Barack Obama announced himself as a contender for high national office on Tuesday, July 27, 2004, when he delivered a soaring keynote address to the Democratic National Convention in Boston. He started off with self-deprecation: “Tonight is a particular honor for me because, let’s face it, my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely.”
On Tuesday night, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who is often mentioned as a Republican contender for the Presidency in 2016, delivered a keynote address to the Republican National Convention in Tampa. His first sentence was: “This stage and this moment are very improbable for me.”
In Boston, Obama pivoted from his rhetorical opening to a narrative of his family. He spoke of his father’s poverty in Kenya, his parents’ interracial marriage, and their ambition for their son. Obama finished this section of his speech stirringly: “I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.”
Christie tried to follow Obama’s script; after his opening line, he described his up-by-the-bootstraps parents, who “came from nothing.” He focussed in particular on his mother, who was “tough as nails and didn’t suffer fools at all.” It was an effective performance, delivered in simple sentences, and Christie came to a strong punch line: “I am her son.”
There was something self-regarding about both of these keynote constructions. In Obama’s speech of about twenty-three hundred words, he used a version of the personal pronoun fifty-nine times. In Christie’s speech of about twenty-six hundred words, he did so fifty-one times.
At the end of Christie’s autobiographical section, however, it became clear, as he turned toward subjects other than himself, that the Governor and his speechwriters had misapprehended why the Obama speech they had copied had been so successful.
A lot of politicians tell stories about their families, from which they draw lessons for America. Obama did so memorably because he incanted aspirations larger than his own. He presented himself as a symbol of other Americans’ hopes and ideals. The “we” he used, as an African-American leader who came of age after the civil-rights movement, was radically inclusive.
Christie did not offer hope; he scolded. He declared that the country has fallen into trouble because the American people lack backbone. He cited “the greatest lesson Mom ever taught me,” namely, that “there would be times in your life when you have to choose between being loved and being respected…. In fact, I think that advice applies to America today more than ever. I believe we have become paralyzed by our desire to be loved.”
That is an unusual way to describe America’s economic and fiscal problems. Christie meant that most pandering politicians lack the kind of guts he thinks he has displayed while overseeing New Jersey’s budgets; he spent a long time describing what a terrific, uncompromising, successful governor he has been. But do politicians pander because they want to be loved or because they want to be reëlected? Does Christie seriously expect to reach the White House some day by persuading Americans that he—so awkwardly vamping to please—does not wish to be loved? For a politician to be more transparently in search of love than Christie, he would have to be a Labrador.
The best part of Obama’s 2004 speech was a passage toward the end. He dismissed the “spin masters and the negative ad peddlers” and made observations about America’s divides. He offered a vision of national unity. He addressed “fellow Americans, Democrats, Republicans, independents.” He turned the words “the United States of America” into a succession of crescendos:
There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America….
On Tuesday, Christie, too, dismissed the “skeptics and the naysayers, the dividers and the defenders of the status quo,” and he, too, declared, “We are the United States of America.” Unlike Obama, however, he offered no vision of national unity—instead, he attacked his opposition.
The “we” of Christie’s speech sometimes referred to the country, but often it only referred to the Republican Party (or only to himself). He delivered a harsh “we believe/they believe” broadside against the Democrats. The essence of Christie’s argument was: we Republicans believe in hard truths, but those Democrats are content with lies. Last night, speaking to CNN, Christie explained his thinking about this line of attack: “My job is to make the case for the Republican brand.” Perversely, he did so, positioning Republicans as a cheap-shot machine.
In 2004, Obama took care to promote prominently the Presidential candidacy of Senator John Kerry, who, after all, had invited him to deliver the keynote address. Obama mentioned Kerry or his Vice-Presidential nominee, John Edwards, fifteen times, and he did so with enthusiasm. Several times he called attention to aspects of Kerry’s biography, such as his frontline military service during the Vietnam War.
In a speech that was longer than Obama’s, Christie mentioned Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan nine times. He said nothing about Romney’s career or accomplishments. Nor were the expressions of support he did offer for the Republican nominee especially fervent or convincing. Christie said repeatedly, “Mitt Romney will tell us the hard truths.” Really? Is that Romney’s reputation with voters, or is it Christie’s? The Governor also said, “Real leaders don’t follow polls. Real leaders change polls.” That’s a terrific line—but who was it intended to promote? Was the “real leader” in question Romney in 2012 or Christie in 2016?
Obama came to Boston as an unknown and left as a rising star. Christie came to Tampa as a rising star and obviously hoped to acquire Obama-like momentum as the Republican Party’s “truth teller,” a more salable alternative in competitive “purple” states than Paul Ryan will be in the next election, if Romney loses this one. (Christie even wore a purple tie.) But as Ryan showed in his superior speech on Wednesday night, there are more effective ways than Christie found to weave autobiography with partisan argument.
More interesting than the hard truths Christie purported to deliver from the podium in Tampa were the truths he revealed implicitly: that he is unoriginal, divisive, and not loyal enough to be worthy of the platform Romney gave him.
Read more http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/comment/2012/08/two-keynotes.html#...