TO: The President
FROM: Ken Khachigian, Nixon/Reagan speechwriter
RE: A Big Speech for the Big Apple
Every memorable and significant presidential address recognizes the historical context in which it is delivered. I urge you, Mr. President, to be aware of yours.
Thirty-five years ago, early in the presidency of Richard Nixon, Post columnist David Broder made a play on Theodore White's classic presidential election narrative, "The Making of the President," by suggesting that some smart literary agent would soon copyright the title "The Breaking of the President." In a seminal column, Broder wrote about the people and the movements that had joined to undermine the authority of President Lyndon B. Johnson and yearned to do the same to Nixon. "Men have learned to break a president," he observed, "and, like any discovery that imparts power to its possessors, the mere availability of this knowledge guarantees that it will be used."
For the last year and a half, in an effort sure to continue over the next two months, your adversaries have been striving not merely to defeat your policies and your party, but to destroy you personally, to author, if you will, "The Breaking of the President, 2004." John Kerry's words last month -- "We've got to lower our voices in America" -- were thick with irony. They mock the reality coming from his own corner.
It is into this headwind of orchestrated mayhem aimed at your presidency that you must step as you take the podium and stand your ground. The time for subtleties has long passed. Your speech, Mr. President, should reflect the passion and determination and fight that will provide the architecture for your victory in November. You have proven yourself a strong-willed competitor, and your remarks on the stump these past few weeks have reflected a tone and timbre that suit you well. Bare knuckles won't work, but neither should you sugarcoat your rhetoric in exchange for an elegant quotation in Bartlett's at some distant point in history.
In 2000, you had to define yourself in your convention speech because so many did not know Texas Gov. Bush. And in your inaugural address, you needed to reach to a higher plane to quiet the roiled waters of the '90s and a contested election. But you have come to a different moment in your presidency.
On Thursday night, your challenge is to reframe the debate for the next 61 days in the face of attack. That makes the big question of 2004 not only whether we are better off today than we were four years ago, but, more critically: Will we be better off four years from now than we are today? "Better off" can mean many different things, but in this election it is preeminently a question of whether we will be safer and more secure under the threat of terrorism. It is on the basis of this distinction that I believe America will choose you and Dick Cheney over Kerry and John Edwards.
Recent news stories have signaled that you are planning a substantive speech setting out specific goals and policies within a sweeping and ambitious agenda for your second term. I sense that this is aimed less at contrasting with Kerry's Boston snoozer than at pursuing the elusive "swing voter." But I think there's a better way to go.
Capturing the swing voter has become the mantra in this campaign. Everyone seems to have a definition of the swing voter, so here is mine: The swing voter is like the rest of us -- he or she doesn't want to die in a terrorist attack. Swing voters want America to cripple this insidious enemy. They want safe cities and towns. They want safe travel.
For proof, look no further than your standings in the polls after your aggressive post-9/11 leadership and last year's successful military thrusts into Iraq. On these occasions, your approval ratings ranged from the 70th to the 90th percentile, and obviously had to include swing voters.
With all due respect, your convention address is not a State of the Union speech. It does not require an overwhelmingly specific agenda. And even if the campaign's intent is to compose an attractive overture for the second term, the better place to sound those themes is in subsequent announcements from the greatest presidential forum in the world: the White House. No less a Kerry ally than Sen. Joe Biden has enviously lamented: "You have to hand it to Bush and Cheney. When it comes to using the big megaphone of the presidency, they are the masters." So use it.
What voters know is that you clearly understand the transformation of the world after 9/11. I think the most effective words you've used were those in the remarks you made earlier this month in Pensacola. There you outlined the choice before you, as you contemplated launching Operation Iraqi Freedom, as one of either learning the lessons of 9/11 or taking the word of Saddam Hussein, "a madman who hated America." The latter, you said, was "a chance we could not afford to take." That resonates.
Sure, the convention speech should have its grace notes -- a tribute to Ronald Reagan and Nancy as well as a ringing endorsement of Dick Cheney, to stop the slander of that good man. And by all means, go forward with pronouncing your accomplishments and the reforms you seek in a second term. But truly moving voters away from John Kerry and over to you rests on the simple principle of reinforcing your proven commitment to protecting our nation's security. The false debate of this political season is over Kerry's personal courage. We commend his personal courage; it's his flawed concept of national courage that makes him dangerous in the post-9/11 world. That's what you need to underline.
Don't hesitate to quote Kerry and Bill Clinton and Al Gore and Madeleine Albright and Sandy Berger and Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd and Bob Graham and Hillary Clinton -- all of whom warned of the tyranny and the danger of Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction. Today, they and the mainstream media are like barroom quarterbacks, engaging in the peculiar American pastime of obsessive self-criticism -- reminding me of Franklin Roosevelt's terse observation of his critics as America recovered from the Depression: "Now that these people are coming out of their storm cellars, they forget that there ever was a storm."
Nine days before we memorialize anew the dread anniversary of Sept. 11, it is your mission to talk to us about your sense of America. Why is it that our country so willingly steps up to the ramparts to defend freedom, and what is it that separates us from failed civilizations? John F. Kennedy answered by saying: "In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger." Your answer is no less forceful. Use this platform to let Americans hear it.
Thanks to your Republican predecessors, the free world endured and won the Cold War. But now, freedom faces a new hour of maximum danger, one that erupted with gut-wrenching clarity three years ago. In your inaugural address you gave us a preview of how you would confront such danger: "America remains engaged in the world by history and by choice, shaping a balance of power that favors freedom. . . . We will meet aggression and bad faith with resolve and strength." That is who we are. And you should feel no reluctance about squaring your jaw and defending the nobility of ridding the civilized world of a genocidal renegade.
Your night in Madison Square Garden will not be a moment for inconstancy, nuanced phrasings or Janus-headed indecision. It has been unfair for Kerry to ask the American people to divine whether he is the warrior he was or the antiwar warrior he was. And it is your responsibility to draw the distinction between your presidency, which is guided by a clear compass, and his candidacy, which sways with the political winds.
Finally, you, too, can tell the country that you have something "seared" in your memory: standing in the rubble of the Twin Towers with the hard hats yelling at you, "Whatever it takes."
Indeed, whatever it takes to protect America and its interests. Whatever it takes to let the nation know that you will not be broken.
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.