A great insight in the riddle of how the Democratic convention is playing from liberal columnist Richard Cohen in the Washington Post:

“The best political lesson I ever learned came many years ago when I worked for a wire service and was told not to send stories about the United Nations to newspapers west of the Mississippi River. On the hour or half-hour, I’d throw the proper switch and envision U.N. stories plunging into the Big Muddy like so many lemmings. This, I fear, is what is happening to John Kerry’s message that the United States is no longer loved abroad. Splash!”

Did the ancient Romans worry about being loved abroad? It’s nice to be loved abroad, of course, but the Democrats have to worry about something more immediate: Being loved at home. How is their subdued and tightly controlled convention playing on both sides of the Mississippi River that divides American politics?

On one bank are the prized undecided voters. They don’t want to be blown to bits by terrorists and many have noticed that, despite the tax-cuts-for-the-rich rhetoric, their tax bill was lighter last year. On the other bank are the activists who believe that “Fahrenheit 9/11” is a documentary, Saddam’s Baghdad was filled with happy children, and George Bush is Hitler. The river is deep, and the water is wide; the currents are very tricky.

For first the three days, there was a weird disconnect. I can’t imagine the message was playing well on either bank of the river.

The strangest moment was when Teresa Heinz Kerry, one of the richest women in the world, gave a totally self-involved speech that almost forgot to mention her husband, the candidate who desperately needs to be humanized. But Teresa had every right to do what she damned well pleased — she’d paid her dues: Without the loan on the Beacon Hill residence that was part of her vast dowry, John Kerry might not have been there either. Still…

“There is about her too an air of grievance — the sighs, the resigned shrugs — as if she feels she has been a victim of unusual suffering,” writes Peggy Noonan. “She seems not to have noticed that all her life she has been a child of privilege. It’s odd. I wonder sometimes if some liberals have somehow never been told that bad things happen in life, and who are constantly perplexed by whatever misfortunes befall them.”

If Teresa Heinz Kerry becomes First Lady, there will never be a dull moment. No detail is too small to irk her. Like many rich ladies, she accustomed to being right. Even the tepid response to Teresa’s (alleged) recipe for pumpkin spice cookies, submitted to Family Circle for the quadrennial First Lady Cookie Bake (we have Hillary to thank for this), must be rectified — it falls short of the kowtow, as the New York Times reports, Ms. Heinz Kerry can’t bear that. She has “disavowed’ her cookie recipe:

“Ever since voters began telling Teresa Heinz Kerry that they didn’t think much of the pumpkin spice cookie recipe her office had submitted to Family Circle’s presidential cookie bake-off, an aide said, Mrs. Heinz Kerry, the wife of the about-to-be Democratic nominee, has been thinking how she could tell America the truth: the recipe isn’t hers.

“In an interview on National Public Radio that was broadcast yesterday, the cookies came up in conversation and in the direct, unvarnished style that people have come to expect, Mrs. Heinz Kerry said: ’Somebody at my office gave that recipe out and, in fact, I think somebody really made it on purpose to give a nasty recipe. I never made pumpkin cookies; I don’t like pumpkin spice cookies.’”

In contrast, Elizabeth Edwards, vice presidential aspirant John Edwards’s wife, is a sharp cookie, and the atmosphere in the convention center changed immediately when this lawyer and mother took the stand — I mean the lectern. Unlike Teresa, Elizabeth Edwards is aware of the presence of others in a room. She graciously did some damage control for Mrs. Heinz Kerry.

In what struck me as an attempt to counteract some of the just plain weirdness of Mrs. Heinz Kerry’s talk (unless you live in Georgetown, in which case she seemed perfectly normal), Elizabeth Edwards did some ’splaining and spinning for the boss’s wife: “Teresa,” she said, “represents the victory of spirit and will over tyranny and tragedy, and she will be the most generous first lady in the history of this country.”

Now, if we can just get that mess about the pumpkin cookies cleared up. It was also interesting that Mrs. Edwards had more to say about John Kerry’s sterling qualities than Mrs. Kerry had to say on the subject.

Like his wife, John Edwards is gracious and charming. As a trial lawyer, he is deeply aware of the presence of every juror (or voter) in the room. The pundits said it wasn’t his best effort, but it was pretty damned good. He, too, did some cleaning up for Teresa, praising her performance the night before and pretending it hadn’t been one of the strangest moments in political oratory.

I have to say there was one just terrific moment at the very beginning — when Edwards said of himself and Elizabeth Edwards, “We have been blessed with four beautiful children: Wade, Cate, Emma Claire, and Jack.”

Wade, of course, is the son who was killed in a car accident at the age of sixteen, and you can see that, at the zenith (so far) of his career, the father wanted to mention his son. But that was it — and it was just right. It was a genuinely sweet touch, and the opposite of Al Gore’s appalling droning on about his sister’s death in his own convention speech.

Edwards said something that Democrats rarely want to hear: “I have learned a lot of lessons in my life. Two of the most important are that first, there will always be heartache and struggle — you can’t make it go away. But the other is that people of good and strong will, can make a difference. One lesson is a sad lesson and the other’s inspiring. We are Americans and we choose to be inspired.”

Unfortunately, beyond the grace notes and graciousness, Edwards has almost nothing to say. Parse his statements and you come up with nothing — zip, or rien, as John Kerry might put it. He’s a great trial lawyer and can work miracles with a banal anecdote. But that’s about it.

Here’s what I mean:

“Tonight as we celebrate in this hall, somewhere in America, a mother sits at the kitchen table. She can’t sleep. She’s worried because she can’t pay her bills. She’s working hard to pay the rent and feed her kids. She’s doing everything right, but she still can’t get ahead.

“It didn’t use to be that way in her house. Her husband was called up in the Guard and he’s been serving in Iraq for more than a year. She thought he’d be home last month, but now he’s got to stay longer.

“She thinks she’s alone. But tonight in this hall and in your homes — you know what? She’s got a lot of friends. We want her to know that we hear her. And it’s time to bring opportunity and an equal chance to her door.”

What, if anything, does this mean? Are soldiers’ families starving? If so, we should definitely raise their pay. But this isn’t what he’s saying. He never really says why she’s alone, other than her husband is at war, which, frankly, is pretty much inevitable when we are fighting a war.

And more on the “can’t get ahead” theme:
“So when you return home, you might pass a mother on her way to work the late-shift — you tell her…hope is on the way.

“When your brother calls and says that he’s working all the time at the office and still can’t get ahead — you tell him…hope is on the way.”

I thought people were supposed to work late at the office. Should there be government program to prevent people from working late at the office and ensure that, at the same time, they get ahead?

I have a horrible feeling there will be if Kerry and Edwards are elected.

As for the mother, she’d do better under the Republicans — I’m not rich and I got a tax cut. My guess is that the work-late mother would, too, despite what the Democrats tell you about tax cuts going only to the rich.

And speaking of the rich, wasn’t it rich to have Edwards, speaking before a convention that has had to be muzzled to keep from calling the president Hitler, asked them if they’re sick of negative advertising?