Among the many interesting, surprising, and semi-bizarre tidbits in the Arnold Schwarzenegger's speech at the RNC last night was his recounting of the postwar Soviet occupation of Austria, which lasted for a decade after the end of World War II (not surprisingly, Arnold neglected to mention what government had "occupied" Austria immediately before the Soviets and the Allies, or his father's role in that government).
Perhaps the chief accomplishment of Schwarzenegger's comments was that they created a positive and compelling (in rhetoric, if not necessarily in reality) continuity between the World War II and Cold War pasts and the War on Terror future (McCain and Giuliani did some of the spade work on this theme, but neither did so as directly or as convincingly as Schwarzenegger). Arnold figured the past 60 years or so of American geopolitical engagement with the world as an unbroken series of events, thereby creating what Van Wyck Brooks (in a literary context) called "a usable past" regarding the War on Terror.
In Arnold's telling, the War on Terror is not something happening in a new and different world or in a new century that has broken decisively with the past or with "history." It's absolutely of a piece with smashing the Berlin Wall, beating back Soviet aggression, and, before that, the Nazis. Placing the War on Terror in such a context works to remove any and all Bush administration efforts from criticism. It implicitly dismisses discussion of Iraq and Afghanistan as neo-imperial misadventures and it puts critics on the defensive by forcing them to contend with unassailable chapters in U.S. history, rather than allowing them simply to point to disturbing Middle Eastern headlines and the president's own admissions of "miscalculations."
Remember back in 1996 when Bob Dole kept yapping about a "bridge to the past" or something like that? It was rightly seen as creepy, defeatist, and unappealing. You got that sense that Bob Dole, the guy who railed against violent and smutty movies he admitted he'd never seen, wanted the world to crawl back into the basement apartment in Kansas that he famously grew up in.
Last night, Schwarzenegger offered up a very different vision that drew on the past not to eulogize the present but to point to an even more bountiful future:
You know, when the Germans brought down the Berlin Wall, America's determination helped wield the sledgehammers. When that lone, young Chinese man stood in front of those tanks in Tiananmen Square, America's hopes stood with him. And when Nelson Mandela smiled in election victory after all those years in prison, America celebrated, too.
We are still the lamp lighting the world especially for those who struggle. No matter in what labor camp they slave, no matter in what injustice they're trapped, they hear our call, they see our light, and they feel the pull of our freedom. They come here as I did because they believe. They believe in us.
They come because their hearts say to them, as mine did, "If only I can get to America." Someone once wrote: "There are those who say that freedom is nothing but a dream." They are right. It's the American dream.
Schwarzenegger's speech was hardly flawless rhetorically. A movie star in the final analysis, he couldn't help insert himself into history by telling the barely credible tale of a horribly wounded solider who nonetheless found the spunk to quote one of Arnold's signature lines:
Let me tell you about the sacrifice and commitment I've seen firsthand. In one of the military hospitals I visited, I met a young guy who was in bad shape. He'd lost a leg had a hole in his stomach, his shoulder had been shot through.
I could tell there was no way he could ever return to combat. But when I asked him, "When do you think you'll get out of the hospital?" He said, "sir, in three weeks." And do you know what he said to me then? He said he was going to get a new leg, and get some therapy, and then he was going back to Iraq to serve alongside his buddies! He grinned at me and said, "Arnold, I'll be back!"
There is something grotesque about such a story (in the end, it's all about the movie star), and especially how it is immediately put to baldly partisan use, even at as baldly a partisan exercise as a national convention. (Arnold proceeded to tell the audience that "America is back!…because of the perseverance, character and leadership of the 43rd President of the United States, George W. Bush.")
Indeed, that sort of gesture is the turd lurking in the GOP punch bowl: The just-a-hair-away-from-rank-opportunism of such moments as these. So far, through a combination of self-deprecating humor, good-natured, if very pointed, jibes at their Democratic opponents, and shows of transpartisan sympathy, the speakers have managed to pull back from alienating non-Republican viewers.
Still, the RNC up to now has been a bravura performance–there are clear themes that have been articulated consistently across all the speeches (the most successful are related simultaneously to the necessity of the War on Terror and the ostensibly weakness of John Kerry and the Democrats on that very issue). Every major speaker has hammered these home and, as important, rhetorically gotten down on their knees and thanked God, the American people, and the U.S. Supreme Court for making George W. Bush president in 2000. The gritty details of what John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and Arnold Schwarzenegger–the Pep Boys, the Manny, Moe, and Jack of moderate Republicanism–may matter less than the fact that they have each publicly sworn a loyalty oath to Bush. This, despite major personal (in the case of McCain) and policy (the other two) differences.
Even those of us who have little use for Republicans have to be struck with the contrast to the Democrats at their shindig a few weeks–or was it years?–ago in Boston. In Beantown, there seemed to be no compelling theme, tone, or reverential deference to the candidate. Didn't the Democrats used to be famous for putting out memorable convention speakers–folks liks Barbara Jordan, Mario Cuomo, Ann Richardson? Surely it's telling that Zell Miller, who wowed the crowd at the DNC back in '92 when he introduced Bill Clinton, is now prepped to do the same trick for the GOP in '04.