PHILADELPHIA Tim Kaine’s improbable journey over 22 years from Richmond City Council to the Democratic vice presidential nomination is as much an exercise in rhetoric as it is in politics.
He reached the intersection of both on Wednesday night in plain view of millions, many of whom were seeing and hearing him for the first time.
As introductions go, it might have gone better.
Not that Kaine, whose rollout Saturday in Miami has been praised as a model of sunny, scripted spontaneity, didn’t achieve his objective: to tell his life story, make the case for Hillary Clinton, assure Bernie Sanders voters he’s got their back, and to gut Donald Trump.
Nice-guy image notwithstanding, Kaine is skilled at driving in the shiv. He just knows to do it with a smile; to kindly administer the unkindest cut. Though at the convention, Kaine resorted to an uncharacteristically pointed, comic putdown of Trump.
The bar was set high for Kaine, having to address a vast audience in an unfamiliar giant venue and doing so bracketed by two deft orators: the high-decibel coachlike Joe Biden, who beat him out for vice president in 2008; and the coolly professorial Barack Obama, who opted for Biden over Kaine because, at that point, the Virginian had no experience in diplomatic and military affairs.
Kaine’s pacing initially was uneven, though as the speech progressed, he and the throng inside the arena achieved sync. Not knowing what to expect, they got to know each other in a hurry, the awkward introduction finally yielding to the appreciative embrace.
It was Kaine as he always is: trying to have a conversation, albeit with more than 16,000 people.
Nothing about this speech soared, as did his sorrowful, supportive remarks at Virginia Tech after the 2007 mass shooting, the worst in U.S. history until Orlando in June. That probably was Kaine’s best speech, drawn from his spiritual side, nurtured by the Jesuits at his Catholic prep school in Overland Park, Kan.
Kaine’s capacity for — and comfort with — words is vast. He is at ease quoting Scripture, invoking — from Hebrews — the “great cloud of witnesses” in a recent floor speech on the Senate’s rejection of firearms restrictions while victims of gun violence watched from the gallery.
Chiding an acquaintance over his choice in footwear, Kaine quoted the title of a song by Frank Zappa, the avant garde rock ’n’ roller, “The brown shoes don’t make it.”
On Wednesday, Kaine’s flourishes in Spanish acknowledged for newcomers to America the concerns that they share with those long settled here: safety, economic security, educational opportunity.
He personalized the issue of war and peace, declaring that he trusts Clinton with the life of his Marine lieutenant son, Nat. And Kaine, because he is relentlessly optimistic, urged hope for bridging divisions on the seemingly unbridgeable, such as gun control.
But it was the credit he showered on Clinton and the scorn he heaped on Trump that spoke to Kaine’s primary role in the roughly 100 days until the election.
Vice presidential candidates are expected to parrot their running mates and pummel their opponents. It’s to alternate between lapdog and attack dog — and perhaps to deliver a battleground state such as Virginia.
So Kaine not only emphasized Clinton’s résumé — mother, wife, senator, secretary of state — he claimed it’s been privately validated by the Republicans who publicly attack her: “A lot of Republican senators who, once they’ve made sure nobody’s listening, will tell you how fantastic a senator Hillary Clinton was.”
In an unsparing broadside on the Republican presidential nominee, Kaine — not one ordinarily given to mockery — mimicked Trump’s blustery staccato, sounding more like a punch-drunk boxer in a Hollywood B-movie than the New York billionaire. The imitation was cartoonish rather than accurate, intended to reduce Trump to caricature.
“The guy promises a lot. But you might have noticed he has a habit of saying the same two words right after he makes his biggest promises. You guys know the words I mean?”
Then, dropping his voice a note and affecting a slight New York patois, Kaine said, “Believe me.”
Kaine repeated the catch phrase — in Trumpian character — as he listed some of the businessman’s controversial promises.
Next, he excoriated Trump for refusing to make public his income tax returns and for stiffing contractors on casino and condominium projects by declaring bankruptcy. Kaine warned, “Our nation is too great to put in the hands of a slick-talking, empty-promising, self-promoting, one-man wrecking crew.”
So much for Kaine the Conciliator.
Get used to the new slash-and-burn version. It emerged almost immediately after Kaine was subsumed by the Clinton campaign, paired with one of its speechwriters after the telephone call last Friday when Clinton offered him the vice presidency.
Perhaps comforting the Virginians who know him best, Kaine was fully himself during a quieter moment in his acceptance speech — one that has special significance for his adoptive state and his family.
Kaine invoked his father-in-law, Linwood Holton — from 1970 to 1974, Virginia’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction. He recalled Holton’s commitment to racial harmony; how he backed it up by sending his children to majority-black public schools in Richmond.
Pushback to such gestures from an increasingly conservative GOP has isolated Holton from the party he put on the map.
“Lin’s still a Republican,” Kaine said. “But he’s voting for a lot of Democrats these days. Because any party that would nominate Donald Trump for president has moved too far away from his party of Lincoln. And if any of you are looking for that party of Lincoln, we’ve got a home for you right here in the Democratic Party.”
It’s an appeal that worked for Kaine — a former lieutenant governor and governor — in his improbable journey. It’s one that Democrats, given the bright-line politics practiced by Republicans, are gambling can be taken national.