Maybe it's a function of what's been called the Information Age, which has become more of a digital data age. We're deluged with bytes, mega- and giga-, but not knowledge. Let alone understanding. As for insight, any hope of that was eclipsed long ago by the klieg-light glare of constant exposure. And over-exposure.
How long has this presidential campaign been going on, half an eternity? And how long has one Mitt Romney been in the news? Even longer. Yet he remains a largely unknown quantity. In part because of his own natural reticence, in part because of the corporate culture he has come to epitomize. (Rule No. 1: Never issue a statement, let alone actually meet the press, without a PR person riding shotgun.) The result: Mitt, we hardly knew you. And maybe still don't. For the more we know about you, the less we seem to know you.
But at last, on the last night of the carnival, vulgar display and even rare moment of insight that is an American political convention, the nominee got a chance to speak for himself. And we the people got a chance to listen for ourselves, clouded as the opportunity was by pre-speech and post-speech commentaries, not to mention warm-up acts, camera hogs, and other distractions galore.
Anything to make sure Americans never get a moment to think for ourselves. That could be dangerous. It might lead to independent thought. Can't have that. Better to just follow the party line -- Republican or Democrat, right or left, Fox News or NPR, clear or muddled but always certain. Unfortunately.
Clint Eastwood, a movie star of some note, led the list of wretched excesses Thursday night with his imitation of a lounge act, deluded mental patient, and doddering old guy, a role he perfected in one of his films. At least we hope it was an imitation, but you never know. There may be nothing as sadly revealing as an actor caught offstage, left to the slim mercies of his own unscripted words and (semi-) thoughts, naked to the cruel world. Pitiable. And embarrassing. The spectacle threatened never to end -- like a drunken performance at what was supposed to be a party. It's hard even now to get it out of your mind, or the taste of it out of your mouth.
Mr. Eastwood's piece of performance art infected even what should have been a stirring introduction of the presidential nominee by Marco Rubio, junior senator from Florida but mainly embodiment of the American Dream. For even now, today, this hour, the Marco Rubios of the future are getting their first sight of the Statue of Liberty. Even now fathers and mothers are bending down to kiss American soil, thinking not of themselves or even of their new country, but how new, how free, how American their children are going to be....
Despite all the distractions at Tampa last week, there is still an America out there, waiting. We need to remember that.
It was a good speech. Mr. Romney didn't get where he is by making a bad impression. And he is, after all, George Romney's boy. And knows how to do. And never to show off. It might excite envy, and Lord knows there's already enough of that floating around -- even waiting to be enlisted for any cause good or bad, but mainly political.
As is the case not just with Romneys, the man was best when he was just himself, avoiding bombast, ignoring his pollsters and handlers. He was most impressive when least seeking to impress. That's when he seemed most hopeful, helpful, effective -- always fixing something big or small, whether a business in trouble or a country. That's his trade, not speechmaking.
Maybe that's why it wasn't the applause lines, and certainly not the rousing finish, that resonated when the speaker finally had the chance to speak for himself. That is, when he was ... temperate. Then the great tumultuous hall seemed absolutely still. And he seemed to reflect what Adlai Stevenson once called "an inner air, an inner light in which freedom lives and in which a man can draw the breath of self-respect."
What policies did he advocate? Many in general. But you know they will change with the circumstances, as with all politicians, especially the great ones like the second Roosevelt and the one and only Lincoln. He will steer from point to point down this muddy river, not just strike out, trusting his fate and the country's to a collection of ideological reflexes, not his own decent instincts.
How many New Deals did FDR propose, anyway? The historians count at least a couple, each different in character and programs. Until they were all replaced by a single and singular focus on winning the life-and-death struggle called the Second World War.
FDR changed ideas, he changed policies, he changed vocabularies and crises, but never his personality -- always chipper, always hopeful, always ... himself. And always very American. That much never changed -- in good times and bad, in sickness and in health, before and after he acquired those braces on his paralyzed legs. He was always the Happy Warrior. We could use that kind of president. We could use that kind of presidential candidate.
You might have come away from listening to Mr. Romney's speech with much the same impression FDR left. His positions will change, too. But not he. Which may be why the most impressive thing about Mitt Romney's big night was not what he said. It was his having chosen some of the people around him on that stage. Ann Romney. Paul Ryan. A great leader chooses a great team, not one whose principal function is to make him seem great by comparison.
The greatest of American leaders chose as his secretaries of state and the Treasury two completely different, even warring types, named Jefferson and Hamilton, both great themselves. He did not want to be surrounded by lesser men. On the contrary, he sought out the greatest, however different their talents and temperaments, their past achievements and future promise.
Mitt Romney has chosen Paul Ryan as his running mate. His opponent chose Joe Biden. In a way, that says everything that may need to be said about the choice confronting the American electorate this fall, a choice that, like all choices at the ballot box or in life, will have consequences.
Mr. Romney, we still may hardly know you. But we know some of the choices you've made when it comes to the most important thing, people. And those choices speak for you. Unmistakably.