Cleveland, Day One

CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 18: Former Virginia Attorney General and current Delegate, Ken Cuccinelli, center, removes his credentia
CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 18: Former Virginia Attorney General and current Delegate, Ken Cuccinelli, center, removes his credentials and threatens to leave while demanding a roll call vote on the convention rules during the Republican National Convention on July 18, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

I'm writing this while watching all of Day One of the Republican National Convention. I apologize in advance for the rather stream-of-consciousness nature of the post, but I also caution that you should get used to it, because we are in for two weeks of convention-palooza.

The Republicans went first this year, and it is actually notable that Day One is even happening. For the past two presidential election cycles, Mother Nature intervened and Republicans canceled their first day (in 2008 it was Hurricane Gustav, and in 2012 Hurricane Isaac that pre-empted the start of the GOP convention). Make of that what you will, I suppose.

I turned on the campaign coverage early today just in time to catch the big floor fight among the delegates. Call it the final death throes of the "Never Trump" movement. After being blocked by the rules committee, this was their final protest -- an attempt to get a vote on changing the convention's rules to unbind all the delegates on the first vote. The dissenters thought they had enough votes to at least force a roll call vote on the rules, but after some back-room dealing, the convention chair announced that he had strong-armed several states into dropping their names from the bid -- making it small enough (by the rules) to be ignored.

There was some shouting back and forth between the two camps. At least two states' delegations reportedly walked out in protest. These clips will undoubtedly be shown on the evening news tonight, because it was the best example of how divided the Republican Party still is over the question of supporting Donald Trump. One New Hampshire delegate (a former senator) on the "Never Trump" side later denounced the convention denying them their chance for a vote, claiming the people on the other side "act like fascists. They may not be fascists but they act like fascists." He later called them "people I would refer to as brownshirts." For those unaware, this is not usually the sort of thing heard from the floor of a national convention. To say the least.

We then had a large break in the action, as the journalists scrambled to fill the airwaves until the main evening show began. Some interesting tidbits -- Trump put the Ohio delegation in a corner, because he was annoyed that Governor John Kasich was blowing off the convention (as indeed were many prominent Republicans, including the entire Bush clan). The hosting state usually gets a prime floor spot, but not Ohio -- which is, incidentally, one of the big key states Trump must win in November.

What else? Outside, the demonstrations seem to be a lot more low-key than predicted, at least so far. A pro-Trump rally and an anti-Trump rally both only drew "hundreds, not thousands" by some accounts, and the two sides are being kept so far apart that there haven't been any problems, so far. An outfit calling itself the "Western Ohio Militia" walked around carrying assault weapons, much to the delight of the cameras, but that was about all the reporters outside had to report on.

It's also been reported that Reince Priebus nixed Trump's plan to invite Don King to speak, which surely would have been... um... splendiforously amazingtastic? Or something. Speaking of having fun with the English language, the funniest thing I've read yet on the convention came from the Washington Post, an entire article written in one-syllable words, in homage to Trump's speaking style. Check it out if you want a laugh.

In the "shouldn't be funny, of course, but really is" category comes this photo of a sign pointing to the "White Elevators" -- whoever signed off on that piece of idiocy obviously should be fired forthwith. I believe they took the sign down, but still... talk about unintended irony.

There was some more irony over the weekend that most people missed. You decide whether this one was intended or not -- I kind of lean towards "planned," myself. Reportedly, when Donald Trump walked on stage to announce his running mate, the song that was playing was "You Can't Always Get What You Want." Hoo boy, Mike Pence is going to have to get used to such slights, because there will probably be a few more before he's done.

OK, enough random impressions. What follows are my impressions of the lineup of speakers for Day One. I didn't listen to every minute from all of them, but I did hear enough to at least get the flavor of each of them. Then at the end, I'll give a few overall impressions to end on.

The proceedings opened with another bit of musical irony. After a mini-floor fight and shouting match, what I assume was an ex-Turtle belted out "Happy Together." A nice sentiment, if belied by the party's truly divided nature.

First up, for some unfathomable reason, was one of the Duck Dynasty clan, wearing an American flag-themed headband. I wondered what Abbie Hoffman would have had to say about that, personally, but whatever.

After he bashed the media for a bit and then left the stage, we next got an episode of Chachi Loves Donnie. No, really -- after promising us a star-studded convention, all Trump could get was Chachi? Wow. That's just sad. Chachi helpfully explained to "first-time voters" what it meant to be an American. Or, specifically, what it doesn't mean: "It doesn't mean getting free stuff." Um, OK, Chachi. Wonder what Joanie and the Fonz think....

Rick Perry then became the first speaker to giddily ramble through his allotted time without ever actually using Donald Trump's name. Oops!

We then hit one of the two "theme" periods of the night (the other, immigrant-bashing, came later). I didn't write down every word, but I did jot down the gist of what was said, for approximately the next 40 minutes or so:

"Benghazi! Benghazi, Benghazi, Benghazi. Benghazi? Benghazi! Benghazi -- Benghazi. Benghazi: Benghazi Benghazi Benghazi Benghazi. Benghazi... Benghazi... Benghazi... Benghazi. Benghazi?!? Benghazi. BenGHAZI? Benghazi! BENghazi! BENGHAZI! BENGHAZI!! BENGHAZI!!!"

This may not have been a 100-percent-accurate transcript, but I think you get the point. This spectacle included a mother of one of the dead, an bizarre little movie, and then two guys trying to be the most macho, blunt-talkin', blue-jeans-wearin' ex-soldiers you'd ever meet, complete with the sorriest attempts at humor all night long (which is really saying something, seeing as how many politicians think they're comedians themselves).

The conversation then shifted straight into the anti-immigrant part of the show, where we had a whole bunch of family members of victims of crimes by undocumented immigrants. In other words, the Latino-outreach part of the show! Just kidding (although they certainly weren't).

I had to sit and wonder where this newfound "loving of victims" comes from, in the GOP. They used to regularly sneer at Democrats for this sort of thing, and now they've apparently embraced it. But I also had to notice that all this frenzy of fear-mongering actually fell a little flat, at least when compared to years gone by. Even with all the anti-terrorist language from multiple speakers (for instance), it kind of paled in comparison to what Republicans used to say in the "Global War On Terror" years, at least to my ears. Representative Mike Somebody-or-another from Texas had the best line in this vein ("Are you safer than you were eight years ago"), but for the most part it all seemed a little uninspiring, at best. But maybe it was just me getting numb from hearing it all over and over again, who knows?

We also had a lot of pro-cops speakers, an obvious choice with what's been happening over the last two weeks. Trump is reportedly reading over Richard Nixon's "law and order" convention speech himself, but so far it's been pretty perfunctory ("Blue lives matter!").

By this time, my notes were reflecting my weariness. One speaker I just listed as "some white guy: war, Hillary-bashing" for instance, which could actually cover a number of the middle-hours speakers. The only notable moment for me during this period was when Representative Sean Somebody used a line that seemed kind of prophetic and a bit too honest for Republicans: "We have won every election except the big one." If they lose this "big one" too, a lot of people are going to start saying Republicans will never win another presidential election for a generation, unless they fundamentally change the way they do things (the GOP candidate has lost five of the last six popular votes for president, so "six out of seven" could be the breaking point).

Senator Jeff Sessions began speaking right before the prime-time hour of coverage (around 7:00, Pacific time). He went through his stock anti-immigrant comments, complete with a call to "Build the wall!" but was most notable for the first protester of the night inside the hall (there was another one, later, during Giuliani's time on stage). While Sessions usually can be counted on for a pretty fiery speech, he was instantly overshadowed by the man who followed him.

There's just no other way to put it -- Rudy Giuliani absolutely came unhinged on national television tonight. His speech -- really the first one seen in full by those tuning in to the broadcast networks' hour of coverage -- was one long, shouty anger-fest. After Clint Eastwood's talking-to-an-empty-chair performance, you'd think the Republicans would learn who to put on at the top of the big hour of the night, but Rudy ranted for a solid 20 minutes or so without ever lowering his voice from the volume you'd use to yell for a cab on the streets of New York. I mean, at least he woke up the crowd, but he was so over-the-top almost from his first sentence that I had to wonder what sort of impression this was having on independent voters out there. Just one sample quote from Rudy: "Islamic! Extremist! Terrorism! You know who you are! And we're coming to get you!" And no, I'm not exaggerating with those exclamation points.

Gwen Ifill of PBS had the best comment, at the end of Rudy's anger-fest: "Giuliani's had his Wheaties tonight!" But then immediately, attention returned to the stage, where Donald Trump himself appeared (complete with spotlights and a fog machine) to introduce his wife. After several repetitions of "We're going to win so big!" he actually gave a very brief introduction (he stuck to what was on the TelePrompTer, in other words).

Melania Trump, in all fairness, was impressive. She's never given a speech longer than a minute or so out on the campaign trail, so she was a real unknown quantity before tonight. Her English is heavily accented, but she delivered her lines almost flawlessly. She knew when to pause and flash a smile, her cadence was actually pretty good (for someone not used to public speaking or TelePrompTers), and she spoke about her personal story and her husband in ways the public simply hasn't heard before. She even gave gracious nods to all the other Republican candidates, and to Bob Dole (the only living Republican presidential nominee who showed up tonight).

I didn't have any expectations for what to expect from Trump's wife, but I have to say she gave a very good impression with her speech tonight. Her job was to humanize her husband, and I don't know if she achieved that or not with the public at large, but she certainly gave it her best shot. And her best shot was better than many political speeches heard throughout the evening, so my guess is that pundits on both sides of the aisle are going to give her some deserved credit for her speech.

However, this was the point where the convention just smacked right into a brick wall. Whoever was responsible for the schedule for tonight needs to be fired, there's just no other way to put it. If that was Donald Trump himself, then obviously he won't be fired, but the rest of the evening was nothing short of political malpractice. Trump's supposed to be some sort of television genius (after starring in a reality show himself), but the rest of the evening was just as embarrassing as can be imagined.

First, we got a failed vice-presidential pick, former admiral Flynn, who tried to channel the same "shouty guy" theme as Giuliani. He did so for way, way too long. He spoke for 20-25 minutes, when his entire speech should have lasted about three or four minutes, because he mostly just repeated the same things over and over again (Obama bad! Hillary bad! Military might! U-S-A! U-S-A!). This also may sound like an exaggeration, but really isn't -- he got distracted many different times by the audience's chanting, and he essentially just rambled on forever. He almost lost his voice, at one point, from all the shouting he was doing.

He didn't end his performance until after the network's hour of coverage was over, in fact. So the only hour the networks covered tonight was: Rudy Giuliani shouting for 20 solid minutes; Melania Trump giving a very nice speech; a retired admiral few had ever heard of shouting for 20 more minutes. This is why I call it political malpractice, because they squandered their prime-time window.

But it wasn't just Flynn's speech, it was the fact that virtually all the delegates and everyone else in the hall left almost immediately after Melania's speech was over. She was billed as the keynote speaker, but they scheduled four other speakers after her. This was insane. It led to the worst convention optics I've ever seen in my life, in fact (which includes Clint Eastwood's embarrassment). When Senator Joni Ernst finally took the stage, the only people left were on the floor. All the seats above floor-level were empty. Ernst spoke to an empty hall. And there were two more speakers after her. I mean, she soldiered on and gave her speech with her trademark frozen-in-place smile, but it was just painful to watch -- especially the parts where the audience was supposed to clap (or chant), because it sounded so hollow and echoing. A few dozen people politely clapping in an arena that just held thousands sounds downright sad. I never in my life thought I'd ever feel sorry for Joni Ernst, but it was impossible not to tonight. If I were her, I would be supremely annoyed at whoever set the scheduling slots for the evening.

Following Ernst was some ex-soldier and a House member from Montana, but by that point I couldn't even watch. I had intended to watch the coverage from beginning to end, but it was just so absolutely pathetic seeing these guys up there in front of a cavernously-empty hall that I just couldn't do it. I'm not faulting the speakers, mind you, since it wasn't even close to being their fault. I do fault whatever yahoo came up with the bright idea: "We'll have the keynote speaker that everyone is waiting to hear -- introduced by the candidate himself, even -- oh, and then we're going to have four other folks speak and not put any sort of time limit on their remarks." What were they thinking? How can anyone have signed off on this as a good idea? It was downright cringe-worthy to watch.

And please remember, Donald Trump was supposed to personally be directing the convention's details, and he's also supposed to be a genius when it comes to understanding good television. But the first night in Cleveland ran over by at least 30 or 40 minutes, and the final three speakers spoke to an almost-empty hall, after Flynn's speech failed to convince anyone to stay.

I always write these snap reactions before reading what other pundits (and the late-night comedians) have to say, so I'm always left wondering: "Is it just me, or did others notice this too?" So I'll just leave it there for now, while I go find out what others are saying. To me, Day One was pretty standard stuff (if heavy on the fear-mongering, even for Republicans) for the first few hours, followed by Rudy Giuliani having an absolute meltdown to begin the single hour of broadcast coverage. A much-better-than-expected speech by Melania Trump was then followed by a scheduling train-wreck of epic proportions, and the worst optics (the empty hall) I've ever seen at a convention. We'll see if some of this is corrected on Day Two, I supposed that's the only positive thing you can say, at this point.

 

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