Tuesday night was “liberal night,” which meant it was Kennedy night, which meant that it was hard for any right-of-Teddy American to take.
To begin with, we got the elegant Caroline Kennedy (Schlossberg), America’s princess. We have heard a lot of sentimental talk about her lately: Her father is dead; her mother is dead; even her young and dynamic brother is dead; she is the sole survivor of that dashing little family; she is all that remains of . . . Camelot.
And it was to the song “Camelot” that Caroline took the stage, which was a pity, because it is a dumb song, and completely out of place at a political convention — particularly on fire-breathing “liberal night.” Jacqueline Kennedy, following JFK’s death, happened to remark to Time’s Theodore White that the Kennedy administration had been like Camelot (or, more precisely, like the Broadway show Camelot). And we have had to put up with this baloney ever since.
Caroline looked beautiful. She wore white — a color that becomes her — and a double strand of pearls, which (how about you?) put me in mind of Barbara Bush. Physically, Caroline is a combination of her parents, which is not a bad inheritance. Her cousin, Maria Shriver — the TV journalist who has been as nauseatingly partisan as ever this week — applauded her emotionally. You could see, looking down at the floor, all the delegates eyeing Caroline, curious as to how their idol’s girl had grown up. She was like Lisa Marie Presley at some major rock event. One woman held up a sign that said, “Caroline, your father is the reason I’m here!” (Is that a new sex accusation?) You could almost, if you were weak, be touched.
Mrs. Schlossberg does not have a particularly fortunate speaking voice; and she is no kind of orator. But she is not required to be. Her job is simply to be . . . a gracious symbol of Camelot. Her speech was a collection of platitudes, empty even by the standards of Kennedy-liberal oration. She half-laughed, or giggled, after each of her applause lines, which is to say, after each of her sentences.
She said, “We need a president who is not afraid of complexity: Al Gore.” This was a strange assertion. Perhaps she had read Nicholas Lemann’s profile/interview of Gore in The New Yorker, in which the vice president held forth like a dim but self-impressed undergraduate on drugs. The Gores’ daughters, seated in the stands, clapped enthusiastically, looking somewhat worshipfully at Caroline.
The former First Daughter went on to say that if we (Democrats) fail to fashion government in our own image, they (Republicans) will fashion it in theirs. And what do Democrats believe in that Republicans despise? “Civil rights,” “human rights,” and “closing the racial divide”; also “clean air” and “clean water.” In addition, Gore and Joe Lieberman would appoint a Supreme Court that would “protection the Constitution” — you know: “the right to privacy” (found where, exactly, in the Constitution, Ms. Law School Grad.?) and “the right to make our own reproductive decisions.”
It is positively amazing what a pro-choicer will say to avoid the word “abortion.”
After her mention of the abortion issue, the Gore daughters, and the Liebermans, and everyone else in the hall, leapt to their feet. We have had it confirmed over and over here: Abortion means just about everything to this party.
I had one dominant reaction to this little speech: Mrs. Schlossberg is a true believer. I had held out the hope that she had a little more sense than that (perhaps because, in her personal bearing, she is so dignified and respectable). But she, like the rest of her clan, and party, seems genuinely to believe that liberal Democrats are good and conservative Republicans bad, thank you very much.
Well, thank you, Caroline.
Next up was Sen. Ted, who entered to the song “Still the One,” a fabulous number, and just the right one for this old lion and perennial favorite. Is there anybody here who has spoken at more conventions than Ted Kennedy? Probably not. He is an old pro, the pro of Democratic pros.
He began — eyes watery — by thanking his niece, Caroline, “for what you have done for millions of Americans everywhere.” So, what has she done for millions of Americans? How rude of you to ask. Apparently, Kennedys assume that their every breath and cough is for the benefit of “millions of Americans everywhere.”
Kennedy then hailed Gore for his selection of Lieberman, which “broke another barrier of bigotry.” This idea of barrier-breaking is a bit strained — but Lieberman himself jumped up and grinned and waved and pumped his fist and accepted congratulations. The junior senator from Connecticut has seemed a mite too pleased about his date with fame — too much like a teenager who has just had his first kiss (or whatever). The contrast with Dick Cheney is striking. Cheney, laconic, composed, seems to understand that the leadership of the American government is a daunting, and humbling, business.
Ted K. paid the usual obeisance to the Election of 1960, that pivotal, all-important event in our history. America, you know, actually began in 1960; nothing had ever come before; all was dark. How did this interpretation of things ever take hold? Why do so many wish to believe it? The answer, probably, lies in a) JFK’s good looks and b) his assassination. If he had looked like William Howard Taft and lived — with everything else being exactly the same — why, . . . but this is futile talk.
The senator’s big theme of the evening was that “prosperity is a challenge to do better”; and “better” means “universal health care” (which you Neanderthals know as socialized medicine). Of course, Kennedy has done everything in his power to block prosperity; he hates low tax rates and free trade and deregulation and everything else that makes an economy grow and hum; but once the money is there, he insists that we atone by . . . socializing. He gave the convention faithful a large dose of the old-time religion, laying into the word “profits” as though this were the worst word in all the world — worse, even, than “war” or “cancer” or “hell.” Throughout most of his speech, he sounded rather like Michael Foote, running against Mrs. Thatcher, before Tony Blair — or even Neil Kinnock — had gotten hold of the Labour party. (Okay, maybe he sounded like Kinnock, but far less polished.)
Kennedy is a labored and annoying speaker, even if he can get the mob riled up now and then. He nods — as though in agreement with himself — after each of his applause lines. He bellows as if the microphone had never been invented — he might as well have been in some cavernous union hall, in Mayor Curley’s day. He stumbled over a few sentences, and he used the jarring phrase “profoundly deep differences.” “Profound,” of course, means deep. Bob Shrum would not have written that.
The speech did contain one truly beautiful and smart formulation: Kennedy noted that only three times in his life had he endorsed early for president. He did so for Gore, this year; and he had done so for his brothers.
But no amount of poetry or tenderness could have negated the effect of the senator’s mindless blowhardery. For these Democrats, he is The Last Kennedy Brother, a national treasure and icon; for others, he must be merely a shouting socialist demagogue.