How Condoleezza Rice made the RNC watchable (for at least a little while)

The morning after Paul Ryan’s debutante ball at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, the Internet had one thing to say: Condoleezza Rice.

Condi was better, said the Atlantic.

“Condi Rice” trended on Twitter.

“Condoleezza Rice VP,” came Google’s helpful suggestion as I typed C-O-N.

(Full disclosure: “Condos for sale in Tampa,” also came up.)

How this story got collaboratively and instantaneously written—that Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State, stole the show from Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s running mate, on Wednesday night—was as mysterious as the Internet itself. At play may have been Carl Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious, or James Surowicki’s more recent theory of the wisdom of crowds.

From where I sat, in the cavernous Tampa Times Convention Hall, amid a pack of sleepless reporters, the idea seemed palpably to dawn. First sounded the unmistakable and rousing chords of “Sweet Home Alabama”—a reference to Rice’s home state, and one of the few genuinely stirring songs on the RNC playlist. Ears pricked up. Heads bobbed.

Rice appeared, in pearls and rose-colored satin, against a deep blue backdrop. (The backdrop has shifted hues throughout the convention.) Compact, with shoulders squared, Rice seemed like one of those indomitable creatures whose vigilance never flags, who might review documents in seven languages on a flight to Saudi Arabia, deeply meditate on her unshakable faith and then run a half-marathon upon landing in Jeddah. In an abaya.

Indeed, on the dais last night, Rice assumed a characteristic challenge. She spoke without a TelePrompTer—the first speaker of the convention to eschew that toxic prop. The result was not, interestingly, that Rice faced the audience more, with more authenticity. In fact, she faced us less, glancing down periodically at what seemed to be her paper notes on the podium. Surprisingly, the breaks in eye contact—the looking down—seemed modest, professorial, human. They paced the speech properly. They prevented the hollow middle-distance stare of TelePrompTer addicts.

It was as though an oversharp, hyperpixelated, high-def image—the kind it hurts to look at—suddenly took on the mellow, old-fashioned hues of a Sargeant painting, or a Hopper, or an HBO movie. The convention became watchable again. Its characters became real.

Deepening this effect—sealing it—was Rice’s voice. She didn’t have the steroidal forced baritone of politicians who gargle all day, and take prednisone, to ensure vigor in their voices. Instead, Rice’s delivery a tremolo charm. Her voice quavered with emotion. 

Nods all around. As Rice tightened the rhetorical connection between integrity at home and authority abroad—calling the world “a chaotic and dangerous place” whenever America dithers and equivocates, as she believes it now does—she bracingly made her point. “Our foes can have no reason to doubt our resolve,” she said. “Because peace really does come through strength.”

And lest the audience think that “resolve” is merely an abstraction to Rice, she briskly reviewed some autobiography. “And on a personal note,” she said. “A little girl grows up in Jim Crow Birmingham—the most segregated big city in America. Her parents can’t take her to a movie theater or a restaurant, but they make her believe that even though she can’t have a hamburger at the Woolworth’s lunch counter, she can be President of the United States. And she becomes the Secretary of State.”

My colleague Walter Shapiro—who has covered more conventions, more astutely, than anyone at the online upstart publications whose reporters in Tampa were mostly throwing photos up to Instagram—said he thought it was the first genuinely moving moment in the convention.

It was impossible to disagree.