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Melania stands out at convention by compassionately addressing pandemic

It is a telling measure of our mean-spirited culture that the first lady of the United States has been mocked and vilified for daring to redesign the Rose Garden.

Whether the design is pleasing or not, it was clear that the media would not be giving Melania Trump the Jill Biden treatment when she spoke to the Republican convention.

She has been the least public first lady in decades, and English is not her native language, but the principal sin of this elegant former fashion model is that she’s married to…him. In the runup to Tuesday night’s appearance, journalists kept bringing up her 2016 address, in which a mishap caused her staff to plagiarize some passages from an old Michelle Obama speech.

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Before a small audience in the revamped garden, Melania Trump did what virtually no other speaker had: acknowledge the impact of the coronavirus and express sympathy for its victims.

Since March, she said, “our lives have changed drastically” because of “the invisible enemy.” She offered sympathy and prayers for those who have lost a loved one or are suffering, and said “Donald will not rest” until an effective treatment is found. That was no small thing at a convention that talked about the pandemic in the past tense, when it was talked about at all. It wasn’t just cheerleading. And she declined to use her time “to attack the other side.”

While not a natural orator, the first lady said she was humbled by coming here from a communist country and living the American dream. Despite “negative or false media headlines,” she said, the president won’t lose focus on helping the country. She also talked about Africa, drug addiction, violence and motherhood. It was, in short, a plain-spoken and compassionate talk.

While some pundits on Twitter credited Melania with speaking frankly about the virus, others questioned what she sees in her husband, ridiculed her outfit or laughed at her delivery. One called it “a Seinfeld speech…about nothing.”

It was left to New York Times columnist David Brooks to scold: “Stop scoffing. Melania’s speech is at least relatively decent and humane.” Even fierce Republican Trump critic Mike Murphy called it “the only high-ground presidential speech you will ever hear at this convention.”

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Her words even won over some of the TV pundits, from CNN’s Dana Bash to MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, who said “that’s the first time in two days we have had even a straightforward expression of sympathy.” Fox’s Dana Perino said “she lights up the room.” But Joy Reid complained about using the White House as a backdrop.

Tuesday’s proceedings, heavy on family members (including Eric and Tiffany), was low on celebrity wattage. The party trotted out plenty of average citizens, from a Wisconsin dairy farmer to a Maine lobsterman, who like Trump. It was a lower-key evening that sought to soften the GOP’s image and strengthen its connection to small business owners, with remarkably little mention of the coronavirus or the 30 million unemployed. In fact, Larry Kudlow essentially talked about the pandemic in the past tense.

The first night of the virtual GOP show drew about 16 million TV viewers, compared to 19 million for the Democrats’ first night. The number was about 30 percent lower than four years ago, similar to the Dem dropoff. And nearly half of the live audience (7 million) watched on Fox News, compared with MSNBC as the ratings leader for the Democrats–suggesting these convention programs have little cross-party appeal.

Trump did pull off two convention firsts–by pardoning Jon Ponder, a reformed ex-convict who now helps other prisoners, and the other at a naturalization ceremony for legal immigrants. These were smart political moves, even if they were stunts, and underscore the power of incumbency to act rather than just talk.

When former Florida attorney general Pam Bondi went off on Hunter Biden and accused the family of profiteering in China, it was a double-edged sword. The liberal ladies at MSNBC, aided by a former FBI official, rushed in to remind viewers that Trump was impeached on grounds of pressuring Ukraine to cough up dirt on the Bidens–the battle royale that went unmentioned at the Democratic convention.

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Similarly, MSNBC brought on another ex-prosecutor after Eric Trump’s speech to explain that he’s been asked to testify in a probe of the family real estate firm by the New York attorney general. CNN challenged some of his questionable statements, such as peace in the Middle East (a reference to the recent agreement between Israel and the UAE).

The convention had its share of side controversies. One speaker was pulled at the last minute after the Daily Beast reported on a stunningly anti-Semitic tweet. And Mike Pompeo’s short speech from Jerusalem is drawing sharp criticism–and a House probe–as he became the first secretary of State to address a presidential convention. Pompeo hailed the boss’ foreign policy record and included North Korea, although the engagement with Kim Jong-un has produced no agreements.

While there was somewhat less Biden-bashing on Tuesday night–though there were false claims that he’s for open borders and total amnesty–what’s striking about both conventions is the overall level of apocalyptic rhetoric.

To hear the Democrats tell it, a Trump reelection would mean a death knell for democracy, an uncontrolled pandemic, heartless immigration policy and endless corruption. To hear the Republicans tell it, a Biden victory would mean more urban riots, a ban on private health insurance, the elimination of fossil fuels and the end of free speech.

And yet most of the media don’t blink at the more extreme attacks on Trump because they basically buy into that rhetoric.

One thing the president’s defenders haven’t quite figured out: if racial unrest, big-city violence, health care problems and a shattered economy are threatening to ruin America, why hasn’t Trump been able to stop those things? He is a president running as an outside insurgent. The best they’ve been able to do is that Trump made America great–before the “China virus” undid much of the progress–and he can do it again.

The next two nights will show whether Melania Trump’s speech was just a brief respite.

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