David Zurawik

In TV terms, Martin O'Malley's convention speech comes up short

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, one of the most prominent Democrats in the country, was a given a dream slot Tuesday night at the party's national convention, speaking from 9:55 to 10:05 p.m. when prime-time viewing was likely to be near its peak.

I cannot tell you how his speech played in the convention hall in Charlotte; you'll have to read the accounts of the Sun reporters on the scene for that. But I will tell you this: It was not a very good TV speech, and I suspect it played poorly in many living rooms around the country.

It was too big and felt far too artificial and gimmicky for the intimacy of TV.

By too big, I mean, in the gestures and expressions and movements of O'Malley. At times he almost seemed to mugging -- like a bad actor over-gesturing to make sure the people in the last row of the balcony could see his eyebrows move.

Only on TV, the camera is right in your face, and when you forget that and over-emote, you look either phony or silly no matter how real or substantial your words might be.

Only in O'Malley's case, the words were not very good either. The biggest mistake was trying to engage the audience in a call and answer chant/cheer: "President Obama is moving America forward, not back." Making it seem hokier was the fact that some in the audience had signs that read either "moving forward" or "not back" that they held up as he led them in the refrain.

Those potions of the speech felt staged, artificial and more like something suited to a high school rally than the stage of a national convention where several powerful and moving speeches had already been sounded Tuesday. Worst of all, it made O'Malley seem more like a cheerleader than the leader of the Democratic governors and a top contender for president in 2016. O'Malley has substance and smarts and all the tools to be great on TV, but that isn't what came through on the tube Tuesday night.

Let me say it again so no O'Malley fans can miss my point: Speaking at a huge event that's also televised as O'Malley did Tuesday is one of the hardest things in the world, because you are playing to two different audiences, and the camera generally favors a style of speech and rhetoric geared to intimacy, nuance and quietly intense emotions. You have to play to that camera first and foremost -- not the hall -- and count on the Jumbo-tron behind you to make you big enough to hold the hall.

The difference between the two audience in such a speech is so great that I will not be surprised if reporters in the hall give O'Malley positive reviews. Agaian, it's two distinct audiences, and I have no idea how he did with the one in Charlotte.

Ironically, one of the other factors that hurt O'Malley in TV terms is the prime spot he was given Tuesday night.

O'Malley came onstage after two very strong speeches that brought the audience to its feet. One came from Lilly Ledbetter, the namesake of an equal pay bill signed into law by Obama. The plainspoken Alabama plaintiff delivered powerful, unadorned testimony that rang raw and true.

She was followed by Massachustetts Gov. Deval Patrick who issued a call to arms -- a demand that Democrats not allow the GOP to "bully" President Obama. It rang angry and righteous and made you feel like Obama's re-election was something worth getting up off your couch and fighting for.

Both got standing ovations.

And then, came O'Malley who never seemed to find the right pitch or tone until the end of the speech when he talked about his parents -- and became more intimate and focused in his intensity. But I wonder how many people got up and went to the refrigerator long before that -- when he opened with an almost breathless account of Maryland soldiers in the Revolutionary War. 

Again, it felt like high school stuff on one of the biggest and most profound stages in American life.

Tammy Duckworth, a congressional candidate from Illinois, walked across that same stage earlier Tuesday night on artificial legs because she lost hers in Iraq piloting a helicopter. She brought the house down with her speech about teamwork and how her fellow soldiers refused to leave behind to die. You don't follow that kind of personal testimony with a call and answer cheer pitched to placards handed out beforehand.