As Donald Trump had promised, there were surprises Monday night at the opening of his personally programmed Republican National Convention — and some of them might have surprised even him.
Let’s take a quick look at what went right and what did not:
The big hits of the night were former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Melania Trump. Their speeches were polar opposites but each lit up the convention hall. Yet each was marred as well.
Melania Trump’s speech was the centerpiece of the evening. Even her husband refrained from upstaging her, making a grand entrance (to Queen’s “We Are the Champions”) but uttering only a few words of introduction before leaving the stage. The prospective first lady’s speech combined great admiration for her husband with earnest professions of love for her adopted country (she was born and raised in Slovenia).
Still, while her speech was well received as delivered, controversy arose in the post-convention hours. Social media lit up with messages about a passage of the speech that was virtually identical to a portion of Michelle Obama’s speech at the 2008 Democratic Convention. Soon the cable TV news folks were dwelling on the remarkably matching sentences as well. The Trump campaign responded with a curious message praising the speech and the speechwriters and saying nothing about the apparent lift.
Giuliani had more fire than he ever displayed as an actual candidate for president in his own right in 2008. (He won no primaries that year and dropped out early.) He clearly relished the chance to unload on Hillary Clinton, with whom he was briefly cage-matched in 2000 when each wanted the same seat in the U.S. Senate. It was expected to be the marquee Senate race of the cycle, but Giuliani was hit with a cancer diagnosis and withdrew. A year later, his term as New York mayor expired in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, and his office-holding career came to an end just as Hillary Clinton’s was taking off.
Giuliani’s intense and, at times, bombastic energy electrified the crowd, which had been fed red meat earlier but by speakers less skilled at building a frenzy. Giuliani’s series of rhetorical questions got the delegates vocally into the act, and by the climax of his speech they were all on their feet and roaring. It was one of those moments when a sports arena comes to feel like a coliseum.
The other highly effective elements of the 4 1/2 hour extravaganza were provided by a series of parents who had lost grown children to the violent acts of terrorists or illegal immigrants. One mother, Pat Smith, held Clinton’s decision-making in Libya in 2012 directly responsible for the death of her son in Benghazi in September of that year. She said Clinton “should be behind bars.” Many in the crowd reacted with open grief and anger, as chants of “lock her up” were heard for the first (but not the last) time in the evening. Smith’s highly affecting testimony was interrupted for those watching on Fox News when Trump himself called in for an on-air phone chat, which obviously took precedence.
The audience in the hall seemed less moved by the speeches of several politicians (and would-be politicians) who joined in the theme of the night (“Make America Safe Again”) but may have been too polished and too “political.” Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas had a tight and well-written speech that seemed to leave the crowd conspicuously unmoved. Sen. Jeff Sessions, the first senator to endorse Trump at a time when he really needed it, scarcely seemed to make a connection at all.
The audience largely bailed out on the speakers who had to follow Giuliani and Melania Trump. Retired Army Gen. Michael Flynn, who was briefly on the short list for vice president, came on after the candidate’s wife and came on strong. He exhorted the crowd to chant “USA, USA” — and declared Clinton unfit to be president because she had a private email server as secretary of state and some of the emails she handled on it turned out to be classified. Although he ground away on the standard Clinton indictment for some while, he may have been able to see the delegates streaming toward the exits.
Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, who was also once a prospective running mate, fared no better as the hall had largely emptied when she came on stage with 10 fellow veterans. The group took turns decrying the state of the Department of Veterans Affairs and military readiness in general. But most of the seats on the floor, and nearly all the seats on the higher levels, were vacant as the clock ticked toward midnight.
The earlier evening program had the feeling of an undercard, with second- or third-tier TV stars trying to enliven the crowd but providing little beyond banter and familiar political fare. Willie Robertson from Duck Dynasty and Scott Baio from a series of TV sitcoms a generation ago have been longtime Trump fans, as has soap star Antonio Sobato Jr. The latter performer might have been the least memorable of the evening except that he later told ABC News he was “absolutely certain” that President Obama was a Muslim and “one of the other guys” from the Middle East.
The party spirit of prime time seemed to conquer the rancor from the day’s initial afternoon session, when a majority of the delegates from nine states attempted to force a roll-call vote on adoption of the convention rules. A voice vote at one point sounded difficult to resolve. For a period of time, the floor was in disarray (which the cable TV news folks called chaos).
The dissidents, including a number of delegates who preferred Trump rival Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, hoped to unbind all the delegates so they could “vote their conscience.” Although the longest of long shots, their strategy was intended to establish that not everyone in the GOP loves its nominee.
Instead, they found their apparent victory to be short-lived. Cadres of staff for the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee fanned out immediately, corralling individual delegates and persuading them to remove their names from the roll-call petitions. Soon the nine states were down to six. To force a roll call, they needed seven. “Shame! Shame!” shouted some from the Virginia delegation. But the deed was done. And by the close of the first day, with visions of Melania still vivid and echoes of Giuliani still reverberating, most delegates seemed ready to move on.