Democrats are feeling encouraged after last night’s speech from first lady Michelle Obama—and with good reason. She turned in a stirring performance, taking a speech that was well written and delivering it just as well, if not better. But the communications team at the Democratic National Convention should also be left wondering why some of the other speeches of the night fell flat, most notably that of Julian Castro, the San Antonio mayor for whom the unreasonably high expectations turned out to be a burden rather than spring board.
Part of the problem is that when you get compared to Barack Obama in 2004, you better be charismatic, and Castro doesn’t quite have the easy yet confident charm Obama displayed. Castro, like an actor who looks like he’s acting, was visibly working to produce what didn’t come naturally. Another factor was the general tone of the evening: whereas the GOP convention theme was that Obama is a good man but not a good president, last night’s DNC lineup was a particularly nasty string of speakers clawing at Mitt Romney’s character. In 2004, Obama showed an ability to speak above the partisan fray. Last night, Castro was just another participant in a one-sided cafeteria food fight.
But it was also the text of the speech. It started off well, with Castro telling poignant stories of his grandmother, noting that when Castro and his twin brother (who introduced him last night) were born, their grandmother paid the hospital bill with prize money from winning a cook-off. He told his family’s classic immigrant story, made all the more powerful by describing the Texas bootstrap culture they ended up in—a place where the hard work was only beginning.
But the speech quickly got bogged down in awkward phrases and unsteady delivery. Castro transitioned clumsily from describing the American dream and upward mobility to this: “And that’s the middle class—the engine of our economic growth. With hard work, everybody ought to be able to get there. And with hard work, everybody ought to be able to stay there!” And then, almost as an afterthought, finished the line: “—and go beyond!” From that, the paragraph veered into confused metaphors and clunky lines: “The dream of raising a family in a place where hard work is rewarded is not unique to Americans. It’s a human dream, one that calls across oceans and borders. The dream is universal, but America makes it possible. And our investment in opportunity makes it a reality.”
And unfortunately with Obama in office, the DNC was never far from demonstrating the cult of personality that has followed the president since his presidential run four years ago. Castro, rather than offering ideas, served up one of the most cringe-inducing examples of it when he said: “We all celebrate individual success. But the question is, how do we multiply that success? The answer is President Barack Obama.”
And there were lines that were plain awful–not just cheesy, but bordering on the nonsensical. The worst example was this: “In the end, the American dream is not a sprint, or even a marathon, but a relay. Our families don’t always cross the finish line in the span of one generation. But each generation passes on to the next the fruits of their labor.”
You can only elevate bad writing so high, and Castro was saddled with a speech few could have elevated to meet the expectations of the moment.