Critic's Notebook: It's Cruz v. Trump All Over Again at GOP Convention

Ted Cruz RNC 2 - H 2016
Win McNamee/Getty Images

By making a lengthy speech in which he neglected to endorse Trump, the Texas senator pulled off the nearly impossible feat of making Trump seem sympathetic.

Ted Cruz was a keynote speaker at Wednesday night's Republican National Convention, ostensibly for the purpose of supporting his party's nominee, Donald Trump.

Instead, he kicked off his 2020 presidential campaign.

His appearance was the sort of divisive and chaotic event that used to be a hallmark of political conventions, nothing like today's endlessly stage-managed and choreographed affairs. And it was the most dramatic element in the convention so far, greatly outstripping the controversy of Melania's plagiarized speech.

At first it seemed like the Texas senator would follow the playbook, as he began his remarks by congratulating Trump for winning the nomination. But that was his last mention of the nominee, as he proceeded to live up to his assertion that "we're not fighting for a particular candidate or campaign."

Except his own, apparently, as he delivered a lengthy address (considerably longer than he had been allotted), weaving an emotional story about the nine-year-old daughter of one of the slain Dallas police officers into a detailed exposition of conservative principles that he summed up with the phrase, "Return to freedom." As it soon became clear that his agenda was strictly self-serving, the mood in the arena shifted. Trump's stone-faced children sat on their hands as Cruz pointedly told the audience, "We deserve leaders who stand for principle" and that they should vote their conscience. With no mention of Trump's name, the implication was unmistakable.

Loud boos and chants of "We want Trump" soon erupted throughout the hall. With a smirk on his face, Cruz commented, "I appreciate the enthusiasm of the New York delegation" in his uniquely smarmy way that makes it nearly impossible not to want to kick him in the shins. He actually managed to make Trump seem sympathetic, which is no small feat.

But the Donald got the last laugh, as he slowly made his way to the VIP area to sit with his children even while Cruz was still speaking, effectively turning the spotlight back on himself. After Cruz finally finished his speech, he was nearly tarred and feathered by swarms of angry delegates.

Otherwise, the evening was far more substantial and traditional, with little of the silliness that had gone before. Instead of B-list actors and reality show celebrities, the early speakers included such formidable figures as Eileen Collins, the first woman to command a space shuttle mission. Speaking on the 47th anniversary of the Apollo 11, she made an impassioned appeal for greater space exploration. And although she never mentioned Trump by name, the idea is bound to appeal to him since it would provide the opportunity to put his name on a planet.

The first marquee speaker was Scott Walker. America deserves better. The Wisconsin governor made a strong case for conservative principles. America deserves better. And he trumpeted his achievements in his own state, which included dodging a 2012 voter recall election and defeating the teacher's union. America deserves better.

Sorry. The previous paragraph wasn't meant to be a comment on Scott Walker. Rather, it reflects the insidious earworm he planted in listeners' brains with his constant invoking of the phrase "America deserves better." Presumably having been taught in a public speaking course that repetition is effective, he recited the three words so often in his brief address that you began to wonder if English was his second language.

Next in the parade of former candidates vanquished by Trump was Marco Rubio, or, as he's now come to be known, "Little Marco." He made his brief and perfunctory appearance on video, because, as everyone knows, it's nearly impossible to get a direct flight out of Miami. He naturally avoided any references to his former rival, but he did manage a weak smile when he referred to the "long and spirited primary." He had the exhausted demeanor of a POW who's just been released after years of imprisonment.

Donald Trump's son Eric had the unenviable task of following Cruz, but he handled the assignment with the authority and poise that has become the offsprings' trademark. Like his siblings Donald Jr. and Tiffany before him, he paid loving tribute to his father, although his testimonial was oddly more political than personal. He boasted that his father had turned political debates into "must-see TV" (although, so, for a time, was The Gong Show). In proudly describing his father's achievements, he spent an inordinate amount of time on Trump's renovation of an ice skating rink, an achievement which presumably even Democrats could get behind. He also thanked his father for providing a good life for him and his family, including his "future children," which sounded like the plot of a bad sci-fi movie.

Bizarrely, CNN featured a split-screen during Eric's entire speech, with one half devoted to a beaming Trump as he listened to his son sing his praises. You got the feeling that it would all lead to some intense family therapy sessions, or at least it would in any other family.

But seriously, haven't we heard enough from Trump's children, who've had nothing to do with public life? Apparently not, since Ivanka will be speaking on the final night. We get it, they're terrific kids. But we're supposed to be voting for a candidate, not a clan. The last grown sons who were so involved in their father's political affairs were named Uday and Qusay.

Newt Gingrich attempted to make up for Cruz's earlier appearance, putting a spin on the senator's words to make it sound as if he hadn't actually hijacked the convention. He went on to deliver a lengthy account of the dangers facing the world—going so far as to recite a list, complete with fatality statistics, of every terrorist event of the last 37 days—and finally informing the terrified crowd, "We must change course to win the war." But unlike many of his fellow Republicans, Newt at least manages to do his fear-mongering in a relatively calm and articulate fashion, sounding more like a thoughtful college professor than the man who once shut down the government in a fit of pique.

Mike Pence closed the evening, and he poured on the cornpone thickly. "I'm a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order," he told the crowd, repeating the catchphrase by now so familiar that he might as well be saying "Have it your way."

"I never thought I'd be standing here," he told the crowd, expressing a sentiment shared by millions. To his credit, he was perhaps the first speaker in the entire convention thus far to inject some levity, mostly of the self-deprecating variety, into his remarks. After talking about his running mate's strong personality and charisma, he observed, "I guess he was just looking for some balance on the ticket." It wasn't really funny, but you had to appreciate the effort.

He went on to describe his Indiana upbringing, with a cornfield as his backyard, no less. You could practically hear the music from Field of Dreams in the background as he introduced his elderly mother ("the light of my life"), his wife ("the girl of my dreams) and his children ("the three greatest kids in the world"), including one son who's a Marine. His is a political family pulled directly from Central Casting.

He fully lived up to his assignment of charging up the base, balancing his speech among extolling conservative principles, lavishly praising Trump, and bashing Hillary, whom he labeled "America's secretary of the status quo." None of it was terribly original, but it didn't have to be, with Trump obviously more than capable of handling that end of things. By the time he led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance, he had firmly established himself as the sort of traditional Republican the voters could get behind. It all effectively served as a prelude to tomorrow night, when Donald formally accepts the nomination, or, as the Democrats would call it, the Apocalypse.