He was behind the wheel of an SUV that was supposed to be ferrying around people more important than the journalist who had somehow wound up in it. A hired driver in his 60s, he had grown up in New York and had fond memories of watching the Kennedys campaign in person. And he wasn't impressed by how the Republican National Convention looked by comparison.
"You want my opinion?" he offered. "There's no spirit here."
If you weren't in Tampa this week, his assessment might be jarring. If there's one thing the GOP does not appear to lack, in the Tea Party era, it's spirit. And on TV, in the ostensibly euphoric reaction to speeches categorizing Barack Obama's sins, it might have seemed in good supply.
To have watched this spectacle in person, to maybe have spoken to some of the other people who rode in that SUV, is to understand where that driver was coming from. The GOP gathering was, for the most part, a soulless affair – a reflection partly on the nature of modern U.S. political conventions and partly on a party conflicted about what it is and where it wants to be, and heavy-handedly trying to paper over its divisions.
This was less a convention than a television production inside a security perimeter that resembled a military zone, with more media members than Republicans. And among partisans, there was an evident caste system. Politicians and staffers mostly spent spare time at fundraisers and private parties; the delegations were mostly here to be props.
If you're more accustomed to Canadian politics, it was enough to inspire mild homesickness. Our parties' conventions are less glamorous, but they at least come across as real conventions – party elites interacting directly with the membership, policies openly debated and so on.
In Tampa, the emotion on the floor of the hockey arena, during evening speeches, was at some points genuine. Condoleezza Rice lifted the room Wednesday night with a stirring speech about a country at a crossroads, and vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan fed off her momentum. Just as often, however, the cheering was prompted by arm-waving organizers, the equivalents of studio applause signs.
To listen to those who've been to a few such conventions, the stage-management was neither new nor Republican-specific. Long past the era in which presidential nominations are decided on the floor, election-year gatherings are about selling yourself during a few days in the spotlight. (For those who wonder why there's an inclination to heavily choreograph everything, Clint Eastwood – who inexplicably proved virtually the only unscripted speaker – provided a pretty good answer.)
It should still be possible, though, for an exercise in messaging to inspire. The show the Republicans put on could be entertaining – a foreign reporter could pass the day playing spot-the-political celebrity or talking to eccentric people in funny costumes, and there were panels and presentations hosted by various media outlets to please wonks lucky enough to get in. Yet the current state of the GOP made genuine moments of inspiration seem elusive.
Riddled with internal tensions, predominantly though not exclusively between those pushing the party further to the right and an older guard trying to keep it more moderate, this was a party preoccupied with showing unity. Other than outbursts by disgruntled supporters of Ron Paul, and an oddly self-aggrandizing speech by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, it succeeded on that front.
But Republicans still don't seem to be brought together by their candidate or his vision, in any meaningful way. Even after the biggest speech of Mitt Romney's career, the response on Thursday night was more polite than fired up, with lots of cool-headed analysis of whether it was enough for him to beat Mr. Obama. The one thing that seemed to really unite Republicans was a fervent dislike of the President. So whether at the podium or on a bar stool, it was Mr. Obama's faults that people wanted to talk about, more than new ideas.
Many of them could summon a certain passion for what they don't want the next four years to look like, which is what this week's exercising message was mostly about. But that's not exactly the sort of spiritedness the gentleman who spent the week driving them around was looking for.