TO: John Kerry
FROM: Jeff Shesol,
RE: The Moment
By the time you take the podium in Boston on Thursday night, the Bush-Cheney campaign will have spent, over many months, tens of millions of dollars to ensure that the viewing audience doesn't believe a word you say. Your acceptance speech is a prime-time chance to show that the money was wasted. Here are some thoughts on how to make sure the fall campaign will be fought on your terms:
Go Beyond Biography. Polls and pundits suggest that Americans don't know you yet. It seems hard to believe in the age of the permanent campaign, but if true, this convention will go a long way toward remedying the situation. The schedule is packed with testimonials to the content of your character: Kerry as visionary, Kerry as warrior, Kerry as dad.
I haven't seen a draft, but I suspect your speech contains an element of autobiography. This is a safe bet. Over the last half-century, acceptance speeches have become more personal, rendering nominees not only more human but also, in some way, emblematic of the American experience.
This is a harder sell the wealthier you are. Thus, it has to be conceded -- here, not in the speech -- that beyond your wartime bravery, the rest of your life story has limited political utility. The public may not know you well, but it does understand that whatever bootstraps might actually be, you did not pull yourself up by them.
You are not the first child of privilege to grapple with this problem. John F. Kennedy appeared unbothered by his wealthy background; he joked about it on the campaign trail, but felt no need to account for it in his acceptance speech. Recent nominees, though, have seemed more sheepish. "Yes, my parents were prosperous," George H.W. Bush confessed in 1988, "and their children sure were lucky."
Not a bad strategy, but it would have been best to leave it at that. Instead, Bush tried to squeeze himself into the shoes of a self-made man: "We lived in a little shotgun house, one room for the three of us," he said of his family's years in Texas, when he made millions in oil. "[We] lived the dream -- high school football on Friday nights, Little League, neighborhood barbecue." Bush's triumph was temporary. This kind of socioeconomic cross-dressing did little to convince most voters, who, four years later, rejected Bush in favor of Bill Clinton, a more authentic spokesman for the "forgotten middle class."
Al Gore, in his 2000 address, tried a diversionary tactic: he spoke more about his parents' upbringing than about his own. "They did give me a good life," he conceded. "But like so many in America, they started out with almost nothing." True enough, but the hardscrabble tale of the Gores of Tennessee did little to disguise the fact that their son was raised among Washington elites.
Both the Bush and Gore examples reflect the dangers of suggesting, as Bush did, that one's life is "symbolic of an era" or of anyone else's experience. For a candidate from a privileged background, it is one thing to show concern for the members of the middle class, quite another to equate your struggles with theirs.
Show, Don't Tell. You often speak of values. As a Democrat, I think that's a good thing: For too long, members of our party were afraid even to use the word. By the late 1980s, it was so often invoked by the GOP that any Democrat who said "values" without a sneer was making some kind of radical break with party orthodoxy.
During the 1990s, though, with a New Democrat in the White House, values became part of what the Democratic Leadership Council called the "national conversation." By the time Sen. Joe Lieberman and Gen. Wes Clark dropped the v-bomb in this year's Democratic primaries, the word felt a little weary, past its prime.
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: email@example.com
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.