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Outlook: Advice for Kerry, Part 2

Jeff Shesol
Speechwriter
Wednesday, July 28, 2004; 2:00 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.

Shesol, who wrote speeches for President Clinton, suggests some ways Kerry can convey his values without relying too much on the "v-word," and urges Kerry to avoid some of the pitfalls of convention speeches past. Shesol discussed his piece on Wednesday, July 28, at 2 p.m. ET.

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Khachigian was online Tuesday, July 27.

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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Harrisburg, Pa.: It has been suggested that, if this fits a candidate's personality, there are advantages to a speech that is positive, optimistic and inspirational. Some speeches that deliver the same message, yet are pessimistic or negative, fail to connect with listeners as well. Would you agree that candidates should take a more positive tone in their speeches, or is there a place for negativity in presidential campaign speeches?

Jeff Shesol: Even angry voters are, I think, looking for a candidate to embody their hopes for a better future. Perhaps more so in troubled times when the picture looks bleak. We saw this play out in the primaries: Dean articulated Democrats' anger very effectively, but found that anger, in the end, wasn't enough to sustain a campaign. That said, for Kerry to deliver an acceptance speech that is all sweetness and light would reveal him to be entirely out of touch with reality -- or the mood of his supporters. So I think he'll be searching for a way to deliver a strong rebuke to the administration without sounding shrill or unconfident in the future.

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Winnipeg, Canada: Despite almost constant bad news at home and abroad, and despite record sales for "Fahrenheit 9/11," Kerry has been losing ground against Bush. Is there anything he can say at the convention that will turn things around for him? Or is he basically done before he officially starts?

Jeff Shesol: I'm not sure that you and I are reading the same polls. My sense is that the numbers have been holding remarkably steady for both candidates -- no wild swings in response to events, no surging or slipping by either man. Which makes Kerry's speech especially critical -- it may be the best opportunity he'll have to break out of the deadline and build momentum.

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Timken, Kan.: Can we hope that Kerry was listening to Clinton on Monday night? While I am a "Kerry Republican" this year, I always have to admire Clinton's speechmaking mastery. He was great at identifying and summarizing the key points that Kerry must make if he is to sway voters. Surely I am not the only one to observe this. Kerry has to help us folks in Kansas explain him or it's a lost cause!

Jeff Shesol: I'm sure Kerry was watching on Monday, and I think the general hope in Boston is that the Clinton speech (as well as Obama's, and surely Edwards' tonight) will inspire Kerry to reach greater heights. Still, Clinton gave the kind of speech that only Clinton can give. Beyond what you suggest, there may be a limit to what Kerry can learn from Clinton's example -- or anyone else's. Kerry and his speechwriters need to identify what Kerry's greatest strengths are as a speaker and play to those.

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Abbey Road, London, U.K.: Hi Jeff,

I read in your column on Sunday that you are the founding partner of something called West Wing Writers. What is it, and what kind of clients do you write for now?

Jeff Shesol: You have a great address.

We're a group of former (and current) Clinton speechwriters who essentially moved the White House speechwriting shop to the private sector: we write and do strategic work for a broad portfolio of folks in politics, business, academia, philanthropy, and so on.

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So Not over it, Florida: Watching convention coverage on CNN, I am struck by how many Republicans have been brought in to comment, get their message out? Will Kerry and the Dems be able to do the same at the RNC? Also everyone says that this is going to be one of the dirtiest campaigns ever, but so far (maybe this is mt bias) the only dirty stuff has been Republicans like getting Nader signatures and going negative consistently with their ads. And I won'y mention the mess with the felons list and the touchscreens down here

Jeff Shesol: I'm not sure that any of us are over Florida!

If the cable channels are letting Republicans spin during the DNC, I'm sure that in the interests of equal time you'll see the same thing during the RNC. Whether the viewing public gets anything out of hearing these party-approved talking points is questionable, in my view...

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Chicago, Ill.: I am frustrated because I don't think that Kerry has been able to attract moderate voters. He does have a moderate voting record economic issues and this has been used by Republicans to bash him on opposing defense spending increases.

I think that he should use the phrase "Responsible Leadership for Troubled Times." I agree with your advice that he should define responsibility. If he can address this economically (e.g. championing balancing the budget before Clinton). He can also address the Republican broadside about flip-flopping (e.g. voted for the $82 billion in the context of taxing the wealthy and against it when there was no source of new revenue). I really think he needs to define a consistent value (fiscal conservatism) that will attract moderates.

I don't know if this will be enough to address the flip-flop criticism.

Do you think that he should attack the flop flop issue directly rebutting each attack?

Jeff Shesol: On your last question: my view is that he ought to direct the flip-flop charge indirectly and not specifically. He can do so by showing the basic beliefs, the unswerving principles, that characterize his life and career in the Senate.

There's a basic stratagem in politics that says you shouldn't repeat the charges made by your opponent: it just gives them air-time. A (probably apocryphal) story is told about one of LBJ's early campaigns for Senate in which his opponent was a farmer who raised livestock. LBJ asked his press secretary to spread the rumor that his opponent was known to, er, get a little too friendly with his pigs. The press secretary said, well, we can't say that, Mr. Johnson -- it's not true! To which LBJ replied: I know it's not true, son -- I just want to see the s.o.b. deny it.

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Rockville, Md.: Mr. Shesol, what type of speech do you think Sen. Kerry should make, given a recent poll (ABC News I think) that said that undecided voters want to hear Kerry's specific positions on issues? Should he outline a laundry list, kind of like in a State of the Union? Or do you think he should just stick with giving his biography and speaking in general terms what he plans to do if he were president? In the alternative, a combination of both a laundry list and his bio?

Jeff Shesol: Well, I think the bio has got to be part of it, because he's got a compelling story to tell, and the polls tell us that voters are still getting to know the guy. So I think that's important. I think he's also got to set a pretty clear direction on a range of policy areas -- but that's not to say that he should either recite a laundry list or get too wonky or specific. Voters are probably more interested in the contours of the plan -- and, especially, the principles that define it -- than they are in how he gets us from point A to point B on, say, energy independence. This isn't the State of the Union Address.

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Delray Beach, Fla.: Drudge is breaking a story that Kerry took an 8mm camera with him to Vietnam, and reenacted scenes of himself in battle, with himself portrayed as the hero. Apparently, some of these scenes are going to be used in a film to introduce Kerry.

Do I smell a Kerry disaster in the making here? Is this a Dukakis moment?

Jeff Shesol: I don't know whether Drudge has got some kind of new angle on this, but it's a very tired story that Kerry has dealt with repeatedly. Like a lot of soldiers in Vietnam -- and many have confirmed this -- Kerry brought a Super8 camera so that something could be sent home to his parents if he didn't make it back alive. Given that most campaign commercials in the 1960s consisted of stock footage of candidates at podiums, or sitting uneasily in living rooms talking to ordinary folks about their problems, it's hard to imagine that he thought a film like this would someday be useful.

The president's flight suit, on the other hand, was made for TV.

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Providence, R.I.: Over the past few days, there has been a great deal of eloquence at the Democratic Convention attached to Kerry's service in Vietnam. Do you expect him to make his Vietnam service a centerpiece of his convention speech? If so, how do you think he should use it? Also, do you expect Edwards to talk tonight about the tragic loss of his son, Wade, or is he not likely to go there?

Jeff Shesol: Well, you'll see my answer to your second question in a rival newspaper tomorrow... As for your third question, it would be shocking if Edwards were to break his public silence about the loss of his son. He's been absolutely consistent about his unwillingness to "use" this tragedy politically.

Your questions raise a larger point about the use of tragic personal stories in acceptance speeches, which are a highly (and increasingly) autobiographical medium. At the 1996 Convention, VP Gore told a story about his sister's death from lung cancer -- and as heartfelt as the story was, it was hard not to feel that, used in this way, it was exploitative. Candidates have to tread very carefully in this territory.

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Feeling Blue in a Red State: I'm now living in a state in which cars sporting Kerry/Edwards stickers have been vandalized. (Yup, I'm in Texas.) Perhaps it's because of where I'm living, but the amount of vitriol truly does seem to be historic leading into this election. Is there a way that Kerry can address this divide without adding to it?

Jeff Shesol: The anger does seem to be unprecedented, and Kerry's got to make a very difficult strategic call: whether to whip his supporters into a kind of frenzy, since their anger is probably the best thing to happen to Democratic turnout since the Voting Rights Act; or to posit himself as the true uniter, the man who can bind up the wounds of a divided land.

His edict that all convention speakers ought to be positive and avoid personal attacks (of the "where was George" variety) tells us which direction he's going -- people do seem to want someone who can bring the country together, and he can't credibly claim to be that man unless he embodies that wish in his own conduct and rhetoric.

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Bethesda, Md.: Is it possible that the crowd in Boston will be sooooo excited for Kerry that it will be hard to reach expecatations? I'm an independent voter (voted for Bush in 2000; undecided this year). I expect Edwards to be awesome tonight. But Kerry will have the eyes of the world on him and in my opinion has to make a speech for the ages. Screaming Bush Bashers will not win my vote. Kerry has to be presidential and tell me what he is going to do or I will probably will vote for the guy with bullhorn on the rubble.

Jeff Shesol: On the expectations game: I heard an interesting analysis in Boston this morning at about 2:00am from someone with a gin and tonic in his hand, probably not his first, so take it for what you will.

He said that the performances this week have already raised the bar so high that no one expects Kerry to possibly match up. So expectations aren't high; they're low. And probably so low that Kerry can beat them. I'll raise a glass to that theory.

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Munich, Germany: How much is policy influenced by speechwriters? I imagine that the speechwriter gets a task to do, a speech or a press release, etc., and if it doesn't sound right, changes must be made which could alter the contents of the message. Is there an interactive process between speechwriters and policy makers to create the perfect message with the perfect words.

Jeff Shesol: A good question. When the process works well -- and this is how it worked at the Clinton White House -- the speechwriter is working hand in glove with both the policy and the political folks. It's all got to be in sync for the message, whatever it is, to be clear and persuasive.

At its best, it's a collaborative process, because you're right -- the words aren't just articulating the policy, they are in many cases shaping it. That's where the speechwriter exercises influence. Or causes trouble!

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Washington, D.C.: You stated the following in the article "Scribe on your side":

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.

Would you please explain this a little more? How do you think Kerry could best convey that he's "comfortable in his own skin?"

Jeff Shesol: He simply needs to sound like himself -- not strive to sound like JFK or Clinton or anyone else. I think it's useful to consider the acceptance speech not a formal "address" but, as Clinton puts it, a "talk." The occasion provides grandeur, but Kerry doesn't need grandeur. He needs to establish an easier, looser, less formal connection with the public.

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Ashburn, Va.: I think that a clear articulation of the fallacies (or at least some of the worst ones like supply side economics) that the Bush administration puts out in hopes of deluding the country should be a central strategy of the campaign. Why don't we tag them as liars day in and day out since this weakens their claim to be about family values?

Jeff Shesol: Pointing out the inconsistencies, the credibility gap, is fine and important. I think he'd best leave words like "liar" to the Michael Moores and Al Frankens. As someone once said, people want a uniter, not a divider.

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Annandale, Va.: I'm an independent with a conservative bent. I did vote for Clinton in 92. However, why should I vote for a liberal and a trial lawyer to be Pres and VP? My take is Kerry isn't going to do anything different on Iraq. He will simply raise taxes and bend over backwards to west Europe and N Korea. I might not love Bush, but the economy is ok. If you broght back Clinton, I might vote for him, at least he is a moderate.

Jeff Shesol: Careful, now. If you bend any further, you might break.

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Plattsburgh, N.Y.: Can you explain as President Clinton's former speechwriter his gift/ability to communicating with average Americans? My observation has been that he makes connections by using facts and interconnecting them with policy. For example, he puts a face on the tax cuts for the rich, he explains there impact on the poor, first responders, etc. He gives us data, not just empty rhetoric. I just don't think Kerry does that. He doesn't lay out for us in a way we can all "get."

Jeff Shesol: President Clinton puts a lot of stock in Harry Truman's statement that if the American people have the facts, they'll do the right thing. As I said in the Post on Sunday, Clinton loathes "rhetoric" -- not that he doesn't like a well turned phrase, but he wants substance behind it. He wants to educate and convince, not simply to inspire with empty, pretty words. It's a good lesson for any politician, I think, except those who think they'd better keep the facts to themselves lest anyone catch on.

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Jeff Shesol: Thanks to everyone for good, tough questions. Back in a month when the Republicans eat New York.

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