If the most unobtrusive man in America thought tonight was his moment in the spotlight at the Republican National Convention, Mike Pence learned the hard way that Donald Trump always gets the last word.
As the powerful Hurricane Laura moved closer and closer to landfall in Texas and Louisiana, Trump’s vice president seemed like an afterthought on Wednesday as the boss came onstage at the end to upstage him without uttering a word.
Speaking live to a small audience at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland, the presumed GOP 2024 frontrunner capped a Republican convention production that appeared dramatically out of touch with the harsh weather and other currents in the country. Despite making some near impromptu remarks on the storm and a single reference to the near fatal August 23 police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, WI, Pence was also almost overshadowed by protests on the streets of the midwestern state and strikes from the NBA, MLB, WNBA and more sports figures.
“Our prayers are with you tonight and our administration is working closely with authorities in the states that will be impacted,” a stiff VP said after offering up a standard attack dog line slamming Joe Biden and Democrats’ convention of last week while offering praise for the overweening Trump. “This is a serious storm and we urge all those in the affected areas to heed state and local authorities Stay safe,” Pence added
Playing to the low volume applause of the mask-free 135 or so attendees, the present veep then launched into a fairly generic speech on a fairly generic night full of whitewashing. To that, there was a distinct re-writing by Pence and others of the administration’s heavily criticized handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Claims that Biden responded to in near real time online:
180,000 people have died from this COVID crisis. And the heartbreaking truth is that it didn’t have to happen this way.
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) August 27, 2020
Perpetual sidekick Pence even tried to imitate freewheeling Trump by swinging wide and telling the crowd that “we’re on track to have the world’s first safe, effective coronavirus vaccine by the end of this year.”
Yet, after those words and coming off the attempt at a kinder, gentler Trump of Night 2 of the RNC, the almost entirely pre-recorded “America, Land of Heroes” themed Night 3 from a near empty Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington DC often was a full-throated law and order tirade against “the mob” of the left. As Pence said, in the only live address of the night, “we will have law and order on the streets.” Proclaiming that “tearing down statutes is not free speech,” the VP swore that “you will not be safe in Joe Biden’s America.”
At the same time, there was an effort to try to humanize Trump, just as there was on Tuesday, with some staffers who have worked with him, like press secretary Kayliegh McEnany and soon-to-be exiting aide Kellyanne Conway, vouching for a very different person than the one on Twitter.
But, as there was an effort to peel away Biden’s support among women and African American voters, too often the flow of the evening was broken with a speaker on another subject. McEnany and Conway, for instance, led into former Notre Dame and USC coach Lou Holtz, who came on to question Biden’s Catholicism. More so than on previous evenings, networks felt compelled to cut away to identify inaccuracies and incoherencies, again and again.
More astounding for what has been a reality TV presidency, there was almost no mention by any of the other convention speakers of the Category 4 storm heading toward the Lone Star state and Louisiana as thousands were evacuating the Gulf Coast region.
Here are the Key Messages for extremely dangerous Hurricane #Laura for Thu pm. An unsurvivable storm surge with large and destructive waves is coming soon for Sea Rim State Park TX to Intracoastal City, LA, including Calcasieu and Sabine Lakes & could penetrate 40 miles inland. pic.twitter.com/k6Ds0jAjni
— National Hurricane Center (@NHC_Atlantic) August 27, 2020
After hurricanes caused both the 2008 and 2012 GOP conventions to cut back, the near absence of Hurricane Laura at the Republican convention on Wednesday was only made more manifest by the tracker on the lower side of Fox News, CNN and MSNBC’s screens for most of the night. As CNN’s Gloria Borger said early in the evening of the Trump gang: “It seems like they are going to stay in their convention bubble.”
That’s what it felt like — and it only magnified what is growing true about both conventions: Do they really need to be four nights? The broadcast networks have been criticized for only devoting an hour a night to coverage, but do conventions really need more than those marquee speakers? As compelling as some of the moments have been on both weeks, too often the evenings have felt like one hour of memorable content spread out in a two to two-and-a-half-hour time frame.
Leaning hard into such a narrative, the RNC convention itself opening at 8:30 PM ET with Rabbi Aryeh Spero lashing out at those in the streets for “corrupting the term social justice.”
Shattering any attempt at continuity, Karen Pence didn’t even bother to hide that her own solo speech of earlier in the night was taped. Appearing at the neoclassical auditorium just after 9 PM ET, the Second Lady was by her husband’s side in a different outfit for his live speech from Baltimore’s historic harbor base less than two hours later.
The night also was different than previous evenings, as it had fewer video segments or reality TV like stunts of Monday and Tuesday, when Trump issued a pardon and then led a naturalization ceremony at the White House. Instead of popping up throughout the evening, Trump saved his big reveal for last, when he joined Pence at the end of his speech at Fort McHenry in Baltimore.
CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC all carried the first hour of the convention live, though to different degrees.
Of the trio, the Jeff Zucker-run outlet was the most diligent on staying on the mainly pre-recorded speeches. Fox News featured Sean Hannity, perched on a riser at Fort McHenry, and went commercial free in the first hour. MSNBC anchors Rachel Maddow, Joe Reid and Nicolle Wallace cut away to fact-check speakers such as South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and Pence’s national security advisor Keith Kellogg.
By the time the convention slid into its second hour at 10 PM ET, the cable networks were joined by ABC, CBS and NBC. By then, though, the other news of the day was front and center. CBS’ Norah O’Donnell started with Hurricane Laura and the postponement of NBA playoff games, while other networks went in and out of the speaker lineup until Pence took the stage.
“It was quite a performance,” Jon Karl, ABC News’ chief White House correspondent, said after the vice president’s remarks as Trump was working the crowd. “If you were just listening to Mike Pence and you didn’t know what had happened over the last six months, you would have thought that the battle over the coronavirus was a smashing success of the Trump administration.”
Pence’s duty, after all, was to put the top of the ticket in the best possible light.
As Karl put it, “a bit of revisionist history on coronavirus, but again, if you weren’t paying much attention, a pretty effective one.”