What do we mean when we call a president a "great communicator"? Maybe we mean he's a great storyteller. But whether or not he's a stirring orator or charming raconteur, we mean that he's a teller of great stories. In presidential politics, the man is a metaphor. The candidate who can tell a story about himself that's deeply in sync with a story about the country -- and who can make the stories equally compelling -- is most likely to win.
Look at recent elections. In 1992, Bill Clinton branded himself the Comeback Kid, the Man From Hope -- resilient in the face of setbacks (self-inflicted or not), able to take a punch and get up to fight again. That wasn't just a story about Clinton; it was, in 1992, a story about America -- about a country hit by recession, anxiously wondering whether decline had set in. The stories about candidate and country were fused, by design. A vote for Clinton was meant to be an affirmation: We will come through this stronger.
An equally compelling example: George W. Bush in 2000. Here was a man who, by his own telling, had gone astray in earlier years. He'd drifted from core values and had mistaken frivolity and flash for the stuff of life. Then, through grace and personal resolve, he heeded a call to moral clarity. Yet in refocusing his life, he didn't become harshly judgmental; he walked his way and led. This, of course, is a tale not only of how a prodigal son was redeemed but also of where the country, after Monica and the bubble economy, needed to go: back to basics, bedrock beliefs, integrity -- with compassion and open-heartedness for all.
Do both of these stories have major holes, distortions and contradictions? Of course. But both Clinton in 1992 and Bush in 2000 told stories that served as national parables. They appealed in sophisticated ways not to voters' rationality but to a deeper yearning for meaningfulness and direction. The candidate's story was a proxy for a bigger story about us -- or at least the "us" we want to imagine.
Now consider a counterexample: Al Gore. There are many reasons why Gore failed in 2000 to win the popular vote by a decisive margin. But tellingly, it is difficult to say today what story Gore was trying to tell about himself. That he was his own man? That he was exceptionally well qualified? True, and insufficient. Meanwhile, the story line he ultimately settled on about the country -- "the people versus the powerful" -- not only failed to connect with an appealing story about himself but in many ways underscored his own elite background and created cognitive dissonance about which side of the "versus" he came from.
This brings us to the current day. Bush's narrative was altered forever by Sept. 11. But as his crafty speech at the GOP convention showed, the past three years have mainly deepened and extended the grooves of his original story.
Bush 2.0 -- the president -- no longer needs to sell himself directly all the time. He can paint a tableau of the nation's experience and let that image stand in for his own. The subtext of his convention speech was this: Here is a decent man who was not looking for war on Sept. 10, a man who on that day was still haunted by the sense that he should live up to something bigger, and who, by an unimaginable tragedy, was lit with a singular sense of intention and determination that removed all doubt about who he was or could be.
How did Bush say this about himself? By casting it in terms of America's journey since Sept. 11. "Our tested and confident nation can achieve anything," Bush said in New York. That is exactly how Bush feels about himself now, and in those words is implied a tale of metamorphosis: an invitation to join him in rebirth.
What will be critical in the coming weeks is whether John Kerry is similarly able to tell two great stories and to fuse them into a powerful, self-reinforcing allegory. So far he has failed to do so. Kerry's story about himself at the Democratic convention was the tale of a Vietnam War hero -- which was useful tactically, at least until the Swift boat veterans entered the scene. But even had the account been left unchallenged, it never led the electorate to a clear set of conclusions about the man today, let alone to a story about where the country needs to head next.
Kerry is a patriot for serving in a war. He is a patriot for protesting against that war. Service and dissent, two vital strands of public courage, ought to form the spine of a compelling personal story. What's missing at this late date is a way to leap from such a story (which hasn't yet been told well) to a concept of what we as a people can become now. Or, to put it more sharply, why we should be any different from the America George Bush describes.
Will Kerry's renewed assaults on the administration's record move swing voters his way? Will his revived fighting spirit give people confidence that he's right for our times? Perhaps. But what he might most usefully do now is tell the people a story or two -- and make sure we want to believe it.
The writer, a fellow at the New America Foundation, was a speechwriter and later deputy domestic policy adviser to President Bill Clinton.