis-attributed to Shakespeare, she hardly comes across as a woman scorned.

But these are distractions and side-plots to be dealt with later. What matters right now is whether Hillary is electable. In the face of the dire necessity of averting Trump's all-too-realistic portrayal of megalomaniac Richard III, Hillary is the only option.

For all the convention theater, November is not a dress rehearsal.