A Swift, Stirring Race Against the Television Timer
By Tom Shales
Friday, July 30, 2004; Page C01
A stunningly passionate acceptance speech by presidential nominee John Kerry ended the Democratic National Convention on a note of stirring, if hurried, triumph last night, the night when the convention was likely to draw its biggest audience.
Kerry's speech was to some degree a fight against tyranny -- the tyranny of the clock and the time limits imposed by the commercial networks on the proceedings. No matter that the 2004 election has been called by some observers one of the most important in U.S. history; the network affiliates still get cranky if anything intrudes on their profitable and often frivolous late-night newscasts.
The Democrats came up with a great way of making Kerry look presidential, as historian Michael Beschloss (and others) noted on public TV coverage: A special, imposing podium was placed on the huge stage and Kerry entered the hall to make his speech in the manner, Beschloss said, of a president doing his annual State of the Union address.
But the time clock kept fouling Kerry up. His speech was well-written and did more than perfunctorily cover such issues as national security, health care and education, but Kerry stepped on some of his best lines by racing furiously to the next remark. It was his own version of a TV game show from the '50s called "Beat the Clock."
Many of his catchier statements will look better in sound bites than they did in the context of the speech because they will be trimmed into tight, neat little packages and viewers won't hear Kerry zooming ahead to the next topic: "The future doesn't belong to fear, it belongs to freedom!" And, "It's time for those who talk about family values to start valuing families!" And so on.
Bill Clinton's speech Monday night was a breakneck affair, too, but Clinton is a much more accomplished television communicator than Kerry. Clinton probably could have squeezed in the Preamble to the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address and still gotten off on time.
The Kerry speech has to be logged a success, however, especially considering the skepticism voiced about it ahead of time, and not just the usual "this must be the speech of his life" cliches. As Dan Rather said amid the hoopla after the speech, with Kerry and Edwards and their families gathered on the stage, Kerry managed to clear "the high bar that had been set for him," and the amphetamine pace of the speech could be interpreted as symptomatic of a man bursting with enthusiasm.
It has been said of Kerry, and seemed to be true again, that "he gets stronger as the campaign goes on," noted Tom Brokaw of NBC News.
While the big-time anchors at the big-time networks talked about the speech and the reaction to it, CNN viewers heard over and over and over about balloons -- balloons that were supposed to descend, along with confetti, from the rafters of the gigantic FleetCenter in Boston, where the convention was held. Some CNN producer who should be hiding in a barrel this morning had decided it would be fun for viewers to hear the voice of Don Mischer, TV producer-director of the convention for the Democrats, ranting and railing from the control room.
Mostly what he ranted about was balloons. "We need more balloons!" viewers heard an at-first-unidentified man screaming. "Where the hell are the balloons? More confetti! More confetti! More confetti!" Prim little Judy Woodruff apologized later to viewers for Mischer's use of excessively colorful language during his tirade. The failure of the balloons to fall was not nearly as big a fiasco as CNN foolishly fixating on them as if they were the story of the century and letting Mischer's shouting take up so much air time.
CBS had its own technical difficulties when it stumbled onto the air at 10 p.m., the time all the broadcast commercial networks chose to begin their radically abbreviated coverage. Rather called for correspondent John Roberts to report from the stage, but Roberts's audio went dead soon after he began to speak. Then came reporter Byron Pitts, whose tendency for melodrama was unleashed full-tilt. Pitts told us Kerry was a "very superstitious man" partly because he made the sign of the Cross before emerging from the wings to make speeches. That does not make him very superstitious.
Max Cleland was introducing Kerry from the stage, but CBS chose to ignore Cleland for its own fumbling correspondents and for commercials -- one for a laxative and another, ominously or not, for the upcoming political movie thriller "The Manchurian Candidate." Bad taste to say the least.
Kerry's speech remained in what he himself called the "optimistic" and "can-do" spirit that the Democratic leadership decided should be the hallmark of the convention. It often seemed a strangely passive approach for a party that must persuade voters to switch commanders in chief during a confused and brutal war in Iraq that is part of a worldwide war against terrorism. The coming weeks -- and Election Day itself -- will reveal whether the tactic was wise or naive.
It did leave a viewer with the sense of the Democrats taking the high road, however, even if the high road was awfully dull at times. Kerry did mention George W. Bush a couple of times but not to attack him; once he appealed to the president to keep the campaign at a high level, implicitly the level set by the Democrats in Boston.
It wasn't a night for jokes and Kerry had almost none in his speech, but it was at least amusing when he announced he was going to say something that FDR could never have said in any of his convention acceptance speeches: "Go to John Kerry dot-com." There also was a brief high-tech moment when Kerry pointed toward the ceiling at a large American flag -- but the image of him pointing was itself projected on a giant screen at the back of the stage, behind the makeshift podium where the real Kerry spoke.
It brought back memories of Nancy Reagan waving to husband Ronald on a giant TV screen at a Republican convention in another century.
Chris Matthews of MSNBC said before the speech that Kerry had to have several "applause lines" in it to get the crowd animated and to make a big, splashy impression. The lines were there, but unfortunately Kerry kept plowing right through the applause. Even so, he ended a fairly humdrum affair on a note of spine-tingling inspiration.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company