by Doug Bernard
Smiles are very important at political conventions. For candidates on stage, delegates on the floor, or anyone being interviewed on television, a grin is essential.
Smiles suggest unity, hope, enjoyment; perhaps even the slight anticipation of victory. Smiles are so important, in fact, that in the special Trump family seating box used at this year’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland, there are signs posted below camera level: “Smile. You’re on live TV.”
No surprise then that frowns are discouraged. Frowns say, “I’m unhappy, I’m displeased, please turn the channel.” Winners smile; losers frown.
Which makes it all the more unusual that at this year’s GOP convention, there have been notably fewer smiles on display than at previous such events.
Happy family, delegates
Sure, Melania Trump and all the Trump children show off the gleaming pearly whites befitting a billionaire’s family. And, so far, the 2,472 delegates on the floor at the Quicken Loans Arena have genuinely been doing their best as well: dancing during lulls in the action, back-slapping old friends and colleagues, and hooting in support as they wave “Make America Great Again” placards.
But ask any longtime convention observer, and they’ll tell you something’s very different this time around. Whether on stage or the arena floor, the scowl is competing with the smile for prominence … and often, the scowl is winning out.
First, there’s what you might call the “vibe” — the general sense of energy on the delegate floor. Remember all those Democrats dancing (incessantly) in 1996 to the Macarena? That was a good vibe. The 2008 GOP convention the first moment Sarah Palin took the floor? Electric. But 2016 Cleveland? Somebody find the caffeine, stat.
Then, consider some of the biggest stem-winding speeches so far this year. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani literally shouted accusation upon condemnation at President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, his face scrunched in scorn. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who despite his obvious pleasure at detailing an elaborate indictment of Clinton as a liar and a crook, still couldn’t bring himself to anything short of a grimace of discomfort. The delegates repeatedly hissed and booed.
Perhaps most shocking was Patricia Smith, mother of Sean Smith, one of four Americans killed in a 2012 raid in Benghazi, Libya. Her voice faltering, her face a rictus of pain and grief, she blamed Clinton personally for her son’s death, adding through tears that the former secretary of state belongs in prison. The delegates, equally stone-faced, loved it.
Few others did. Steve Schmidt, the former senior political adviser to Senator John McCain during his 2008 presidential run, termed it “the weaponization of grief.” MSNBC host Chris Matthews — a former aide to Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neil but generally an equal abuser of both parties — appeared rattled. “Her emotions are her own,” Matthews said. “But for the country in choosing a leader, it’s wrong to have someone get up there and tell a lie about Hillary Clinton. It’s not true.”
United against Clinton
Prominent Republicans who came to the convention have been lukewarm on endorsing Donald Trump, preferring instead to talk about the Republican Party’s priorities, and how terrible a Clinton presidency would be. When asked on CNN Wednesday if the party was unifying around Trump, Wyoming Senator John Barrasso replied, “We’re unified about issues. This election is about jobs, putting America back to work. Hillary Clinton won’t; that’s what unites us.”
And there it is in a nutshell. Not a single mention of party nominee Trump, but a swipe at his likely Democratic opponent.
In this year of political venom and recriminations, it seems the Republican Party has found someone to unify around. It just so happens it’s Hillary Clinton, and opposition to her presidency.