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There is still some virtue in using the term, if only to prevent sole possession from reverting to the Republican National Committee. But its totemic power shouldn't be overestimated. "Values" is becoming one of those words -- "family" is another and "faith" cannot be far behind -- that is being devalued by overuse.
More effective than simply saying "values" is actually naming them, giving them depth and meaning -- and edge. For example: You frequently use the word "responsibility" (six times, by my count, in your July 6 speech to the African Methodist Episcopal Church convention). Your acceptance speech is a chance to tell us exactly what you mean by "responsibility" -- and how your definition differs from your opponent's. (He uses the word an awful lot himself, so the rhetorical waters are awfully muddy.) You can tell us how, as president, you will ask more of citizens -- and demand more of yourself -- than our current leaders do. You can make plain that leaders should be accountable for mistakes on the battlefield, the squandering of the public purse, encroachments on the environment and corruption that shakes faith in our free markets. You can say: "You can count on me to tell it to you straight, admit it when I'm wrong, and never rest until I set things right. That is my idea of a responsible leader." (Needs work, but I know your speechwriters will add polish.)
More effective still would be to embed your values in everything you say Thursday night -- in the policies you propose, the stories you share -- regardless of whether you utter the v-word. It's possible to convey a strong sense of values without leaning on the term, just as it's possible to love your country without announcing it at the top of the hour. Values are like emotions: They are better displayed than described. Show, don't tell, the public what you believe. The most powerful speeches don't declare their intentions.
Talk, Don't Speak. For a while there, in the '80s and '90s, it seemed we were living in a post-rhetorical age. Ronald Reagan's conversational style, his successor's inarticulateness, and Clinton's easy fluency all appeared to consign old-fashioned oratory to history's dustbin.
In the Clinton White House, "rhetoric" was an epithet. "That," the president said countless times, about countless speeches, "is just rhetoric." The way he spat out the word, you wanted to cover the ears of small children. At the Democratic Convention in 2000, Clinton told a group of us that he didn't want to "speak" to the delegates and the viewing audience, he just wanted to "talk." He knew he was more persuasive when he avoided elevated prose.
As in most things, George W. Bush has taken a different approach. His important speeches are unapologetically formal, dusting off rhetorical devices unused, in many cases, since Kennedy was president. Still, his speeches are hardly orotund; they are lean, spare, muscular. Bush, who is much less effective when speaking off the cuff, gains gravitas when he addresses the ages.
As a speechwriter, I have a weakness for rhetoric. Senator, I suspect you do as well. One doesn't have to strain to pick up the cadences of President Kennedy in your speeches. But if it's JFK's voice that you hear in your head, my advice would be to turn it off. You are at your best during interviews and debates -- when you're freed of formal constraints, when you're collapsing the distance between yourself and your audience. When you're talking, not speaking.
Your gravitas helped you win the nomination, but now it risks becoming dead weight. What Americans want to see in you is a certain lightness of being, even a breeziness. They want to see by your manner that, like Reagan or Franklin D. Roosevelt, you're at ease with the burdens you seek to assume. Your convention speech, then, ought to sound like you actually sound. If voters sense that you're comfortable in your own skin, they'll be more comfortable with the idea of you in the Oval Office. Relax, and the nation relaxes with you. Just talk.
Author's e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jeff Shesol is a founding partner of West Wing Writers, a speechwriting firm in Washington. He was deputy director of speechwriting for President Bill Clinton.
© 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.