The belligerence of the Republican Convention's keynote speaker was so overpowering that it easily obscured the monochromatic performance of Dick Cheney. Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia did not vary his grim, hooded expression or his shouting like a backwoods preacher casting out the devil. But his raw rhetoric framed the most profound questions about patriotism and democracy in wartime.
The previous speakers, from Rudy Giuliani to Arnold Schwarzenegger, had been chosen for their lack of partisan regularity in order to better carry attack lines against John Kerry. Superficially, Miller was to be the crescendo of this tactical march to the podium, a Democrat regretting his party's fall from grace and singing the praises of the Republican president.
Miller had been a keynote speaker before, but at the Democratic Convention of 1992 that nominated Bill Clinton. His politics then were a vibrant Southern populism against the special interests. In the Republican sweep two years later, however, Miller experienced a near-death experience, almost losing as governor because he had suggested removing the Confederate battle flag from its corner of the state flag where it had been placed during the white resistance to civil rights laws. Afterward, Miller tacked sharply and steadily rightward. Upon leaving the governorship, he jettisoned his Democratic alliances and became a lobbyist for the Philip Morris tobacco combine. Elected as a U.S. senator, Miller played as though he had been betrayed, aligning himself with the Republicans. In this he was following the tragic trajectory of Southern populists past who had transformed themselves into their opposites.
Miller's speech was a recasting of the paradox of post-Civil War Southern patriotism that had clung to the myth that Southern soldiers were more valiant, and having been estranged from the Union, asserted superior identification with the nation through the glorification of arms.
"Today," Miller said, "at the same time young Americans are dying in the sands of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan, our nation is being torn apart and made weaker because of the Democrats' manic obsession to bring down our commander in chief." In one compact sentence, he advanced a new stab-in-the-back theory, achieved the seamless merger of Iraq and Afghanistan, attributed political division to the Democrats (who had supported the war in Afghanistan and overwhelmingly backed the congressional war resolution on Iraq), and stripped the presidency down to its military function.
Next, he offered a peculiar history of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights that owed more to Caesar than Washington, who had resolutely presented himself as Cincinnatus. "For it has been said so truthfully," said Miller, "that it is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us the freedom of the press. It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech. It is the soldier, not the agitator, who has given us the freedom to protest."
Miller proposed a higher patriotism for the opposition party that should "rather lose the election than make national security a partisan campaign issue ... Where are such statesmen today?" Kerry, by contrast, was plotting a betrayal to the United Nations and even worse: "Kerry would let Paris decide when America needs defending."
After Miller, Cheney seemed anticlimactic in his rote smear of Kerry's masculinity for using the word "sensitive." Cheney's lack of emotional affect and energy lends him a strange gravity, as though he were begrudging in his attacks. But he remains an unpopular politician whose natural habitat is not the public stage. His effectiveness rests behind the curtain.
Miller's oration, extraordinary in its hostility and shrillness, was hardly pitched to win over undecided voters, mostly women. It reflected more a Republican base strategy calculated for maximum partisan motivation, but also an ingrained confidence that unforgiving disdain is a majority sentiment. Miller's skewed history of the United States was intended to taint political debate itself as subversive. But it was Woodrow Wilson who said: "We have been told that it is unpatriotic to criticize public action. Well, if it is, then there is a deep disgrace resting upon the origins of this nation." And it was Theodore Roosevelt who said: "To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public."
The burden of Bush's polarizing convention now strains his ability to revive his former theme as "a uniter, not a divider." But as Miller's and Cheney's speeches make plain, one of the tests of strength of the "war president" is not to look back, for that would be weak.