Daniel Cameron, Breakout Star of the Republican Convention
Meet the 34-year-old Kentucky attorney general, who was a noted contrast to an otherwise drab second evening.
“When I was growing up, it was hard to imagine a guy who looked like me that would be standing on this stage, running to be the chief law enforcement officer here in Kentucky,” a state candidate by the name of Daniel Cameron said last August. “But that was then.”
Like so many things true of the past, even last year: that was then. “Today, the Republican Party is offering [a] diverse, dynamic roster of leaders,” Cameron said. “Who will lead our future better than what the tired, liberal guard handed down to us.”
Cameron was speaking at “Fancy Farm.” Kentuckian politicians (before the world changed) delivered raucous, rehearsed lines to the gathered onlookers (often in the sweltering, southwestern Kentucky August heat). It was the cousin of “Shad Planking,” for anyone familiar with the politics of the neighboring Old Dominion. That is, the kind of bizarre, bipartisan exoticism — that in our disintegrating politics — that may soon be gone from the land. It has gained (limited) national attention in recent years, as legacy media highlights whatever poor soul is challenging native son Mitch McConnell, the powerful, sinister U.S. Senate Majority Leader.
So, for the uninitiated, Fancy Farm is essentially the opposite of politics as practiced in America in 2020: a large-enough outdoor gathering, with people shouting at each other. Well, to judge the streets of the Adams Morgan neighborhood of my hometown this week, maybe not that different. But in 2020, an earnest, nonviolent free-for-all — of both sides getting together in the same venue to deliver dueling political speeches — seems a world away.
And a world away is exactly where Daniel Cameron, now the state’s attorney general, was Tuesday night. “It is an honor to be with you, as a proud Republican and a supporter of Donald J. Trump,” Cameron said in Washington at the Republican National Convention. “I was raised… just a few miles from Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace. Our first Republican president believed in compassion, self-reliance, freedom, equality and justice. Sadly, there are some that don’t believe in this wisdom, or in the better angels of our shared, American history.”
Because Mr. Cameron is black, and young, and seemingly out-of-nowhere, and speaking on the traditional “keynote” Tuesday of the convention amidst a bitter, partisan grudge match, it’s not difficult to find a precedent for his address: Barack Obama. Conservative pugilist Victor Davis Hanson swiftly ruled Tuesday that Cameron’s address was “a lot more impressive” than the speech that shot the then-Illinois state senator to fame in 2004. I don’t know about Hanson’s verdict, but in a time where politics is changing (seemingly by the day, and seemingly for the worse), the parallels in Cameron’s speech with Obama’s uplifting language that year (which by all outward appearances, even Obama has since abandoned) were clear.
“Well, I say to them tonight, there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America,” Obama said in Boston in 2004. And in a line, you might be less likely to hear him say today, Obama said: “There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.” The future president correctly reported: “We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. … There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq, and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq.” “Unpatriotic conservatives,” included.
Hard to imagine back then, for anyone who followed the cynical 2004 campaign, but sixteen years later, Cameron addressed a country in a far, far more defeated mood—and yes, in the shadow of President’s Obama failure to unite the nation, no less. “As they tear down the statues of people like Ulysses S. Grant, Frederick Douglass and even Mr. Lincoln himself,” Cameron noted, before continuing: “Lincoln said, ‘Any nation that does not honor its heroes will not long endure.’”
Cameron argued “our heroes are those who propelled an imperfect nation ever forward — always striving to make life better for everyone.” Anarchists “mindlessly tear up American cities,” while “attacking police and innocent bystanders,” Cameron said. In a nod to episodes of police brutality, “Republicans will not turn a blind eye to unjust acts,” he declared. “But neither will we accept an all-out assault on Western civilization.”
Mr. Cameron’s office is handling the investigation into the death of Breonna Taylor, perhaps the most clearly egregious (though not most ferociously covered) of the police murders that have convulsed a nation. Cameron says his office is waiting for more information, and fair enough. The country could use more restraint before passing judgment on the manifold, complex issues law enforcement grapple with every, anxious moment of every day, including the cases that have grabbed headlines since June. But if Mr. Cameron’s America has space for the bystanders verbally assaulted on 18th Street in D.C., or bystanding small businesses torched in Kenosha, Wisconsin, it surely has a place for the likes of Ms. Taylor, a fatal bystander to a botched police raid.
“His presence was immediate,” Politico journalist Tim Alberta said of Cameron. “His innate abilities as an orator were evident from the jump. Political phenoms don’t come around often— but you know them when you see them.”
We’ll see more of Mr. Cameron.
Otherwise, this affair (thus far) has been a mixed bag.
After an initial list of speakers that disappointed, especially populists and nationalists ever curious about President Trump, night one surprised. Herschel Walker, the former Washington Generals player, spoke with genuine affection for his old friend, the president. It was needed light shed on a figure frequently cast as sociopathically self-interested, and bigoted, to boot (Walker is black). Another black voice for Trump — Georgia state politician Vernon Davis — genuinely nailed it. Crossover pols in state politics are frequently eccentrics unprepared for primetime, but Senator Davis was no such thing. Earned or not, he spoke with optimism about the country and this president that was the opposite of the last, famous Georgia convert to Republican presidents. Also in 2004, Zell Miller gave a menacing address befitting the administration he advocated for.
But on night two, the convention showed many of the flaws of this administration. Despite all the pedigree and canny in the world, Secretary of State Pompeo gave a mailed-in address from Israel, playing into caricatures of this White House as norm-ruining and reckless. I’ve seen him do much better, but Pompeo, at times, gave a child’s simplifications of foreign policy- the Iranian government is bad, we know. He reminded the country he won’t be president.
Tiffany Trump, the (apparently, groundlessly) much-mocked first daughter gave nice insight into her father; she is the only child of the president’s most anonymous marriage, his second. But the lengthy inclusion of Eric Trump (just announced as a subject of a fraud investigation in New York on Tuesday), on top of an overlong address from the First Lady at the White House, added on to an unhinged speech from Donald Trump Jr.’s partner, Kimberly Guilfoyle, the previous night and also Trump, Jr. himself, left the viewer with the impression that there is just too much of this guy’s family on display, at least in a talented country of 330 million people. At times, it can have a Holy Roman Emperor feel. So, neither holy, nor Roman, nor a real empire.
Onto night three.