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.
The difference, of course, is that Nixon was deeply, authentically marked by deep and authentic poverty and deprivation. He came by his ultimately self-destructive neuroses honestly. He earned every wound that he imagined the smart people of the world — the Jews, those damn Kennedys — had inflicted on him. He actually worked a job outside of government, and outside the Washington universe of government-dependent think tanks. He once actually had to earn a living. Paul Ryan hasn't lacked for a job since he left college as the golden child of Wisconsin Republican politics, riding his family connections into a job with then-Senator Bob Kasten.
When Paul Ryan is really working Nixon's side of the street, he talks about how his father died when he was a teenager, and about how his mother rode the bus to Madison, and he's trying to wring the same notes from the biographical tin-piano that Nixon could play like Van Cliburn. However, when Ryan turns the phrase, "I still live on the same block where I grew up," he doesn't mention that he happens to live in a 5,800-square-foot mansion that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. No good Republican cloth coats in the Ryan closet, that's for sure. Richard Nixon would have resented this upstart on sight, and not just for stealing his act. He'd have had Bob Haldeman on Ryan's ass by morning.
It was a good, solid debut for Ryan, who benefitted tremendously from a hall that had gone rapturous over an earlier speech by Condoleezza Rice, whose career as a studious non-politician came to a definitive end last night. (I say this in all sincerity: The woman has the finest diction of any public speaker I have heard anywhere. She may have been the last college student ever who paid attention in Public Speaking class.) Condi even had the considerable cheek to mention 9/11, the greatest national-security failure a national-security adviser ever had, right off the top. The house loved her, though, and she completely energized what had been a weird, disjointed ragbag of an evening full of speeches that went from an Old-Timer's Game — John McCain, Mike Huckabee — to a speechifying contest among the entire roster of vice-presidential runners-up. John Thune and Rob Portman showed why they didn't get the gig, and Tim Pawlenty told some really bad jokes and did everything but leave his resume on the podium for Willard Romney to pick up later. But it was Rice who put the charge in the place and gave Ryan something on which to build. Which he did, even though his performance was interrupted early on by protestors holding a banner reading, "Vagina: Can't Say It, Don't Legislate It." And shouting, "Health care, not warfare," and "My body, my choice." Frankly, it was about time somebody in the hall mentioned abortion.
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.
Take, for example, Medicare. The passage is worth reprinting in its entirety:
And the biggest, coldest power play of all in Obamacare came at the expense of the elderly. You see, even with all the hidden taxes to pay for the health care takeover, even with new taxes on nearly a million small businesses, the planners in Washington still didn't have enough money. They needed more. They needed hundreds of billions more. So, they just took it all away from Medicare. Seven hundred and sixteen billion dollars, funneled out of Medicare by President Obama. An obligation we have to our parents and grandparents is being sacrificed, all to pay for a new entitlement we didn't even ask for. The greatest threat to Medicare is Obamacare, and we're going to stop it. In Congress, when they take out the heavy books and wall charts about Medicare, my thoughts go back to a house on Garfield Street in Janesville. My wonderful grandma, Janet, had Alzheimer's and moved in with Mom and me. Though she felt lost at times, we did all the little things that made her feel loved. We had help from Medicare, and it was there, just like it's there for my Mom today. Medicare is a promise, and we will honor it. A Romney-Ryan administration will protect and strengthen Medicare, for my Mom's generation, for my generation, and for my kids and yours. So our opponents can consider themselves on notice. In this election, on this issue, the usual posturing on the Left isn't going to work. Mitt Romney and I know the difference between protecting a program, and raiding it. Ladies and gentlemen, our nation needs this debate. We want this debate. We will win this debate.
His own "budget" had those same cuts. He believes wholeheartedly in ending Medicare as a guaranteed benefit. He has spent his entire career arguing this, and there is absolutely no evidence that he's simply a flexible tool like his running mate is, taking whatever position the circumstances of the hour might demand. And then, more spectacularly, he brought up the failure of the Simpson-Bowles commission — in celebration of which I, personally, threw a parade — when it was Paul Ryan who torpedoed the grand-bargain deal that would have emerged from that misbegotten enterprise. He knows what he believes, and he believes it with the sincere faith of a true fanatic, but he also knows that demonstrating that faith in public would be a quick way to a career in the private sector. So he turns on his limitless reservoir of greasy charm and sells exactly the opposite.
He hasn't changed. He pretty much gave that game away late in the speech. He had just delivered the finest paragraph, and the cleanest shot, anyone had thrown this entire week:
College graduates should not have to live out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life. Everyone who feels stuck in the Obama economy is right to focus on the here and now. And I hope you understand this too, if you're feeling left out or passed by: You have not failed, your leaders have failed you.
If you're a Republican, that should have hit your G-spot with the force of 10,000 vibrators. It was a gorgeous putaway. It should have been tough enough for three speeches. But, almost immediately thereafter, he proceeded to get his Ayn Rand on with a flight of rhetoric that is so belied by the events of his own life that it's a wonder his tongue didn't catch on fire simultaneously with his trousers....
Listen to the way we're spoken to already, as if everyone is stuck in some class or station in life, victims of circumstances beyond our control, with government there to help us cope with our fate. It's the exact opposite of everything I learned growing up in Wisconsin, or at college in Ohio. When I was waiting tables, washing dishes, or mowing lawns for money, I never thought of myself as stuck in some station in life. I was on my own path, my own journey, an American journey where I could think for myself, decide for myself, define happiness for myself. That's what we do in this country. That's the American Dream. That's freedom, and I'll take it any day over the supervision and sanctimony of the central planners.
The central planners? Really? Are there tanks in Budapest again? Are Quemoy and Matsu in peril? Can the Giants catch the Dodgers? I haven't heard a politician talk about "the central planners" since, well, probably Richard Nixon his own self. That's the real Paul Ryan peeking out right there, and if you don't think he considers Social Security, Medicare, and almost every social program since the New Deal the product of some "central planner," and, for that reason, is utterly, permanently opposed to all of them on the deepest ideological grounds, I have an apple stand on a steam grate in lower Manhattan I can let you have cheap.
More to the point, during the whole time Paul Ryan was on his own path, his own journey, the American journey where he could think for himself, decide for himself, and define happiness for himself, every rough road was made smooth by his reliance on Social Security survivor's benefits that came to his family upon the death of his father. At least Chris Christie had the self-awareness to mention the G.I. Bill on Tuesday night, when he was talking about his father. The assistance that young Paul Ryan got from "the central planners" as he rose from Janesville, through Miami of Ohio, and to a career in which he never has had a job that wasn't inside, or very close to, the national government was not even acknowledged. He knows, in his Randian soul, that he once was a moocher, that in many ways he remains a moocher, and perhaps it galls him just a bit. It eats at him, the way Richard Nixon's childhood poverty was wormwood in his soul. That's where the connection lies. Paul Ryan is the newest new Nixon and, don't kid yourselves: He's a lot better at it than the old one was.