Vice President Dick Cheney came before the nation, flicked open his deadpan stiletto and filleted John Kerry.
It was a masterful job, quite devastating. It was the most effective, cold and concise evisceration of John Kerry I have seen. Not only was it, in my view, skilled electioneering, it drew a not-inaccurate portrait of Kerry that is bound to disturb any voter whose mind isn't entirely closed.
But that is all the vice president did in his speech. It is a time of war, he said, and "the election of 2004 is one of the most important, not just in our lives but in our history." So at this crucial juncture in Western civilization, the best the sitting Vice President of the United States, the most serious man in government, can offer is a hatchet job on the opposition (albeit a good one). I think it's a pretty sleazy stunt.
The theme du jour at the convention was "A Land of Opportunity." Cheney, we were led to believe, would exalt the administration's accomplishments both foreign and domestic, explain why the world is a dangerous place (as he always does), and preview the agenda for the road ahead - at home and abroad. That didn't happen.
Here's how the speech was laid out: three paragraphs of a basic intro and a bald joke; two paragraphs of ancestral homage and a little bio; three - repeat, three - paragraphs on domestic issues, one each on education, the economy ("People are returning to work…The Bush tax cuts are working") and healthcare; twelve paragraphs on the war on terror; eight paragraphs beating up on Kerry; one paragraph praising Bush; and four paragraphs of basic wrap up.
There was not a single word about what the nation might expect from the administration in a second term on any domestic issue, be it Social Security, same sex marriage, tax cuts, deficits - anything. Nothing about reforming the intelligence apparatus in this country. Indeed, nothing about dealing with North Korea or Iran or even Iraq with any specificity at all.
The three paragraphs about education, economics and health were, obviously, a joke.
(And by the way, we're three days into the convention and there has been virtually no talk about what this administration is for except a war on terror, and no talk about issues at home.)
The ten paragraphs on the war on terror were at least serious. It is what Cheney has been saying pretty relentlessly since 9/11, at least on those occasions when his location has been disclosed. Cheney coasted in this part of the speech. His delivery was flatter than usual and it was boring. You got the sense he felt like he was doing us a big favor just being vice president.
It is worth noting that Cheney didn't even attempt to deal with the failures of U.S. intelligence before the war, the crisis of post-war Iraq or the scandal of Abu Ghraib. He posed as a brave man taking on the terrorists; but Cheney was cowardly in what he avoided.
But he was surgical in dissecting Kerry. The basic theme was familiar: Kerry in indecisive and two-faced on the most important issues, and has been consistently for 20 years in the Senate. He doesn't know how to recognize danger or enemies. He's a throwback to the McGovern-Mondale-Dukakis school of un-realpolitik. He wants his cake and wants to eat it, always.
I imagine Cheney's speech will make up some undecided minds. He has every right to attack his opponent and it would probably be dumb if he didn't. But the rest of his speech was so thin, so cursory as to be insulting. It was the speech not of a statesman, but a hack.
Cheney is certainly one of the most qualified vice presidents in history. He's often called the most powerful one ever. But tonight he drew from a different tradition typified by Spiro Agnew, the vice president who handled the knife work for Richard Nixon (Cheney's first White House boss). And he's firmly in tradition of the Bush family, which uses the hired help to do the political dirty work.
Four years ago, I would have said a speech like this was beneath Cheney. No more.
Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.
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By Dick Meyer