George W. Bush passed the test. He got an A.
With the convention that he designed and controlled, and the speech that he delivered to accept the Republican nomination, Bush earned the indispensable thing: plausibility.
His performance was a drama of arrival a presidential bar mitzvah. The son took over. The torch passed. That was a grown man addressing the convention in Philadelphia speaking with the seasoned authority of a life that is manifestly his own. That is an odd thing to say of someone in his mid-50s, perhaps, but you know the Baby Boomers. There have been detours and delays.
Ex-presidents framed the proceedings in a mute, touching way. George Bush the Elder acted the proud, mellow father in a non-speaking part. Ronald Reagan could not come to Philadelphia, for melancholy reasons. Gerald Ford had a stroke in the midst of the convention. Extinct volcanoes. One generation passeth away. George and Laura Bush made much of their daughters' going off to college, which is, so to speak, where the boomers came in and the movie began. So the generational cycle is, belatedly but convincingly, accomplished.
The Democrats lavished a good deal of condescension on the Bush convention. They jeered all week at the GOP's kinder-and-gentler diversity pageant, arguing that the gaudy display of pigmentations and orientations and live-and-let-live gemŘtlichkeit bears no relation to Republican politics in the real world. New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, implying that the African-Americans on stage in Philadelphia were singing and dancing in a vicious minstrel show, had the effrontery to suggest that Colin Powell was insufficiently black.
The Democrats were no doubt frustrated by the quiescence of the punitive Republican cinder dicks ("cinder dicks" being the Depression-era hoboes' term for the railroad detectives who carried clubs and threw traveling men off the freight trains, which has been, if you think of it, the work of the Gingrich/Falwell brigades). In his acceptance speech, Bush offered scraps to the party's fiercer elements, but mostly they stayed belowdecks, like Ahab's harpooners. They were content to have the conservative Dick Cheney on the ticket, and the knowledge that the next president will be substantially restocking the Supreme Court.
Bush profited from almost everyone's low, or apprehensive, expectations, so that when he hit the sweet spot, as he did, the ball seemed to leave the park on a rising trajectory.
The point of a political convention is no longer to pick a candidate (primaries do that), but rather to offer the most attractive possible version of the party's fantasy of America, just as a television commercial creates a dream world around a product. If the chemistry and imagery work, plausibility (yes, I see that, I feel that, I respond to that) leads on to inevitability (I'll buy it!)
Soon, Al Gore will go to work spinning his own plausibility in Los Angeles. The Democrats will set up a counter-universe, a counter-America, their own vision of... what? Inclusion? Compassion? Coming second in this exercise, they will have to discredit to mock the Republicans' convention. That may give to the Democratic proceedings a derisive and holier-than-thou tone, an atmosphere that may prove unfortunate: a nastiness inside the convention hall may be amplified by protesters' vociferous disturbances outside. The admixture of Streisand/Beatty-style Hollywood chic should contribute an insufferable note. And of course, the Clintons will be there, with all their baggage. The atmosphere thus created may not be attractive.
On the other hand, Bush's success in Philadelphia (he passed the manhood test, and he left the impression, at least, of generosity and inclusion) may take the game up to a higher and better level. It may focus the Democratic convention, and the campaign and debates to follow, more articulately on differences of principle. Gore is not going to win the personality contest.