From a national convention's opening gavel to its concluding prayer, the tendency and temptation is to give politics precedent. No need to go into detail about anything else, including the hard choices -- and sacrifices -- that real government, and real life, may involve. The sight might only spoil the show. The way real thought does partisan reflexes, real emotion the kneejerk kind, and real experience the storybook version.
Some showpieces deserve the places they've earned in American history, going all the way back to William Jennings Bryan's classic Cross of Gold performance in 1896, which he would repeat the rest of his life.
In more recent times there was Barack Obama's classic keynote at the Democratic national convention in 2004. ("There is not a liberal America and a conservative America -- there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America -- there's the United States of America.") Back then, the man was a uniter, not divider. And the country's heart was lifted.
As it was Tuesday night in Tampa, or should have been. And not by the keynoter. Chris Christie did well enough. He lived up to his billing. He gave it the old Jersey bounce, and did what keynoters are supposed to do, and have been doing for quadrennia: rally the troops, point with pride and mainly view with alarm. No complaints on any of those scores. But let this much be noted:
The lady who stole the show at the Republicans' national convention this year was no professional, no politician, and, though she talked politics in her way, she remained a lady throughout. An all-too-rare accomplishment in these times, or any times. For once the hurlyburly parted, the show didn't go on, and reality -- far from being obscured -- was brought home.
The lady was named Romney, but her effect was quite different from that of the male of the species. When she spoke, there was no razzmatazz, no hoopla and hyperbole, no outline of talking points clearly visible behind her text.
Instead, something else happened. Everything in the great hall, and maybe in the great nation, grew quiet. As when one of the guests at a ladies' tea, amidst the small talk, mentions the big things, and the small things that in the end loom big. Like love when it's more than a word. Like cancer when it's no longer a possibility but an actuality. Like "in sickness and in health" when it's no longer a ceremonial phrase on a happy occasion but day-to-day reality.
There comes a time when the sugar frosting on the wedding cake turns into something else: dirty diapers soaking in the tub, or the family provider's having to start a new business against all odds. Or a wife out on the road somewhere when she was due home hours ago ... and the mind races with fear and worry. When she finally walks through the door, the rush of sheer gratitude at the sight of her, living and breathing and safe, is as great as the anger felt only a moment before.
Welcome to marriage, the real thing. How describe it? Ann Romney did. "I read somewhere that Mitt and I have a 'storybook marriage,' " Mrs. Romney said. "Well, let me tell you something: In the storybooks I read, there were never long, long, rainy winter afternoons in a house with five boys screaming at once. And those storybooks never seemed to have chapters called MS or breast cancer. A storybook marriage? No, not at all. What Mitt Romney and I have is a real marriage."
Anybody within the sound of Ann Romney's voice, and they must have numbered in the millions the other night, anybody who's married or was married or has known what's called a good marriage but that includes the good times and bad, the joy and sorrow, the sickness and health, the for-better-or-worse, had to know what Ann Romney was talking about. You could feel it sinking in. And not just in a convention hall.
Only years afterward might the hard-working mainstay of the family be told, "You didn't build that!" Or the wife and mother, the center of the home and rock of her family, be described as never having worked a day in her life. For talk is cheap, and that kind of talk is cheaper than most.
The choices we all must make, not just in politics but in life, don't come with any guarantees. They come with consequences. That little detail may get lost in the quadrennial political scramble, when certain truths are brushed over, or even omitted entirely as politics, not to say reality, gets the Photoshop treatment.
That's when we're told we can balance the budget by taxing somebody else (usually only hazily identified as The Rich, meaning anybody whose income-tax bracket is at least one rung above ours), or that we can spend our way out of debt, or that we really don't have to make any choices at all, but can have it all -- all the time.
Ann Romney knows better. She's learned it through experience. And now the country may know her, and ourselves, a little better. And respect her, and ourselves, a little better.
Whether the next president of the United States is named Romney or not, winning an election is not the most important part of this whole elaborate process and tradition and overwhelming circus and education called an American presidential election. The most important, the most lasting, part of this whole proceeding is those moments when the political discourse is lifted above the political.