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Outlook: Advice for Kerry, Part 1

Kenneth Khachigian
Speechwriter
Tuesday, July 27, 2004; 1:00 PM

It's a defining moment. The chance for a candidate to shine. The opportunity to set his own terms for how voters should choose their next president. So how should Sen. John Kerry take advantage of his prime time convention address? The Outlook section invited two veteran speechwriters, Kenneth Khachigian and Jeff Shesol, to give Sen. John Kerry some advice on what he should say in his acceptance speech at this week's Democratic National Convention in Boston. Their helpful hints, and warnings, appear in Outlook under the headline: "Before Your Big Speech, a Word From...": "...a Scribe on Your Side" and "...a Writer on the Right." In August, the same pair of wordsmiths will offer their advice to President Bush before the Republican convention.

Khachigian, who wrote speeches for Presidents Nixon and Reagan, sets five goals for Kerry, but warns that meeting them won't be easy. Khachigian discussed his piece on Tuesday, July 27, at at 1 p.m. ET.

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Shesol will be online Wednesday, July 28, at 2 p.m. ET.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Washington, D.C.: Was talking with a friend yesterday and he asked a really good question: Why is it politicians only start acting like human beings after their out of the running? Examples: Al Gore, Bob Dole, etc. Gore's a much better speaker now than he was in 2000. He's no longer wooden. Is it because they're no longer at the mercy of "advisers," "handlers," and speechwriters?

Ken Khachigian: Part of the reason, I think, has to do with the extraordinary pressures of a Presidential campaign. There are many audiences to talk to, not least of which is the political press. It's hard to be totally relaxed when everything you say and do is instantly reported (and criticized). But you have put your finger on part of the problem.... a good part of the time candidates are being pushed back and forth with conflicting advice. As John Kerry and John Edwards will soon find out, there is nothing so high pressured as a national campaign. There is really no time to relax. As one candidate I worked with told me: "Your scheduler is your natural enemy."

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Harrisburg, Pa.: I don't know if it was Reagan's personality or your speechwriting, or both, yet Reagan always came across as a very positive person. He did so even in crises, which came across as reassuring rather than alarmist. Would you advise candidates to continue to come across as positive, or do modern times call for different reactions?

Ken Khachigian: Reagan had a naturally sunny disposition, which he displayed in private as well as public. Voters respond favorably to this kind of demeanor -- but it's not a gurantee of success in politics. Many politicians -- RIchard Nixon for example -- while not negative, was more serious and focused on substance... from time to time that might have affected how folks saw him on the positive/negaitve scale. On the whole, nevertheless, it is human nature, I think, to react favorably to upbeat messages -- inspirational messages. But don't forget, when it comes to a crunch, Presidents often have to display a tougher persona for effect. Mixing these traits is even better. Finally, I would never suggest to a candidate to be something he or she is not. I had a sourpuss client in the private sector who knew I wrote for Reagan. He said: "Make me funny." My response was, if he was not a jovial, humorous, joketeller in private, nothing I could do would change him.

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Anonymous: Okay, so I know you didn't write an article on this, but how would you advise Bush? (or are you?)

Ken Khachigian: This replies to this question and one other re: advice to President Bush... tune into The Post on the Sunday before the Republican Convention for my advice to Mr. Bush. Can't give it to you now... Kerry might steal it!

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Washington, D.C.: How do you assess Kerry's communication skills and what advice would you have for him?

Ken Khachigian: Kerry's strongest commumnication skill is his presence... seems serious, thoughtful, informed etc. However, he doesn't exactly have a sunny disposition or what I would call an "open face." Hence, he comes across as somewhat patrician and stiff. Indeed, there is an awkward quality about him when he jumps onto the stage .. the way he pumps his fist etc. Sometimes when you're watching him give a speech or in front of an audience, put your "mute" button on and see what your reaction is. For better or for worse, he is what he is... I would not advise him to try to change because the American voter can spot a phony in a nanosecond. He's gotten this far with his skills, he'll have to trust them the rest of the way. One piece of advice is to think through what he's saying a little more. Calling Whoopi Goldberg and the gang the "heartland of America" played to the crowd in the audience, but not to the country. presidential politics is unforgiving in this respect.

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Oklahoma City, Okla.: Hi Ken:

We worked on Bush-Quayle '88 together. I enjoyed your article, but don't you think that the die has already been cast for Kerry in this election? I think Kerry is smart to avoid any mention of his actual presidential goals, priorities and proposed policies. His will be a campaign of inference. He will make himself like the Chesire Cat -- totally invisible except for a smile. He will try to pull-off 90 days of stradling and neutralizing every issue, ultimately campaigning about nothing. His general election chances are just better masquerading as a "nuanced moderate" than as openly running as the left-wing idealogue he truly is and his thirty year public record clearly demonstrates. Thoughts?

Ken Khachigian: Always good to hear from someone in that tough election campaign.... I don't think the die is cast at all. The fact is that Kerry is not running in a vacuum... he has opponents. So dealing with the campaign as a casual promenade won't work for him or anyone else. Politics, as we say, is a contact sport. His other problem in straddling would be his base. As much as the Democratic primaries fired up animosity and outright hatred for Pres. Bush, the Democratic left -- the base -- will not wholly tolerate mush coming from Kerry. They'll want red meat... and once the Bush-Cheney team starts poking at Kerry's vulnerabilities and exposures on issues, he'll have to start drawing the lines more clearly or risk losing the base... They'll go to Nader or sit on their hands. In a close election, all this makes a difference. Finally, Kerry can't campaign about "nothing" because incumbent Presidents have huge abilities to set the table for the debate.. Count on Bush to control much of the agenda from official actions, not just political ones. Kerry will then have to play defense.

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Mt. Clemens, Mich.: Why has "liberal" become a dirty word? I detest the euphemism "progressive." Given his voting record, shouldn't Kerry make a forceful case for liberalism, instead of running away from and reinventing himself?

Ken Khachigian: I answered much of this question in a previous response... but just one personal observation: Republicans ought to quit using the term, "liberal." For those on the extremes, like Kerry et al., they should be categorizing certain positions as "left wing" not just liberal. Liberal is a "good" word for a lot of people. For example: who objects to a liberal helping of ice cream. It's not for nothing that Demos like Kennedy and Boxer use the words "right wing" as often as they can.

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Laurel, Md.: As speech writers, who are you all most sorry for, John Kerry's writers or President Bush's; because Kerry is said to tinker endlessly with the speeches written for him, and he is still not regarded as a great speaker, and President Bush's plain spoken signature is as eloquent and statesman-like as the valedictorian speech at a community college?

Ken Khachigian: I haven't written for either President Bush or John Kerry so don't know their styles. I do view Bush as naturally good on the stump.. and especially so when he's not fully scripted (witness him behind the bullhorn at the ruins of the WTC). Kerry would not have to tinker if his writers worked at trying to sound like him and not themselves. My secret with Reagan was to just listen to him and put my voice into his. Too many speechwriters confuse themselves with the speaker.

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Virginia: What did you think of the speeches last night? Any stand out to you as either quite good or quite bad?

Ken Khachigian: This responds to several questions re: the quality of the speeches last night -- how to assess Clinton's, Carter's etc. Carter was, in my judgment, unusually harsh with his rhetoric -- unpresidential I would say. That hard edge, I think, made him a little less effective. On his best days, Carter was not a great speaker, but last night's was neither better nor worse. I noted that his former speechwriter, Chris Mathews, commented last night on the harsh tone coming from Carter. Bill Clinton -- despite my disdain for his politics and integrity -- is a natural. Richard Nixon, with whom I spent a great deal of time, always observed that politics is "poetry, not prose." Clinton gets the poetry. First, he has a great voice, an open face and a "feel" for common sense analysis. Think of how a couple of men or women sitting around a bar would analyze issues...Clinton "gets" what those kinds of conversations are like. As for how effective he was, he certainly laid out the case for Kerry. An excellent back and forth. However, that's what debates are all about. I can blow holes in Clinton's illustrations quite easily... they had the "appearance" of common sense, but can be refuted. That's the job of Republicans. But Clinton presented it in such a way as to have folks nodding their heads in agreement with his points. That's good speechmaking...

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Charleston, W. Va.: Ken:

The five criteria about which you wrote on Sunday seem scripted and inflexible. Don't candidates who sound so much like a TV commercial risk failing to live up to expectations?

Also, how can voters judge the credibility of a candidate when the issues about which they speak are crafted by professionals who earn their livelihoods by writing speeches? People don't seek the presidency in order to earn a living.

Ken Khachigian: The five criteria I pointed out were in order to give the sort of "academic analysis" of what a speech must do... it's not th speech itself. They represent general principles -- goals -- not an outline for the speech. Guys like Kerry and Bush didn't get where they are in life just because a bunch of professionals scripted everything they did. One interesting thing about the American electorate -- they don't need to hear from Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Rush Limbaugh or anyone else as to how they think about candidates... the majority of American voters have a good "b.s. detector." Moreover, in politics, polling allows candidates to fix problems as they go along. Reagan was in trouble for the first three weeks of September in 1980 -- the polls told him, not how to fix it, but that he had to fix it. It required, in the end, to bring some discipline to his campaign oratory, while not changing the message itself.

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Washington, D.C.: In an earlier answer you talked about muting the audio and watching Kerry's body language when he speaks. That sort of audience response is done by pollsters using "people meters" where audience participants turn a dial back and forth based on whether they like what a candidate says and how he or she acts.

Who really writes speeches, pollsters or speechwriters? Is a speechwriter's task simply to add filler to sound bites that are already focus-group tested?

Ken Khachigian: I would never let a pollster write a speech. And the best ones don't try. that ends up too mechanistic. My advice to Presidential candidates is: "your job is to lead the polls, not read the polls."

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Visalia, Calif.: Ken -- greetings from your home town! Please help get Bill Jones elected this fall! Now my question: Can Kerry explain his vote for the war, then his vote against funding the troops?

Ken Khachigian: This replies to a couple of questions re: Kerry and Iraq... Kerry is stuck with his votes and with his earlier statements. It's the problem he had in the primaries of going left to blunt Dean and back to the middle to challenge Bush. If he just "says what he thinks," he'll suffer the McGovern result. Bush has the ultimate advantage in this situation as a wartime president who has the platform to rally the nation. you can count on him doing that. Kerry should try as hard as he can to convey he can do better; drawn bright lines. The problem for Kerry is that he's "untested" in real time; the voters already know what GW can do. Incumbents' advantage.

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Washington, D.C.: Why is it that candidates can never seem to lay out their views in a clear, concise manner?

Ken Khachigian: Good question... the answer is because voters themselves, on the whole, are given to: "on the one hand, and on the other hand." Why do you think there's the old saw: "there are two sides to every question." Clear and concise is good on some issues not on others: witness Kerry seeking wiggle room re: abortion. Trying to keep left and women in line while not losing faithful catholics important in battleground states. Besides, presidents as diplomats, for example, also deal with compromise and nuance. Welcome to the world of politics.

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Munich, Germany: However wrong or exaggerated it's become, how can Kerry get away from this image of wishy-washiness, or does he need to get away from it at all? Bush is playing the strong, decisive type, but it hasn't served him well in reversing bad policy decisions (i.e. admitting mistakes).

Ken Khachigian: A lot of people don't think saving tens of millions of Iraqis from the grip of a genocidal thug is a "mistake." Bush's ability to make the moral issue stand out with clarity could be the decisive act of the campaign.

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Miami, Fla.: One issue that hasn't found its way onto the political campaign thus far is America's relationship with international institutions in this era of increased interdependance.

What advice would you give Kerry, in case some thing as America's attitude towards an institution like the International Criminal Court comes up? And do you think this issue might prove a handicap for Kerry and the Democrats?

Ken Khachigian: Wow. If the international criminal court ever comes up in this campaign, the whole thing will be a snoozer. as we say in politics: that issue has no salience for the average voter. The issue spectrum will be very narrow... focused around the economy, the war, terrorism, national security and the capacity of the candidate to actually lead. Again, I repeat, advantage to Bush because he is a "known" quantity.

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Bethesda, Md.: Honestly, I looked at your editorial and it came across to me not as advice for Kerry but a disguised list of why Kerry is bad. I'm not trying to be confrontational. I just wonder if you really wanted to write, "I think John Kerry should become a Republican." I mentioned this to my wife and she agreed but said she was much more interested in your editorial than the liberal's.

Ken Khachigian: Well, in reality, I was not seriously expected to help Kerry cross the finish line... so much of what I said was a bit tongue in cheek. but, frankly, what i pointed out to Kerry were his actual weaknesses. So what his side may find annoying are, in a way, pieces of advice he might want to think about. My goal was to be lively and interesting without taking the sledgehammer to Kerry. I truly do believe Edwards is not an asset for the long run of this campaign, and I also think Kerry needs to come out of the convention as more principled and less malleable. your wife is right in the sense that Kerry would do well to know his weaknesses as well as his strengths. Thanks to all for good questions -- hope it helped put some light on the process. Will do it again in a month.

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