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Analysis: Obama's Acceptance Speech

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Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Associate Editor
Thursday, August 28, 2008; 11:00 PM

Washington Post associate editor Robert G. Kaiser was online Thursday, Aug. 28 at 11 p.m. ET to examine Sen. Barack Obama's speech tonight in accepting the Democratic nomination for president.

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The transcript follows.

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Robert G. Kaiser: Good evening. On an unusual night in American political history (to say the least), we'll spend an hour or so discussing Barack Obama's acceptance speech and the presidential campaign. I would also like to post the commentaries of readers who would like to share their reactions to the speech. If this interests you, prepare a coherent paragraph or two or three and send it in as a question. I'll post them, often without any comment of my own.

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Helena, Mont.: I cannot understand why being able to communicate ideas to the electorate is considered to be a weakness on Obama's part. The "yes he can give a good speech, but there's no substance" theme is pretty lame, as far as I'm concerned. How else can a president lead in a democracy, if not by the ability to persuade people to follow him/her? Obama has proven that he has the ability to persuade people, which means he does have leadership qualities. I became a supporter because he talks to the American people as adults -- not some stereotype that I never recognize. I guess being popular and having capability to communicate complex ideas -- not 30-second sound bites that mean little -- are not any indication of leadership in this day and age?

Robert G. Kaiser: Coming at the end of that quite remarkable speech, your comments resonate with me. I've always found the best political rhetoric to be engaging and provocative in the best sense. Odd perhaps but true, some of the best rhetoric I've heard in modern times came from George W. Bush, particularly in his first term, when he had brilliant speechwriters. Good rhetoric helped him mobilize the country after 9/11 in ways I don't think he could have done it without that rhetoric.

Anyhow, thanks for posting. You sent in your comment before you'd heard Obama's entire speech, but it turned out to be entirely apt.

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Baltimore: Wow. I'd say if the goal was to show his toughness and look presidential he hit the nail on the head. Thoughts?

Robert G. Kaiser: I agree with you. I honestly think, at first blush, that this was one of the very best speeches I have heard in 45 years in the newspaper business.

However, I know from too much experience that my own reactions are often quite different than those of others--one reason I'm hoping for some good comments from all of you tonight.

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Stockholm, Sweden: Mr. Kaiser, thanks, as always, for these chats. Yours are one of the few I still read since moving here. I have read the text of the speech but had no chance to view it being delivered by Senator Obama. What was your overall impression?

Robert G. Kaiser: I too read the speech before hearing it. You'll be able to watch it later here on our website, on YouTube or somewhere else, and I strongly recommend that you do so. I thought the speech was much more powerful as delivered, because he seemed so very forceful.

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Williamsburg, Va.: I thought three things: Firstly, Obama was very, very negative -- he attacked McCain early and often. That surprised me. Secondly, he finally got into some specifics on his plans. Some of it was misleading, like tax cuts for more than 95 percent of American workers -- I'm pretty sure that his definition of "worker" doesn't include me. But he had some meat on the bone. Thirdly, from the media descriptions of his oratory skills, I expected the love child of William Jennings Bryan and Martin Luther King Jr. He was kinda, I don't know, good ... but nothing really magical. But I'm an independent, and naturally suspicious of politicians.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for an interesting and thoughtful post.

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Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thank you, Bob for doing this. I love your insight. My two cents: I loved the speech -- especially about the Republicans owning their failure. I also loved when he said he would look at the budget line by line and begin to strip the unnecessary spending. I also loved the direct answers to the McCain attacks. Two thumbs up -- I'm so excited.

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks.

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Arlington, Va.: Is it unusual for a nominee in his acceptance speech to call out (as it were) his opponent so specifically? I rather liked the directness, but don't recall that being done very frequently. Thanks.

Robert G. Kaiser: I wish I had the sort of memory that would allow me to answer this concretely. I have a distinct recollection of Michael Dukakis's speech in Atlanta in 1988 in which, I think, he did a real number on eight years of Republican rule (the two Reagan administrations). I may be wrong. I do remember Reagan in Detroit in 1980 giving a very strong speech attacking Democrats and Carter, but again I don't have details in my head. Let's both look it up tomorrow.

I think the strength of the speech was unusual.

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Newark, N.J.: The stadium venue worked like a charm. There was a sense of real energy there -- and it was clearly a break from tired old political convention. But ... I'm not sure his message was really much of a break with the past. Starting with his video intro where we're told he had a "childhood like any other" ... uh, a mixed race child of a black African and white Kansan, abandoned by his father, grew up in Indonesia before being shipped off to Hawaii to live with his grandparents? That's the new normal? And the policies really were pretty standard fare for the left. Higher pay for teachers, punish the wealthy and corporations, end the war, blah blah blah.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for this. I too cringed at the childhood like any other. Don't know who made that film--does anyone know who it was?

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San Francisco: I've heard Obama writes his own speeches. Did Obama write that speech himself?

Robert G. Kaiser: He did, and I can't tell you how impressive that is to cynical old reporters like me. Washington has very few personalities left who read their own books, do their own thinking, write their own speeches. But Obama not only reads the books, he writes them--and his speeches.

Chuck Hagel is another senator who does this; it can happen on either side of the aisle, but I wish it happened a lot more often!

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Detroit: What do you think were Obama's most salient points?

Robert G. Kaiser: I think you should decide that for yourself. Sorry.

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Silver Spring, Md.: One thing struck me tonight as a big difference between the candidates. When McCain attacks Obama, it comes off as petty and angry, but Obama somehow was able to go right at McCain, challenge him and still come off as above-the-fray and presidential. I think it is very tough for any candidate to criticize an opponent and still seem noble. What did you think?

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks for this. Obviously, your predilections color your conclusions--I mean this in general, not just in your case. But I'm not surprised at your reaction.

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New York: I feel like this speech was almost a direct challenge to McCain next week ... and I think McCain is awfully awkward in delivery. How does McCain compete?

Robert G. Kaiser: Mark Salter, McCain's alter ego and co-author (at least) of his books and speeches, has been working on McCain's acceptance speech literally for weeks, knowing it was extremely important. I suspect McCain has spent much of this week getting ready for his big moment next week. Lots of people will have low expectations like yours, because McCain has no history of great speechmaking. But I've never seen a bad acceptance speech; the Dukakis speech I referred to earlier, in 1988, was quite terrific, even though Dukakis proved to be an utterly ineffectual candidate. Personally I expect McCain to do quite well.

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Helena, Mont.: One of the things that makes Obama such a good speaker is his cadence. His words and delivery have a rhythm that is pleasing to the ear -- it just makes it easier to listen to him. I think we would find him reading the telephone directory to be easy listenin'.

Robert G. Kaiser: Well, let's not test your hypothesis! But thanks for posting.

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Minneapolis: Robert, I was struck by the omission of the Rev. King's name from the speech. Do you believe Sen. Obama deliberately was avoiding having the press frame his candidacy through the lens of civil rights?

Robert G. Kaiser: I interpreted that as a literary device. We all knew who the preacher from Georgia was. I don't think much of your theory.

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Re: Williamsburg, Va.: I think you need to go watch Obama's earlier speeches (especially the one on race) for your William Jennings Bryan oratory. That wasn't the point of tonight -- the people who love those talks already love Obama. Tonight was about making him less scary, apparently to the people in this country who don't think or get nuance, or that there are two sides to every issues and very rarely are things absolutely right or wrong

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks for the comment.

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Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia: What kind of advantage will Sen. Obama's volunteer network give him over McCain's? will it make him be able to counterattack faster than McCain could, etc.?

Robert G. Kaiser: The volunteer network is most relevant to registering and then turning out the vote in November. And it looks today as though Obama will have a very big advantage because his organization is so big and so effective.

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Miami: What did you think of his "energy independence in 10 years"? That seems just wildly optimistic. Is there a plan behind it, or are we all walking to work now?

Robert G. Kaiser: I think this was an echo of JFK: A man on the moon in ten years. I am not an engineer or scientist, I don't know how realistic the idea is. I do think we are in for real and meaningful changes in the way we live over the next decade. In Miami you'll probably have to give up air conditioning.

Just kidding.

I hope. For your sake!

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Salem, Ore.: The really surprising thing about this election so far is that McCain -- who was written off early as computer-illiterate, is running circles around Obama by launching quick-response YouTube ads. I remember months ago that the media lauded Obama for his Internet fundraising savvy, but I haven't heard mention of McCain's surprising turnaround. Which points did Obama make tonight that you think will appear in the next McCain ad? I think there are a few treasures in there that McCain wouldn't mind repeated.

Robert G. Kaiser: Geez, I don't see those circles. Obama has been ahead in polls for months. In the daily Gallup tracking poll he opened up a six point lead as of yesterday. Do you think this is all about attacks? IS that all that matters?

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Vistancia, Ariz.: The issue of temperament is interesting and is going to spark a lot of heat. How should McCain respond?

Robert G. Kaiser: Sorry, no advice to candidates will be given here.

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Atlanta: I thought it was a strong speech, but not as inspiring as the Iowa or New Hampshire speeches -- but that was not the point. The willingness to address gay marriage, guns and abortion was striking -- as was his decision to call out McCain on negative campaigning. Most of all, though, I am glad he tied the night back to the Rev. King; I was afraid he'd avoid that as "too black." But the Republican post-speech comment was sad at best, and if McCain's news is another rich white guy, then I do not envy him his task in St. Paul, Minn.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. I missed the post-speech Republican comment, but I'll try to find it.

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Wilmington Del.:"Looking at the budget and stripping unnecessary spending" would be a good line of attack for McCain. After all, Obama soaks up earmarks like Ted Stevens on a bender. McCain doesn't do earmarks. Couldn't McCain make an ad saying "hey Obama -- I know where you can find some unnecessary spending ... start with yours."

Robert G. Kaiser: Don't think you have your facts straight. Obama's earmarks are modest, a tiny fraction of Ted Stevens'. But any earmarks are an opening for McCain, to be sure.

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These guys know what they're doing: Robert: Beyond the brilliance of the speech both in content and delivery, the one thing I take away from tonight is that Obama and the people working for him have a clear understanding of how they want to run this campaign, and the skill to execute it properly. Think of the many "problems" and "challenges" he faced going into this convention: Clinton and her PUMAs, his "celebrity" status, his declining momentum, the arrogance of holding the final speech in a stadium, and add to it the "Temple of Obama" stage set. Were any of those problems in the end?

If he hasn't destroyed the myth of celebrity status, he has weakened it badly, and the setting looked great and the stadium gamble paid off. Finally, while all of this was happening, his campaign is busy registering voters and opening campaign offices all across the country (and, oh yeah, raising millions of dollars). At some point the media must recognize this is a different breed of Democratic animal, and so far it's working.

Robert G. Kaiser: I think serious journalists long ago recognized how good the Obama operation is. Experienced political reporters--our wonderful Dan Balz, for example--have been writing about this for months. It's the best-run campaign we've seen in a long time.

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Los Angeles: Robert, were you surprised at how much criticism of McCain was included in the speech? It was quite a contrast with Kerry's speech in 2004, which was quite positive.

Robert G. Kaiser: And Kerry lost. I see repeated indications that the Obama campaign considers Kerry's shortcomings in 2004 are a kind of guidebook of things NOT to do. Giving a predominantly positive acceptance speech may have been one of them.

Remember how that speech began? With Kerry's silly salute, saying "reporting for duty"? Oy.

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Toronto: Too much anti-McCain too early, and then too definitive on things like ending oil dependence in 10 years (really, really misleading). Failed from that perspective. Lots of things the GOP can rip into, and some of it will be valid.

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks.

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Washington: I am a cynical long-time Washington resident, Washington Post reader, and consider politics theater and no more ... but this guy is unbelievable. I am 39 and never have seen anyone like him -- he's better than Clinton. It is truly remarkable to me that he is not running away with this election already.

Robert G. Kaiser: and thanks to you too.

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Burke, Va.: I'm an independent who generally votes Republican but who is looking at Obama very closely. A few thoughts I would appreciate your feedback on. One, his rhetoric (no negativity intended) was excellent, but does he have the specifics to back it up? Every politician at every level of government says they will cut waste, but "waste" is hard to find, and so much of the budget is taken over by entitlement programs that no one wants to touch. Also, keeping jobs in the U.S. is a great idea, but how? Will we just end up being disappointed when it's time to turn words into actions?My heart was stirred by his words at times, but he also seemed to lack some critical judgment that keeps this from being a great speech. For example, the line "guess what, John McCain, we all put America first" was a wet blanket over the previous words, which were quite beautiful and stirring. And using words at the end referring to hope in Jesus Christ and applying them to hope in a political process I thought personally (as a Christian) fell flat. Just my thoughts ... it was at least a solid B-plus!

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. I don't think I can provide "feedback" to your reactions, which are entirely legitimate, and are entirely yours. On the specifics, in my opinion the federal budget is filled with silly expenditures and waste, all of them favored by various interest groups and hard, but not impossible, to cut. There are features of the tax code that encourage shipping jobs overseas in some situations; they could be changed.

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Austin, Texas: Apart from the speech, what did you think of the convention overall? I thought it was strong.

Robert G. Kaiser: The convention certainly helped Obama. Remember all the drama (much of it utterly phony) about the "split" in the party? The anxieties about the Clintons? all that has been dealt with now. Biden seemed to go down very well with the Dems, and that's important--McCain will not be able to make as popular a choice for Republicans, because he doesn't have such a beloved figure available to him. Women I have talked to thought, as I did, that Michelle Obama did a strong job on Monday night. Yes, a good convention for the Dems--not decisive, not the last words, but a big help at this stage.

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Pittsburgh: I was not an Obama supporter at first, but I've watched this convention all week. After the acceptance speech tonight, I am convinced that Obama is exactly what this country needs at this point, on many levels.

Robert G. Kaiser: Interesting. Thanks.

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Utah: I am very impressed - the man can really deliver (and write!) a speech. But I have to admit that I was most impressed by the diversity of the audience, as seen from the TV cameras. I assume there was some manipulation of audience shots ... but I don't think I've ever seen an audience at a political event that so genuinely looked like a crowd on an everyday American city street.

Robert G. Kaiser: Far as I know the networks are totally free to make the pictures, they aren't manipulated -- at least not by the organizers of the convention.

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Not Energy Independence: Obama said that the U.S. will not use oil from the Middle East in 10 years, not be free of foreign oil -- two very different things.

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks.

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San Jose, Calif.: Obama took the gloves off tonight. He attacked McCain and basically called him an out-of-touch coward -- but you can bet he'll cry like a girl when he gets hit back, like he did with the Ayers ad.

Robert G. Kaiser:"cry like a girl?"

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U.S.: Great resource for past nomination acceptance speeches Reagan mentioned Carter quite a bit, and Clinton did a number of times with Bush.

Robert G. Kaiser: I don't have time to check your link, but really appreciate this. thanks.

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Reston, Va.: Sure, it was a well delivered speech -- but it's meant for the people that are already sold on him. Me? I'm not. Sen. Obama wasn't selling to me. I saw good execution in the speech, but I'm in the boat that there was no content to sway someone. And what do all those people with the signs ("CHANGE" above "www.barackobama.com")want to change Sen. Obama's Web site to? Seems like a sensible Web address, no?

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks.

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Kansas: Sooo interesting to watch this speech with our 16-year-old son, then to quickly catch the brilliant "Daily Show" parody of the intro video, which ended with Obama as the face of Pangea! Us Baby Boomers were cynical but impressed. Our son's reaction was that this was the guy I wanted -- he was the one him. He didn't care anything about his race -- to him he was capable. Much as I love Springsteen, my son shook his head at the convention's closing song -- "that's so '80s." The youth vote will be generate formidable energy from tonight.

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks.

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Washington: After seeing the shots of Obama's daughters in the stands, watching their father and watching themselves on the jumbotron, I can't help but think their adorableness will win the election for him. That is one beautiful family!

Robert G. Kaiser: Geez I hope you're wrong! Is that a basis for winning an election?

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Newport News, Va.:"New politics for a new time"? He spent half the speech trashing McCain and the Republicans, and now he's post-partisan? I think this speech was thrilling to Democrats and annoying to Republicans. Did it really move the bar with those of us in the middle who frankly are disappointed with both parties? I think it opened my eyes to Obama, but I'm just starting to pay attention to this race. It ain't over...

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks for this.

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Arlington, Va.: How do you think McCain will respond to Obama's speech? And what do you make of the ad McCain ran tonight? My first thought after seeing it was that Democrats will say McCain was being smarmy and patronizing. On the other hand, Republicans will say he was being gracious. Which is it?

Robert G. Kaiser: Wasn't it obviously, palpably gracious?

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Boston: How does Obama's campaign organization differ from Bush's much-lauded operation? You say that it's the best you've seen in a while -- what has Obama improved upon (not in policy details obviously, just the organization)?

Robert G. Kaiser: Bush's operation was good, but primitive compared to Obama's, which involves, thanks to its mastery of the new technology and the enthusiasm Obama has generated, hundreds of thousands of volunteers already.

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Stone Mountain, Ga.: I just stumbled on this site -- a lovely idea! I found McCain's congratulatory ad and Obama's declaration that he would criticize policies not character rather novel for a presidential election. Everyone's tone seems to be more focused on the big issues than in any election I've been alive for. Do you political analyst types now have a new yardstick for measuring campaign successes with, or are you too cynical?

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for this. I'm not sure what you mean by "new measures." I think the basic measure of success is unchanged and unchangeable--who wins. Politics in America has included nasty negative stuff from the very beginning. Like you, I certainly prefer the substantive, but it's a free country.

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Cincinnati: As a Democrat, I loved it, but I did cringe at all the attacks on McCain. Now it's kinda hard to complain about McCain's attacks. Obviously Obama has decided he won't be John Kerry -- just taking the Republican hits -- but my dad always said: "Don't mud-wrestle a pig. You'll just end up getting dirty, and the pig likes it." In this case, are the Democrats sure they can go toe-to-toe in a gutter fight? It certainly looked like Obama picked a fight tonight, particularly the line about McCain being afraid to find Osama bin Laden in his cave.

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks for posting.

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Columbia, Md.: I am black. I watched the speech with many friends and relatives, including my 92-year-old mother. Most of us had tears streaming down our faces at the end. Mom said through her tears "I am just so thankful I have lived to see this day." The rest of us said "amen." Hokey but true. It was amazing.

Robert G. Kaiser: I'm sure you had a lot of company in the wet-cheeks department. I talked to a lot of distinguished black historians at the time Obama clinched the nomination last spring and wrote a piece about their belief that history had been made, as it obviously had. I covered the March on Washington for The Post--I was a summer intern that year. What an amazing story of progress black America has been able to write since then!

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St. Paul, Minn.: What are Obama's credentials for executive leadership? He appears to have had lots of opportunities but no achievements for those opportunities, except for the nomination tonight. I'm not a Hillary Clinton supporter, but it occurred to me during the Democratic primaries that if Clinton had as slim a resume as Obama, she would have been laughed out of the primaries early on. I have to conclude that the Democrats spotted a good-looking guy with an exotic background who could speak well, and decided to rush him to the top.

Robert G. Kaiser: Obviously Obama has a relatively thin resume, but I urge you to ask people in politics you may know about his executive skills. In my experience, politicians of both parties are extremely impressed with the campaign Obama has run: no leaks ever, no backbiting among the staff, quiet purposefulness, sticking to their plan even when arm-chair critics assail them for this or that failure or shortcoming , etc etc. To me this is relevant experience for a president. So many of the chief executives I have covered--most of them, actually--could no sooner have run a campaign this well than they could have pitched for the Yankees.

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Washington: Some readers seem to believe that Obama was "trashing" McCain; I wonder if others who are just tuning in to the campaign believe the same. For me, I saw someone disagreeing on the issues and defending himself from some truly ridiculous charges -- but then again, I watch the cable news shows...

Robert G. Kaiser: My condolences. Thanks for posting.

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Roanoke, Va.: I watched this man accept the nomination while thinking of the five or six black children whose parents sent them to my (otherwise white) sixth-grade class in the 1960s in Virginia -- they called it "freedom of choice" ... I call it courage. I'm so glad I lived to see this. And I want this man representing us on the world stage. As for the speech, I like it when he gets tough -- anybody questions Democratic patriotism gets their nose bloodied, damn it.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

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San Luis Obispo, Calif.: What changes would you like to see made in national media coverage for this historic election?

Robert G. Kaiser: I wish I could spend half an hour answering this one! The quality of coverage of politics has not risen in recent years. The opinionated bloviating on Fox and MSNBC is sad for an old school guy like me. And sad is a diplomatic adjective! The networks' evening news shows are much weaker than they were 10 and 20 years ago, as are the correspondents (many fewer now) who cover the campaigns. I was on the McCain campaign for two days last month and there were no staff correspondents on the plane from any of the three major networks. Each had a young producer on board, a serious person but not one who will ever be on the air. And many of the big papers that used to cover elections have given it up or cut way back for economic reasons.

There are some good new online outlets, but few have serious resource to really cover an election.

It's not a pretty picture. And it will probably get worse.

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New York: I will vote for him, but frankly I was surprised at how flat his speech and delivery was. I read he was trying to play down his great presentation skills, but I felt that he played it down too much. I know he can give a rousing speech; tonight's was not it.

Robert G. Kaiser: People are wonderful, they can react so very differently to the same event. Thanks for this. I've been listening out of one ear to the commentary on television, and there is remarkably broad consensus among the talking heads that this was a great speech. But their reaction is no more valid than yours, it's just theirs.

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Robert G. Kaiser: This was a great exchange. Thanks to all who took up my invitation to craft your own comments. I'm signing off now because it is late, and I'm sorry I wasn't able to post them all, but I gave you a good cross-section.

I'll be back in a week after McCain's speech. Please come back then.

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