I don’t think I’ve ever seen a politician connect with a nation quite like Paul Ryan did it tonight. Ryan has the simple charisma of sincerity. It helps that he is adept at explaining complicated subjects in clear, concise language. But there is something more there, a skill that I’m not sure can be taught or rehearsed. It’s a way of relating to the world, to other human beings–even family and intimate friends–through ideas. Through reason.
It’s a form of leadership we rarely see. In 2008, Barack Obama impressed pundits with his intellect and rhetoric, but beyond his high-flown hyperbole, much of what he offered was mere sophistry. Obama is a man of words, not ideas–of letters but not leadership, as Ryan pointed out tonight. Ryan’s own ideas are not only substantively better but also seem more deeply felt, more passionate and authentic–without trying too hard to be so.
Ryan’s commitment to ideas includes respect for ideas with which he disagrees–which is different than Obama’s skill in reciting (or distorting) opposing arguments merely to undermine them. During the Occupy protests in the fall of 2011, Ryan surprised many conservatives by declining to criticize them, defending their rights to express their views. It was a “safe” answer–but it was not a dodge. It was fundamental to who Ryan is.
The emptiness of Obama’s words is most exposed in the emptiness of his humor, which either pokes fun at his opponents or elevates himself through self-deprecating jokes that have all the self and little of the deprecation. By contrast, Ryan has a natural wit that he used in his speech, gently making fun of Mitt Romney’s music tastes as a way of telling Americans how serious the senior running mate is about his commitment to his goals.
It has been a very long time since Americans have met a leader who uses ideas not to dazzle, not to appeal to our heads but to our hearts as well. That leadership is not quite unprecedented, but you have to go back a long way to uncover it. To John F. Kennedy, perhaps, whom Ryan evokes with his good looks and straightforward talk. Or perhaps to FDR, for Ryan’s speech tonight was nothing if not a fireside chat with a nation in crisis.
A final note. I find it difficult to be objective about Ryan’s speech; I was emotional throughout, partly because he is one of the few politicians I have been able to call a friend, and it is simply overwhelming to see a friend on that stage. But I was also moved because Ryan is doing something extraordinary. Not stopping the oceans, or righting all historic wrongs, but reminding us that we are, uniquely, a nation of ideas. What a blessing.