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By Robert Rivard
I listened to the first half of Mayor Julián Castro’s keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention Tuesday evening the way all Americans once heard such speeches: huddled around the radio. Imagination gave my mind’s eye a picture of the Charlotte arena where thousands of delegates and party faithful waved placards, applauded and chanted. But then I came inside to watch the rest on television. I’m a baby boomer: I had to see Castro, his facial expressions, his body language, his mother, Rosie, his wife, Erica, his three-year-old daughter, Carina Victoria.
America has just found a new leader to follow, and San Antonio has just lost a mayor. So I thought to myself, watching Castro deliver the speech of his lifetime. For selfish reasons, as I’ve written here before, I hope that is not true. I hope it was a gut feeling that came only in the emotion of the moment, and as pulses slow and excitement lapses back into routine, we see Castro returning to the city and the job he fits so perfectly right now.
But nothing is black and white, and there are other places Castro will fit the bill just as well, too, and they are not in San Antonio. Castro has been a precocious public figure from the very beginning. More poised and earnest as a Jefferson High School student than any teenager deserved to be. More promising as Stanford undergraduates than anyone in San Antonio memory, he and twin brother, Joaquín, already the subject of political speculation in a city still watching the ascendancy of former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros. And by the time the twins walked the stage to collect their diplomas at Harvard Law School, no one doubted the inevitable: The Castros were coming home, a new generation dedicated to public service. (By the way, fellow radio listeners, boo on National Public Radio reporters for talking over the entire introduction of Julián by brother Joaquín.)
There were stumbles along the way for Castro, notably his first mayoral campaign, which ultimately and thankfully led to the election of Mayor Phil Hardberger. But no one has ever accused Julián or Joaquín of not being the quickest of studies. Failure and experience tempered Julián, and what San Antonians have seen these last four years was showcased in prime time last night in Charlotte.
I’ve long been a student of good and great public speakers, and I’ve had the privilege of introducing Mayor Castro on stage, of preceding him at the microphone, and, unfortunately, on occasion, following him at the microphone. He has always been good. But good isn’t great.
Tuesday night Castro was great. Not perfect, but great. Speechwriters could have given him one more unforgettable line, a few more powerful transitions and applause lines. In sum, though, Castro pulled it off in spades. He built slowly and finished strong, in English and well-accented Spanish. He told his family’s personal story of a three generation passage from migration out of Mexico into the realm of American leadership. Castro told the story with emotion, humility, honesty, and absolutely, with authenticity.
And here is what I’ve never seen so strongly from Julián: His face and voice filled with fire, his trademark cool so evident at home and at the start of the speech, abandoned for something new and different, something more heated, something that could light up an arena in Charlotte and living rooms everywhere.
Thematically, the metaphor of the relay race, of defending the middle class, of declaring America’s doors still open to new generations seeking opportunity, these were themes that will resonate for President Barack Obama on the campaign trail and help his team craft messages that focus voters on future possibilities rather than the unfulfilled aspirations of a first presidential term.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, Castro asserted and attacked, lives in another America, a more elitist America, a more selfish America, a country club nation of haves and have-nots. Many will agree with Castro; many will not. And there lies the last relay of a great race that starts now and ends on Tuesday, Nov. 6.
Tuesday night, on a national stage in Charlotte, was the most intensely partisan moment of Julián Castro’s public life, and it was that electrifying moment that made me wonder if San Antonio was losing its mayor as America gains a new voice of inspiration. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it was just one night. Or, maybe I’m right.