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Jewish World Review August 18, 2000 /17 Menachem-Av, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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Downhill from here: Conventional rhetoric

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- Nor do I think it a matter of little moment whether the language of a people be vitiated or refined, whether the popular idiom be erroneous or correct. ... I am inclined to believe that when the language in common use in any country becomes irregular and depraved, it is followed by their ruin or their degradation.

For what do terms used without skill or meaning, which are at once corrupt and misapplied, denote but a people listless, supine and ripe for servitude? On the contrary, we have never heard of any people or state which has not flourished in some degree of prosperity as long as their language has retained its elegance and its purity.
     --- John Milton to Benedetto Bonomatthai,
     Sept. 10, 1638

LOS ANGELES | When the Clintons left, they took the steam out of this Democratic convention. Its spirit may sputter now and then, but it no longer explodes. If the first two days of the Republicans' convention in Philadelphia were empty, here the last couple of days may be, as we proceed to Al Gore's great anticlimax.

Remember when the keynote address was delivered on the opening night of a national convention? Remember when it was, yes, the keynote? Bill Clinton has reduced it to a postscript.

It was a bad sign from the first Tuesday night, when it was easy to get around on the convention floor. The aisles were clear, and there was immediate seating. The convention is being Gored. All the praises heaped upon the anointed nominee and Next President of the United States have the sound of duty, not enthusiasm. The exaggerated claims don't even have enough impact to provoke a critic.

Only when the specter of a Republican victory is invoked does a real shiver pass through the ranks. The theme of this convention could be: It's not that Al Gore is so good, but that the Republicans are so bad.

Bill Clinton could have used his night to step aside, remove himself as an issue and promote the new face of his party. He did say all the right, perfunctory things about Al Gore -- but mainly he showcased himself. The man can't help it. He just had to show 'em how it was done one more time. How can anyone blame him for doing what he does best? And what is there to say that would transform Al Gore into someone other than Al Gore?

The drumbeat of cliches still lifts now and then, and a light shines. As it did when Caroline Kennedy approached the rostrum and memory stirred. For a brief shining moment, we were lifted, transported, elevated above the partisan to what might have been, and might yet be.

The young girl that a different generation remembers is now a still young lady. She carries a great weight with incredible lightness, and not all the spotlights and banners and throaty cheers can weigh her words down. They take pure flight. Time is suspended.

The buzz of The Crowd, that great beast waiting to be fed, ceases. A political convention, that great sausage factory of ideas, shuts down. There is a simplicity about her appearance, a tone in her first words, that is different. She is speaking with the deep sweetness of the unfulfilled dream.

The people begin to listen. ``We can make the world new again,'' she is saying. She recalls her father speaking in this same city 40 years ago, accepting a different kind of nomination in a different kind of world, one in which words seemed to matter more because ideas did. She speaks of what John F. Kennedy called the New Frontier: ``It was not a set of promises, he said, but a set of challenges.''

She has unerringly, perhaps unwittingly, put her finger on what is wrong with this convention: It is all promises, and no challenges except how to get elected.

Before she segues into the standard litany of promises and fears, Caroline Kennedy speaks of ``the importance of faith and family, and how these values must be woven together into lives of purpose and meaning.'' Then she introduces Ted Kennedy.

It is over. We are back in the here and red-white-and-blue now. We are safe inside the great bubble that is the Staples Center, insulated from the surging protests outside. We are surrounded by that sense of sublime satisfaction with our own humanity and decency that only a Democratic convention at full-throated high can produce.

Ted Kennedy is pounding the rostrum and leading The Crowd responsively. There must be only a few of us left now who, whenever he speaks, hear only a submerged chorus breathing in and out, repeating a forgotten name: Mary Jo Kopechne, Mary Jo Kopechne, Mary Jo. ... The brief, shining moment is definitely over.

Later Bill Bradley will do a manful job of endorsing Al Gore and things as they are in this party. He comes closest to being the last Stevensonian in the Democratic Party, both in the refinement of his ideas and, unfortunately, their ineffectuality.

Technically, there is a keynote speaker on this program, scheduled last and late. He seems a nice enough young man. Then, like great rhetoric at American political conventions, it is over.

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