Paul Greenberg

What a relief last week to go from the real world of Gustav to the unreal world of another national nominating convention, full of full of hype and fury signifying . . . well, that depends on who's talking at the time. As the drama built up to the well-staged acceptance speeches Wednesday and Thursday nights, Tuesday evening was just the prelims. But it had two stars:

Fred Thompson was the first. The former senator and prosecutor was utterly convincing so long as he was praising the record of his party's standard bearer. It was an easy case to make. Even the opposition has made a ritual of acknowledging John McCain's heroism before attacking him. ("I honor Senator McCain's record of service to his country, but . . . .") Who couldn't recognize John McCain's courage and character? And not just in uniform. He's been his own man in the U.S. Senate, too, yet able to forge compromises at critical moments. That, too, takes courage.

It was hard to resist the thought that if only Fred Thompson had campaigned half so well for himself as he did for John McCain in this speech, he might have been accepting his party's presidential nomination at this convention. Indeed, at the beginning of this campaign so long, long ago, I had picked him and another long shot, a freshman senator from Illinois, as the dark horses most likely to win their party's presidential nomination. But only one crossed the finish line.

However different their styles, both men have an engaging way about them, but Mr. Thompson soon grew bored with all the folderol that goes with being a presidential candidate, while Barack Obama seemed to rise above it - even as he accommodated it. How he does it is a mystery, like so much art, but it's an impressive performance. The magicians, and Senator Obama certainly is one in his chosen field, call it levitation. It'll be interesting to see how he pulls it off against down-to-earth John McCain in their first debate.

How strange: It is the Republican ticket in this election that begins to represent change while the Democratic one, with all its talk of change, and maybe only talk, begins to look a lot like the old liberal establishment. Listening to Fred Thompson go on and on, I think: Here he is in the supporting cast of this convention while John McCain, whom everybody had counted out at one point, has the starring role.

American politics, like America itself, is full of surprises.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.