. . . A Scribe On Your Side
Sunday, July 25, 2004; Page B01
TO: John Kerry
FROM: Jeff Shesol,
RE: The Moment
By the time you take the podium in Boston on Thursday night, the Bush-Cheney campaign will have spent, over many months, tens of millions of dollars to ensure that the viewing audience doesn't believe a word you say. Your acceptance speech is a prime-time chance to show that the money was wasted. Here are some thoughts on how to make sure the fall campaign will be fought on your terms:
Go Beyond Biography. Polls and pundits suggest that Americans don't know you yet. It seems hard to believe in the age of the permanent campaign, but if true, this convention will go a long way toward remedying the situation. The schedule is packed with testimonials to the content of your character: Kerry as visionary, Kerry as warrior, Kerry as dad.
I haven't seen a draft, but I suspect your speech contains an element of autobiography. This is a safe bet. Over the last half-century, acceptance speeches have become more personal, rendering nominees not only more human but also, in some way, emblematic of the American experience.
This is a harder sell the wealthier you are. Thus, it has to be conceded -- here, not in the speech -- that beyond your wartime bravery, the rest of your life story has limited political utility. The public may not know you well, but it does understand that whatever bootstraps might actually be, you did not pull yourself up by them.
You are not the first child of privilege to grapple with this problem. John F. Kennedy appeared unbothered by his wealthy background; he joked about it on the campaign trail, but felt no need to account for it in his acceptance speech. Recent nominees, though, have seemed more sheepish. "Yes, my parents were prosperous," George H.W. Bush confessed in 1988, "and their children sure were lucky."
Not a bad strategy, but it would have been best to leave it at that. Instead, Bush tried to squeeze himself into the shoes of a self-made man: "We lived in a little shotgun house, one room for the three of us," he said of his family's years in Texas, when he made millions in oil. "[We] lived the dream -- high school football on Friday nights, Little League, neighborhood barbecue." Bush's triumph was temporary. This kind of socioeconomic cross-dressing did little to convince most voters, who, four years later, rejected Bush in favor of Bill Clinton, a more authentic spokesman for the "forgotten middle class."
Al Gore, in his 2000 address, tried a diversionary tactic: he spoke more about his parents' upbringing than about his own. "They did give me a good life," he conceded. "But like so many in America, they started out with almost nothing." True enough, but the hardscrabble tale of the Gores of Tennessee did little to disguise the fact that their son was raised among Washington elites.
Both the Bush and Gore examples reflect the dangers of suggesting, as Bush did, that one's life is "symbolic of an era" or of anyone else's experience. For a candidate from a privileged background, it is one thing to show concern for the members of the middle class, quite another to equate your struggles with theirs.
Show, Don't Tell. You often speak of values. As a Democrat, I think that's a good thing: For too long, members of our party were afraid even to use the word. By the late 1980s, it was so often invoked by the GOP that any Democrat who said "values" without a sneer was making some kind of radical break with party orthodoxy.
During the 1990s, though, with a New Democrat in the White House, values became part of what the Democratic Leadership Council called the "national conversation." By the time Sen. Joe Lieberman and Gen. Wes Clark dropped the v-bomb in this year's Democratic primaries, the word felt a little weary, past its prime.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
A defining moment: What kind of acceptance speech should Sen. John F. Kerry deliver on Thursday?
(Jim Bourg -- Reuters)
_____Outlook Live: Q & A_____
Kenneth Khachigian will field questions and comments about his piece in a live discussion Tuesday, July 27 at 1 p.m. ET.
Jeff Shesol will field questions and comments about his piece in a live discussion Wednesday, July 28 at 2 p.m. ET.