Cleveland’s Terminal Tower was still beaming off the display of red, white and blue Rock & Roll Convention of an elephant-opposite-a-guitar logo as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan seated themselves in the studios of Lake Effect Media on the 40th floor of Cleveland’s landmark property, next to a third, still empty chair. Their surprise and still somewhat-surprised guest sat off set, in a green room closed to media and waiting for the call to the set. “America Rising” CEO Spencer Zwick kept eye contact on Romney and Ryan and waited for their signal to bring their guest out.
It was late in the east, but the fourth round of balloting had indeed seen Texas Sen. Ted Cruz inch ahead of business tycoon Donald Trump in the convention’s delegate count, but only barely. And Ohio Governor John Kasich had not gained as much as had been expected. Both Cruz and Kasich had just concluded back-to-back short announcements of their intention to hold a debate Thursday night along with Trump at a hastily arranged press availability. No questions had been allowed and Republican National Commttee Chairman Reince Priebus had greeted one reporter’s question as to whether he would allow the debate to proceed with unfeigned shock.
“Of course we are going to hold the debate that the three candidates want,” Priebus almost shouted. “Are you a Vikings fan? The three potential nominees want a debate, the audience for which will be what, 50 million people, and I’m going to say no?” Priebus continued in a Wisconsin accent familiar by now to every American following the elections, and with his typical amused half smile crossing his face. “Look. I’m going now to meet with the network execs. Tune in at 6 or 7 tomorrow night or whatever we come up with. Sean’ll keep you posted,” Priebus concluded as he walked off, pointing to Sean Spicer, his chief media aide through the craziest 18 months in modern political history.
Network experts were deep into the weeds on air alread,y with NBC’s Chuck Todd flatly declaring that Trump’s number would never fall and could conceivably rebound after a debate. Other network delegate geeks dived deep into state-by-state projections and tallied defections and additions like brokers tally red ink after some manic market crash day.
Chaos reigned in Cleveland, inside and outside the tight perimeter that kept thousands of demonstrators away from Quicken Loans Arena. The ratings were huge and suddenly all three networks, CNN and MSNBC announced they were cutting away to a special broadcast, but would return with updated analysis as soon as it concluded.
The anti-Hillary super political action committee America Rising had reserved a half hour of time on all the networks at 11:30, and the delay occasioned by the Cruz-Kasich presser had been quickly accommodated when the PAC’s No. 2 had told key broadcast execs that it wasn’t a pre-produced special they’d be broadcasting, but a live broadcast of the remarks of the GOP ticket of four years ago.
Like four-year-olds on Halloween, every TV boss on every network tumbled over each other in the rush to order their teams to take the feed. Talking heads stopped talking, and the always booming with noise press center lakeside in the convention center grew completely quiet as the 1,000-plus reporters realized in a moment that history of some sort was about to be made.
Romney and Ryan were seated, left to right, with a third empty chair next to the speaker that would eventually put the face of the congressional GOP between Romney and whomever the third seat was for. A green screen behind them displayed a night shot of Lake Erie behind the lights of First Energy Stadium and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Their remarks had been loaded on to a teleprompter and the director was more than a bit excited by the sudden turn of events that brought history into his often used, but never for such a high stakes gambit as this, studio. He knew it would mean new business and stories about the space for years to come, a glorious page in Cleveland trivia to go along with the announcement from the same space the April before of the Browns’ blockbuster draft deal a week before the big day, a deal certain to finally launch the long hoped for rebuild of the Browns along “moneyball” lines. Romney and Ryan could only hope they’d be as successful as Jimmy Haslam, Sachi Brown and Paul DePodesta had been in executing their elaborate plan the last weekend in April.
“Good evening, friends,” began Mitt Romney when the camera green light clicked on and the director pointed to him, “and thank you for allowing Speaker Ryan and me to take a little bit more of your already long night to come together here in Cleveland with a suggestion for our party, its delegates and our much loved country.”
“I want to begin tonight by thanking the men and women who are IN uniform around the globe, some of whom may be watching at this moment from as far away as Afghanistan, all of whom are always on watch. Speaker Ryan and I have come here tonight because we feel deeply that the political system owes you and your families as much seriousness and professionalism as you display every day.”
“And we owe you at least a fraction of the courage you display every day,” Speaker Ryan began his portion of the on-and-off remarks seamlessly. “When I agreed to become speaker last year, when Mitt and I accepted the nomination of the Republican Party four years ago, it was in large part because we believe together that you and your families are owed the very best leadership the country can provide in its elected and appointed officials. That is why, when Gov. Romney and I met earlier this week, it wasn’t to plan on getting the band back together again as so many speculated, but rather how we two might best agree to help the country find and nominate the best commander in chief available.”
The camera cut back to Romney.
“Both Paul and I,” Romney began, leaning a bit into the camera and moving from the formal to the familiar, coached by Stuart Spencer to make the moment a family room feeling for a country exhausted by the political drama of the past year. “… believe, with all our hearts, that the gridlock that now consumes the Republican Party effectively will hand the presidency to Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state, senator and first lady best known for her failures, not for her achievements, for her server, not her service. For this reason — the increasing likelihood that a united Democratic Party will simply roll over a nominee of a divided convention as all of the polls and all of the professionals say, we came together this week after seeing the trajectory of the convention heading to this very moment. And after being, each of us, so impressed by the self-sacrifice of Carly Fiorina’s declaration to Ted Cruz and the delegates that if her stepping aside for another vice presidential nominee could bring unity and momentum to the party and the campaign, she would gladly step aside.”
“I hope every member of my caucus saw and understood Carly’s actions Monday. We need more of that in this country,” picked up Ryan. “We need more acts of selflessness to match the selflessness of our troops, of our police, of our first responders, of our teachers, of our nurses and doctors and public health professionals. And of Carly Monday. She grew in our collective esteem because she put the country first. We need that. Not just in election years and convention weeks, but every month of every year going forward.”
“President Obama has succeeded in dividing the Republican Party as he has the country and indeed our nation from its historic allies. Tonight we hope to begin the end of those divisions.”
“We need the selflessness lived but never displayed by our secret services,” Romney picked up the line of argument. “Our secret warriors know and they have told us that the threats we face, from ISIS, from Iran, from Russia and North Korea and an increasingly aggressive China are all too real. Our politics have descended into chaos even as the world rushed there first. As we ought to have been resolving on an election of utter seriousness, instead we embarked on a carnival of unexpected but hopefully not lasting damage.”
“As everyone in the convention knows, I am not a fan of Donald Trump,” Romney continued. “For reasons I explained earlier this year, I worked across this country for the candidate best suited to beat him in every state. Speaker Ryan, as everyone in the convention knows, was resolutely and sincerely outside of and indeed above the fray. So together we hope that most delegates will believe one or the other of us when we say we propose a solution tonight that asks everyone to sacrifice their own interest for the interests of the country in placing the White House in the hands of a new generation and keeping the Supreme Court away from a transformation into a ruling council of nine unelected wise men and women deciding what the laws should be. We are asking the delegates here in Cleveland, as well as Mr. Trump, Sen. Cruz and Gov. Kasich to lay aside their own ambitions, for their staffs and donors and especially their families to put aside the energy expended and the scars received over this long year and to collectively step aside for the best interests of the country.”
“We obviously don’t control the delegates or the party,” Speaker Ryan began. “Until a half hour ago we didn’t know what the results of the fourth ballot would be. Until ten minutes ago we didn’t know about the debate tomorrow night. We don’t propose that it be cancelled. Rather, we propose a fourth podium be added, and a fourth potential nominee step forward and join the three you know on that podium. That individual agreed with us earlier this evening to put themselves forward because all three of us and a vast number of accomplished advisors and veterans of conventions past looked at the delegate data and saw a convention gridlocked, perhaps for weeks into the summer, and a party wrecked as a result and a White House lost for four long years and a Supreme Court for a generation. With this result in the offing, we felt obliged to act for both the greatest generation that is passing from the scene and a new generation of heroes on watch across the world tonight and their spouses and children.”
With the first use of the word “generation” Romney raised his hand and pointed across Ryan to Zwick who opened the Green Room door.
“Friends, Paul and I know what the next four months will take,” began Romney. “We know how hard it will be to bring the Republican Party together, how hard an ordinary presidential campaign is on the nominee and their friends and families , much less one as ugly and exhausting as this one has become.”
“And we also know that to take on the Clinton machine and all the special interests that want so much for this special country to become just another part of socialist Europe, a whisper of its former self. We know it will take immense experience in actually governing and in crisis management to bring the country round back to its course of international leadership, respect and, crucially, of trust. We know a new generation of leaders is needed to advance a new agenda of freedom. That is why Speaker Ryan and I asked and, after long discussion and prayer, received the agreement from South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to introduce her to you tonight, to you and all the delegates and all of America not watching, as a candidate not of compromise in the face of gridlock but of confidence in the future of the country, a potential nominee who ought to be acceptable to everyone in the party and a healthy majority of voters in the fall, who has been through trials few governors have had to face, and who has seen her husband deployed and she left to take care of the kids and at the same time her wonderful state in a time of peril, change and deep suffering.”
“We introduce Nikki Haley to you tonight as the best hope for this convention, this party and this country, and we hope that Chairman Priebus and the other campaigns will at least allow her a place on stage tomorrow night, and we ask sincerely and with genuine respect every delegate, each of you now unbound and free to follow your conscience just as the framers did in Philadelphia in 1787, to listen carefully to her now and again tomorrow night and then come together to nominate her and her choice of a running mate to lead the party from the shores of Lake Erie to a great and necessary victory over Hillary Clinton in November. Gov. Haley. …”
As South Carolina’s governor strode purposefully on to the stage and took her seat, already equipped with microphone, the prompter began to roll with the words she had crafted earlier that evening as “Plan Paul,” as they had called it Wednesday afternoon, began to unfold in her suite in the arena where Romney, Ryan, Spencer Zwick and Stuart Spencer had found her, watching the collapsing proceedings with obvious concern. The words unrolled. “Thank you Gov. Romney and Speaker Ryan. How I wish that the storms of four years ago had not brought our party and our country to this point, but rather that we were here in Cleveland celebrating your re-nominations. But as we can all agree, we of all faiths and creeds, the ways of the Lord are just and it is for us to the best we can, to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly in his ways, even when those ways are confusing and full of trials.”
“I learned this last summer…”
This column was originally posted on WashingtonExaminer.com.