Virtually everyone agrees that John McCain and Rudy Giuliani were smart choices to kick off the Republicans' four-day infomercial last night. The conventional explanation for this is that they're "moderates," and to an extent that's true -- if you sent every American a list of Giuliani's political beliefs and Bush's, and asked them to tally up how much of each personal platform they agreed with, the mayor would surely average a higher score. But there's two more reasons for the speakers' success, and I think they explain more.
The first is that most Americans genuinely respect these two men. I disagree with McCain on a ton of issues; in two areas, free speech and foreign policy, I think his prescriptions pose a deep threat to the country. But I can't see him without remembering that he's a man who didn't merely spend years in solitary confinement as a P.O.W. -- he refused a chance to be sent home because he didn't want to give the North Vietnamese a propaganda victory. Similarly, I think Giuliani's career is filled with bad policies. But it was impossible to watch him in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 without being impressed with his competence and empathy.
And I actually agree with these guys about an issue or two. There's people out there who don't agree with McCain or Giuliani about anything, but still admire them.
The second reason is that they're both spontaneous, witty speakers, and thus a welcome contrast with the canned, cautious addresses that dominated the Democratic gathering (Carter, Clinton, and Sharpton excepted). Virginia Postrel put it well:
The most remarkable thing about [Giuliani's] speech wasn't its content but how it was delivered. Giuliani spoke fluidly, but in an utterly conversational way, as though he had no text. Instead of trying for old-style oratory, which works for few contemporary speakers, he gave a model 21st-century performance.
McCain wasn't as agile at the podium, but his media persona is built on memories of the permanent floating press conference that was the Straight Talk Express. He leaves the same impression that Giuliani does: of a man who's speaking to you, not to a carefully contrived collection of swing-vote demographics.
That said, I strongly suspect that McCain and Giuliani's performances will differ radically not just from most of the Democratic gathering, but from most of the RNC as well. The star of the show, after all, is George W. Bush, whose speeches sometimes feel like something out of Gertrude Stein. And every time the cameras sweep across the convention floor, I see a sea of signs displaying the empty wordclot "A Nation of Courage" -- a phrase that sounds like it came from the same focus group that gave us "I'm John Kerry, and I'm reporting for duty."