Paul Ryan and Condi Rice: A Tale of 2 Speeches

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At the Republican convention, the former secretary of state was graceful and serious. The vice-presidential nominee came off as callow and glib.

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Reuters

TAMPA -- When Paul Ryan was named to the GOP ticket, bolstered by recommendations from conservative elites like The Weekly Standard and the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, the idea was that he would bring it gravitas. His charts full of numbers and penchant for policy, the narrative went, would imbue with intellectual responsibility a Romney campaign derided even on the right for its vacuousness and lack of specificity.

At the Republican convention Wednesday night, there was indeed a lofty, high-minded speech, one that managed to forcefully articulate a conservative world view without cheap partisan attacks or facts stretched to the breaking point. But it wasn't Ryan's -- it was delivered by Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state.

Rice's address had a sophistication, ease, and grace almost never found in modern political speeches. It was a speechwriter's speech, the kind you could imagine reading in a history book. She spoke with a diplomat's formality and the teleprompter turned off, glancing only occasionally at her notes on the podium.

Most of the speech was a policy argument, starting with foreign policy and moving to economics, but at the end, Rice, more circumspect than emotive, struck a personal note.

"A little girl grows up in Jim Crow Birmingham, the segregated city of the south," she said. "Her parents can't take her to a movie theater or to a restaurant. But they have her absolutely convinced that even if she can't have a hamburger at the Woolworth's lunch counter, she can be president of the United States if she wanted to be -- and she becomes the secretary of state." The crowd, rapt throughout her remarks, came to its feet and roared, and you could practically feel the Condi for President buzz sweeping through the collective hearts of the Republican elites. Being pro-choice, Rice's actual presidential prospects might prove tricky, but that's a matter for another day. For now, she has clearly -- and by no accident -- established herself as a political voice.

After another strong speech from New Mexico's governor, Susana Martinez, Ryan took the stage to close the night. He seemed nervous, his eyes wide as a deer's, his Adam's apple cranking up and down in the sinews of his neck. Combined with his too-big jacket and too-wide tie, the 42-year-old vice-presidential nominee seemed like a kid.

It quickly became clear that that was the point. Ryan, in his speech, played the part of the glib, ambitious student, his youth underscored with sentimental riffs about his mom and dad and their lives -- there was fairly little about his own experiences -- and references to his buddies from high school. "College graduates should not have to live out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life," he said. Ryan even mocked his running mate's taste in music: "I said, 'I hope it's not a deal-breaker, Mitt, but my playlist starts with AC/DC and ends with Zeppelin.'" The casting of the Romney-Ryan ticket as a father-son pairing rather than a team of equals couldn't have been more explicit.

Ryan's speech was notably heavy on the sort of tendentious distortions that his reputation might have led you to believe he disdained. He blasted Obama for saying a bailout would save the G.M. plant in Ryan's hometown, when the plant closed in 2008, before Obama took office. This might be defensible as a critique of the liberal belief system -- an argument that Obama was naive to believe that government intervention, which also occurred under his predecessor, would rescue the plant -- but just barely, and even less so when you know that Ryan also supported the bailout in question.

Ryan's full-throated embrace of Medicare, which he has proposed to reform with a policy Democrats criticize as a voucher system, was still more disingenuous. "The biggest, coldest power play of all in Obamacare came at the expense of the elderly," he said, describing a set of cuts to the program that one of his budget plans also would have enacted. Rather than make a case for his ideas, he vowed, "Medicare is a promise, and we will honor it."

The misdirection and red-meat-tossing seemed to be intentional -- a deliberate provocation to the priggish ranks of the pointy-headed fact-checkers, for whom the Romney campaign recently signaled its disdain. (Although it should be noted that Democrats, too, have taken issue with fact-checkers whose verdicts they dislike.) Ryan is being positioned as the Republican ticket's gleeful, unabashed attack dog, someone willing to take it to the other side without regard for the sniffing of the poo-bahs: Sarah Palin in an ill-fitting suit.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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