Students of political rhetoric generally agree on the elements that make for a successful convention acceptance speech. Over the years, the best of them have had some or all of these ingredients: a fresh and powerful personal narrative, strong ideas, memorable phrases and a rhythm that builds to an emotional climax.
John Kerry's acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention on Thursday night fell short in all these respects.
And yet preliminary indications are that it worked well, not just inside FleetCenter and here in his hometown but with many in the national television audience. The first feedback I heard was almost uniformly positive.
How to explain this? On the most important night of his political life so far, the senator from Massachusetts touched on enough topics of importance to various constituencies that anyone could find something to like.
I say "touched on" advisedly, because cramming a recitation on everything from after-school programs to anti-terrorism efforts into a single 50-minute speech does not allow much time to develop any of them beyond the headline. There was something of the feel of a State of the Union address to this speech, but instead of being a compendium of topics successfully promoted by Cabinet departments and agencies, it was -- I would guess -- the top 50 hits in Kerry's polls.
It is easier to say what the speech was not. The narrative of Kerry's life centered on what is now its most familiar chapter: his brave and distinguished service as a young Navy combat commander in Vietnam. In seeking to establish common ground with watching families, discordant notes were airbrushed away. There was no hint of the loneliness of a child packed off to boarding schools while his father lived as a diplomat in Europe -- the experience that many of Kerry's friends point to as an explanation for his emotional remoteness.
Such editing is not unusual, even though it makes it harder for people really to grasp the forces that have shaped the candidate's character. But most successful acceptance speeches have given a fresh coat of paint even to the most campaign-worn ideas -- or at least have found some way of putting them into striking language.
Except for a welcome promise to build an administration involving talented Republicans and independents, I heard almost no proposal that was not part of the Kerry repertory back in the January Iowa caucuses. Notable was the fact that Kerry used the same words and phrases in July that he had come to rely on in January. Tad Devine, his media manager, told reporters, "We are going back to Chapter 1" for those who had tuned out the entire campaign, and he was not kidding. The senator, an exceptionally bright man, a reader of books, made no visible effort to give us less-gifted journalists a way to capsulize his thoughts in a memorable phrase or two.
Instead, what we got was a largely derivative collection of thoughts and slogans that had worked in other times -- for Republicans as well as Democrats.
There were echoes of John Kennedy and his pledge to "pay any price" to defend the nation. And Jimmy Carter, who promised, "I will never lie to you." And, word for word, Dick Cheney, whose 2000 refrain, "Help is on the way," became the most repeated phrase in Kerry's speech.
The themes I heard in the feedback on the speech emphasized the forcefulness of Kerry's delivery, his simple assertiveness: "From my first day in office, I will send a message to every man and woman in our armed forces: You will never be asked to fight a war without a plan to win the peace."
That declarative tone was his best rebuttal to the Bush campaign's most effective anti-Kerry message, that he is a "flip-flopper," not strong enough to lead the nation in a time of war. The frequency of sentences beginning "I will" was clearly designed to create a very different impression.
The paradox of John Kerry's life is that there have been times when he has risked it all -- starting in Vietnam and going on to take other immediately unpopular political stands, including support for tough budget economies that did not sit well with his liberal constituents here.
And there also have been times when he equivocated, most notably in opposing the 1991 Persian Gulf War, supporting the 2002 Iraq resolution and then opposing the funding of military and reconstruction costs.
Kerry is a much more complex individual and a more intriguing thinker than the man who was on stage at FleetCenter. But he did not blow his big moment, and now the voters have three months to figure out who he really is.