The theatrics of Ann Romney

Warm and welcoming, Romney's speech almost made her husband seem likable

Published August 29, 2012 12:57PM (EDT)

The Republican National Convention is a strange piece of theater, a grand production meant to rally the base and simultaneously entice the undecided, to entertain all those frenzied delegates experimenting with silly hats in an enormous, ungainly arena and those watching from home, in close-up. The RNC made plain just how difficult pleasing these two groups can be during Chris Christie’s speech, as it let the background behind him hazily, lazily swirl about like some vertigo-inducing screen saver, just to ply the in-house crowd with something to look at, other than Chris Christie and his magenta tie. But when it came to playing to both crowds, Ann Romney made it look easy, catering to the room as well as the camera like a charismatic pro. She may never be first lady, but if she wants a career as a talk show host, she’s sure got her cadences down.

Ann Romney took to the stage in a drop-dead red ensemble, accentuated by red nail polish, red lipstick, gold earrings and some dagger-like eyelashes, in front of a sea of “I love Ann” and the hopelessly lackluster “Mitt!” signs. She looked smashing, and opened warm and welcoming. “Tonight I want to talk to you,” she started, all well-meaning intimacy — pull over your chair and snuggle up. Romney’s nervousness doesn’t scan as such, instead manifesting itself as a sort of giggly energy, a tendency to drag out her last syllable and put it over big — like Oprah taught her to — and follow it up with a cute double laugh.  “This is going to be so excitttting!” she began. “I love you womeeeennn!” she followed. “I have been all across this country and I know a lot of you guuuuys!” she said. “Michigaaann!” she got carried away.

Romney seemed to be enjoying herself, her arms freely swinging, her fingers pointing (none of the dreaded thumb-over-fist-no-point for her), smiling often and big, modulating her voice to express sympathy and concern. She played both to the crowd — “Those are my favorite fans down there,” she ad-libbed during some particularly raucous applause, though it’s probably best not to call them fans — and to the camera, looking directly at it every time she put over one of her more serious lines. “You can trust Mitt,” she said, with as much sincere, direct eye contact as it's possible for human eyeballs to muster.

It’s gross that a potential first lady, and not even a Republican female politician, was made to carry the water on the GOP’s ongoing, all too real trouble with women — but you use what you have. (South Carolina Gov. Nikki Hayley, speaking before prime time, got to talk about union busting and voter ID.) Todd Akin is probably largely to blame for the fact that even Mitt Romney’s wife got halfway through her speech without talking much about him, but the Republicans pretty much needed someone to say “I love you womeeeennn”— like, really, just to get it on the record, even if it’s not true — and Ann at least had the virtue of being able to say it and seem semi-plausible while doing so.

And as a strategy of speech-craft, starting with women, and not Mitt, was a smart move. Having spoken for 10 minutes or so about being the super-worrier in her family, like all women (how lucky are us women, huh?), by the time she got to speaking about her husband she had pulled off the necessary sleight of hand for any wannabe first lady: She had established herself as warm and likable and human enough to make her judgment about her husband — totally biased, self-implicating spousal judgment — seem reliable.

Ann didn’t say that much that was new about Mitt. (In the kaffeeklatsch following last night's events, I heard a couple of news analysts say they’d been hoping for at least one really good anecdote about Mitt we hadn’t heard before.) There was talk about how the young couple ate lots of “tuna and pasta” (i.e., we were sort of poor once), how Mitt “was nice to my parents, but he was also really glad when they weren’t around," and how “he made me laugh,” which, when accompanied by zero examples of the person under discussion saying or doing anything humorous, is a pretty good sign said person isn’t funny at all. But by then, Ann didn’t really need to supply the details, because her good word — “No one will work harder, and no one will care more” — was supposed to be enough.

Romney finished up her speech having vouched not only for her man, but for all of male Republican politicians, to raucous applause. She waved, and then her stiff husband came out onstage, told her she was “fabulous,” stifled the cheering and hustled her out. For the rest of the night, she looked happy, and he looked miserable, because only one of them is any good at the political presentation game.

By Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer.

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