TO: John Kerry
FROM: Ken Khachigian,
RE: The Speech
Based on my collaboration with President Reagan for his GOP convention remarks of 1984 and 1988, I'd like to offer a couple of pointers for your prime-time moment on Thursday night. The presidential candidate acceptance speech is unique in the American political culture, especially for a challenger. Not only will this be the largest audience you have ever addressed, but your own party and the political media have already set a high bar for your success. You will be expected to meet five essential goals: motivating your troops, honing your rhetoric, framing the campaign debate, introducing your ticket and defining yourself.
But Boston, you have a problem.
Despite more than a year of massive and relentless attacks on the incumbent administration in a time of great controversy, you are still running even with President Bush in opinion poll after opinion poll. To be generous, you remain stuck in neutral without a truly compelling case for changing the leadership of America.
This is a widely shared view. Last Sunday, The Post's David Broder wrote that the absence of a surge on your behalf suggests that you haven't sold yourself to swing voters. At this week's convention, he admonished, you cannot afford to miss the last best chance to put your stamp on this race.
However, it seems to me that your real problem is that you already have put your stamp on this race, and now your speech must repair the damage. Regrettably for you, the old standby "flip-flop" charge has taken on some pretty decent legs, what with some of the comments you've made of late. For example, "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it." And, "I don't own an SUV," yet "we also have . . . a big Suburban." And so on.
(Given your serial reversals on a number of positions, some of us have enjoyed a few chuckles thinking of your marriage to Teresa as the perfect union of 57 varieties with 57 variables.)
You ignore the perception of inconstancy at your peril. While campaigning for reelection in 1940, Franklin Roosevelt provided this apt illustration of the problem with trying to be all things to all people: "We all know the story of the unfortunate chameleon which turned brown when placed on a brown rug, and turned red when placed on a red rug, but who died a tragic death when they put him on a Scotch plaid."
There is no better opportunity than a nationally televised convention speech to clarify your thinking for the American public. For example, you recently said, regarding troop reductions in Iraq: "I have a plan for how we can get there." But then you declined to reveal it. "Secret plans" are not selling points for presidential leadership. If you've got a plan, lay it out there. Now is the time.
Your second challenge is your veep choice, John Edwards. (If I may digress for a moment, a ticket of running mates with the same first name is confusing; many of us aren't always sure which "John" is being referred to. Think about taking the lead of your newest surrogate, Whoopi Goldberg, who dubbed Edwards "The Kid" during the recent Radio City Music Hall Bush-bashing. In fact, to simplify things, I've already started thinking of Edwards as "Johnny the Kid.")
Not to burst your bubble, but despite the accolades and media swoon, Johnny the Kid's bottom-line effect on your head-to-head polls with Bush-Cheney has been basically zippo -- the ultimate political reality show. So my next piece of advice is to use your speech to rehabilitate your former rival so he can be a credible running mate.
You created this problem, and you need to fix it. Even discounting competitive rhetorical hyperbole, your primary season attacks on Edwards are going to stick -- like the one charging him with "no international experience, no military experience." Ditto for the "diapers" thing. Whoopi's unintended putdown of The Kid shouldn't have surprised you.
These unflattering portraits now have Republican Velcro all over them, and the impression will spread that The Kid's a little green around the gills and unprepared for hardball with Vladimir and Osama.
Still, I believe you have an extremely creative avenue for upgrading young Johnny's foreign policy chops, and you would be smart to announce it in Boston. It has been suggested by some that you should send your running mate to Iraq to burnish his international gravitas. That won't be necessary.
In fact, there's no need to send someone with so little seasoning very far afield at all. The safer and more sensible way to achieve the same result is to schedule The Kid for a series of lunches in New York City to meet those foreign leaders who you claim have avowed their yearning for a new American president.
Every acceptance speech benefits from high drama. At the proper moment, your convention managers can darken the Fleet Center lights for effect, as you announce to a hushed audience that you are sending the senator from North Carolina to Manhattan. You know, like Eisenhower going to Korea. You get a political twofer: Not only does Johnny the Kid become a statesman on the cheap, but he will emerge from the meetings in the metropolis to confirm that the world community endorses retiring the cowboy to Crawford.
Of course, such political genius also has its downsides. After all, the European leaders he will be courting will no doubt insist on lunching on foie gras and Bordeaux at such five-star eateries as Jean Georges or Alain Ducasse. This runs the risk that young Johnny will be forced to rub elbows with the "bad America," thus diluting your class warfare theme.
We all know that prior to his becoming a presidential candidate, Sen. Edwards's now-famous "two Americas" actually referred only to plaintiffs and defendants. Today, however, he passionately limns one "good America," comprised of average working stiffs like you and him who struggle daily to scratch out a decent living. The other America is represented by greedy, super-rich jet-setters, who inherit huge wealth and live in Saddam-like mansions in places like, for example, Beacon Hill. Thus, you must cleverly blend your vision of change and hope with some pretty fancy footwork to salvage your backside. This involves some political artistry of the sort at which I note you have become more adept.
A few final Helpful Hints:
* If the delegates are unresponsive to your rhetoric, the best recovery line will be shouting out that Republicans stole the election in 2000. In the alternative, any accusation regarding WMD or Halliburton will work since these already have proven value as diversions from substance.
* Caution: Praising former ambassador Joseph Wilson for his courageous search for truth is no longer a good recovery line.
* Presidential-like demeanor is important. It would be a good idea for you and The Kid to ease up on the hugs, squeezes and back pats. You're running for commander-in-chief, not captain of the football team.
* Last but not least, beware of Scotch plaid rugs.
Kenneth Khachigian, a California lawyer, was senior adviser and chief campaign speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, as well as a speechwriter for President Richard Nixon.