Charlie Pierce gives Paul Ryan’s convention speech the once-over twice.
TAMPA, Fla. — I think it was when he went to tears, one dab at each eye, while talking about his mother, that it became extraordinarily clear to me that there’s a lot of old Dick Nixon in young Paul Ryan, the zombie-eyed granny-starver from Janesville, Wisconsin. It was always floating around the edges of my perception as I listened to his well-crafted, competently delivered, and virtually substance-free acceptance speech on Wednesday night. There was the crass connection to “the working men and women,” like himself. The way his voice drops and his eyes glow when he starts talking about the America in which he grew up, where he flipped burgers and washed floors and dreamed very big dreams. There is the obvious effort to… connect, a gift for a simulacrum of empathy that is just inches away from actual sincerity, but which sells on the screen like someone who truly cares about you, his fellow struggling Americans. But it wasn’t until he started tearing up that it all came together for me.
He was smooth and he was ‘umble. Oh, Lord, was Paul Ryan ever ‘umble. If he had a forelock, instead of that odd little Eddie Munster wedge, he’d have tugged it down past his ankles. “I accept the duty to help lead our nation out of a jobs crisis and back to prosperity — and I know we can do this,” he began. “I accept the calling of my generation to give our children the America that was given to us, with opportunity for the young and security for the old — and I know that we are ready.” He was Nixon doing JFK’s shtick from 1960 — “A New Generation Offers a Leader” — and he was more than willing to shoulder the burden with every ounce of ambition in him. And then he left truth far behind and soared into an attack on the current administration that was as fake as blue money, but that wasn’t the really wonderfully Nixonian thing about it. It wasn’t that Ryan was lying about his opponents. It was that he was able to level out with those big baby-blues, and drop his voice into that kindly voice straight out of the silent confessional, and tell you things that his entire record as a public figure have demonstrated that he does not believe for an instant.
The one thing that Mr. Ryan has going for him that Richard Nixon never had was the polish and charm. Mr. Nixon oozed paranoia and distrust the way some people sweat, and in spite of his gnawing pursuit of power, he never seemed to feel comfortable in the spotlight. Mr. Ryan, however, can pull it off with his butch workout routine and dazzling smile; Mr. Nixon never got further than a smirk.
In Mr. Ryan’s case, appearance is a powerful tool. After all, this is a country where American Idol is the number 1 show on television, and as so many have said, if you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made.