Dispatches From the Republican National Convention

Mitt Romney Isn’t a Great Storyteller. Apparently, Neither is His Wife.
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Aug. 29 2012 1:18 AM

Dispatches From the Republican National Convention

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Ann Romney gave a great speech. But will we remember it in a day or two?

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Mitt Romney joins his wife, Ann Romney, onstage after her speech at the GOP convention in Tampa on Tuesday.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Ann Romney gave a wonderful speech. What's not deeply appealing about a woman who has struggled with illness and miscarriages and emerged with grace? Surely the day that Ann and Mitt Romney stood in the doctor's office and heard her diagnosis, they didn't think she would be onstage the way she was Tuesday night. She said she hasn't lived a storybook marriage because she and her husband have faced hard knocks. But isn't that what a storybook marriage is? A love that can withstand everything?

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

But was it a great political speech? I'm not so sure. It depends on what your previous feelings were about Mitt Romney and if you watched it on television or are going to hear about it later.

Thirty-two percent of those who participated in a recent CBS poll said they didn't know enough about Mitt Romney to form an opinion. If any of those voters were watching tonight, this was the kind of introductory message the Romney campaign will be delighted to have them hear. 

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It was a two-part speech. In the first part, Ann Romney tried to show that she understood women. At one point she said, "I love women!" No mistaking that. More powerful, perhaps, were the little details she offered that showed she knew what women of all socioeconomic backgrounds live with every day. She talked about eating tuna fish and pasta as a newlywed. She described how women have to keep the household in their head no matter what they do: how they're the one who has to remember the number for the emergency room doctor or stay up late to help the kids finish their book reports. 

Having laid the predicate, she dove into the real task: testifying for her husband. "His name is Mitt Romney and you really should get to know him," she said. She didn't really do much to tell us about him though. There were no stories you could hang your hat on. She mostly asserted that he was wonderful and testified to his ethic. "No one will work harder. No one will care more. No one will move heaven and earth like Mitt Romney to make this country a better place to live!" That line received the loudest applause of the entire speech.

If Mitt Romney’s problem is that voters don’t think he’s authentic enough, listening to a woman testify to her authentic adoration certainly conveys authenticity on the object of her devotion. You can’t feel that way about a robot. 

But what story from the speech will one person who watched repeat to another person who didn't watch? What's going to stick with that voter who didn't know much about Romney beforehand? Sounds like a nice guy, but such a voter won't be able to explain why in a day or two. 

Ann Romney's two best moments were when she said she had a "real marriage," and her description of Mitt Romney's contributions to the community. "Mitt doesn't like to talk about how he has helped others because he sees it as a privilege, not a political talking point. And we're no different than the millions of Americans who quietly help their neighbors, their churches, and their communities. They don't do it so that others will think more of them."

I may be overly influenced by Elizabeth Dole's convention speech in 1996. That was another case where a popular spouse was called on to humanize her husband. She did it by telling stories about Dole's extraordinary courage and suffering. She told stories of his humor and his generosity and hugged the Capitol security officer who burst into tears when Dole resigned from the Senate. Dole was regularly voted the most beloved member of the Senate by the people who worked there. 

Those stories stuck with you. Dole's decency shined through. I am not sure how that works with the Ann Romney speech because it was more assertion than storytelling. "You can trust Mitt," she said. If that message gets across, it will blunt Obama’s attacks and open women voters to looking at Romney in a new way, but it takes more than that. Great speech but Mitt Romney still has to break through the trust barrier himself.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage from the GOP convention. At the "XX Factor" blog, Emily Bazelon says that Ann Romney should have focused on the bad economy, and Rachael Larimore argues that for all the talk of "love," we don't need to love Mitt Romney. Meanwhile, William Saletan is breaking up with Paul Ryan.

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