Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman told delegates to the Republican convention here that "this is no ordinary election," and his speech, capping the first night of the hurricane-delayed proceedings, was Exhibit A. Who would have predicted eight years ago, when Lieberman basked in the cheers of thousands of Democrats after accepting their nomination as vice-president, that the GOP would one day offer him a prime time slot instead of George W. Bush?
Next time the Senate Democrats get together, it's going to be as frosty for Lieberman as a January dawn on the back of Todd Palin's snow machine.
But that's the nature of this year's race. The Republican nominee, John McCain, is in a battle for the last undecided voters, no more than 10 percent of the electorate, according to polls. And while they haven't yet chosen between McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, they've made up their minds on Bush. They don't like him.
So the GOP showcased an endorsement from Al Gore's 2000 running mate while stuffing their incumbent president into a box. Literally. Bush's only appearance at this convention was on the rectangular screens hanging around the Xcel Arena, as he delivered a 9-minute speech beamed in from the White House.
It was the first time the sitting president of the United States has missed his own party's convention since Lyndon Johnson avoided the tempestuous 1968 Democratic meeting in the depths of the Vietnam War.
All evening, the elephant in the room was the elephant not in the room. Bush's political influence was felt in the frank positioning of the GOP as the God Party even more than in past conventions, speakers were free with Scripture citations, religious exhortations and mentions of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Other Republicans received video tributes Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and, of course, Ronald Reagan. There was a film and abundant praise for the president's father, former President George H.W. Bush, whose appearance in the hall with wife Barbara brought the drowsy crowd of delegates to its feet. They chanted "Forty-one! Forty-one!" in honor of Bush Sr.'s place in the parade of the nation's chief executives.
Because what's a GOP convention without the Bushes? Tuesday marked at least 60 years of the family's attendance at these gatherings, going back to Philadelphia in 1948, when a Connecticut banker by the name of Prescott S. Bush attended as a delegate for the first time. They'll always be welcome as long as they aren't the two-term incumbent in the family.
"What is a Democrat like me doing at a Republican convention like this?" Leiberman asked rhetorically. "I'm here to support John McCain because country matters more than party."
Lieberman's weird, winding road to St. Paul is a story for another day, but a lot of it comes down to the fact that he and John McCain believed the U.S. should do more in Iraq at a time when most of America and nearly all of the Congressional Democrats wanted to get out. Lieberman tried to use his credibility as a former standard-bearer for the other party as a lever to peel McCain free of the Bush legacy. After dozens of speeches last week in Denver evoking "Bush-McCain," Lieberman offered this: "Trust me: God only made one John McCain, and he is his own man."
Avuncular as ever, still smiling at his own jokes, Lieberman's 20-minute plea followed a folksy, flag-waving address by former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee. The big man with the muddy drawl, perhaps more famous for his "Law & Order" re-runs than for his legislative career, treated the delegates and guests to a populist paean to his pal McCain and his running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska.
Anyone who thinks Palin's wild ride from the Nome Nugget to the National Enquirer in five short days has damaged her with the party didn't hear the cheers as Thompson praised her achievements and snorted at the press. "Washington pundits and media bigshots," he declared, are tearing down someone who "has actually governed." When McCain and Palin take the oath, Thompson promised, "they're not going to care how much the alligators get irritated. They're going to drain that swamp."
From there he segued into the powerful story of McCain's courage under torture as a North Vietnamese prisoner of war. "Being a POW doesn't qualify anyone to be president," Thompson allowed at the end. "But it does reveal character. Friends...it's pretty clear there are two questions we'll never have to ask ourselves: Who is this man, and can we trust this man with the presidency?"
But who would speak up for W?
That job fell to his wife, First Lady Laura Bush, who seemed to be bristling under that perfect demeanor at the dissing of her man. Offering "a little straight talk" on the Bush record, she extolled education reform ("test scores for minority students are at the highest they’ve ever been"); the appointment of conservatives John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court; the "50 million people...living in freedom" in Afghanistan and Iraq. "You might call that change you can really believe in," she said, in a sly swiping of Obama's slogan.
Squeezed into the last minutes before prime time began, Bush used his moment less than half as long as Lieberman's to vouch for McCain as "ready to lead this nation." He, too, touched on the theme of McCain's resilience: "If the Hanoi Hilton could not break John McCain's resolve to do what's best for his country, you can be sure the Angry Left never will." And he nodded to the well-known fact that he and McCain have never liked each other: "He's not afraid to tell you when he disagrees. Believe me I know."
He clicked off at 10:02PM local time, a scant skosh into the single hour of coverage given on all but the last night of conventions by the networks. But the networks replayed the speech. So the president was heard in spite of his party.
The image of a fouled anchor is an official insignia of the U.S. Navy, embossed on jacket buttons and cap badges. As a graduate of the Naval Academy, the son and grandson of admirals, John S. McCain has been contemplating fouled anchors all his life.
Now he has one dragging on his ambitions, an unpopular president mired in the polls and tangled in a troubled economy. It's nothing personal, but when a sailor or politician has exhausted all other strategies for hoisting the dead weight, he has no choice but to cut it loose.