An hour before John Kerry delivers his acceptance speech, an aide walks through the press section handing out copies of the speech. It fills six pages. It could easily fill eight, but the campaign has sidestepped that embarrassment by printing it in a tiny font. We've heard it's going to run more than 50 minutes. I guess this guy really is Bill Clinton's heir.
Kerry arrives with a terrific opening line: "I'm John Kerry, and I'm reporting for duty." The crowd roars. He'd like to acknowledge his parents, as Edwards did. But Kerry can't, because his parents are dead. So, he expresses his regret and tells a funny story about his dad grounding him for riding his bike into East Berlin. Kerry, being Kerry, kills the joke.
Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.
But humor isn't the point of the speech. Fire is, and Kerry has brought plenty of it. He raises the pitch and power of his voice, hammering home a series of indictments of the Bush administration. He frames every attack in affirmative terms, promising not to commit this or that sin of which Bush is implicitly guilty. When Kerry finally names the president, it's not an explicit accusation but a challenge to keep the campaign on the "high road"—in other words, an implicit accusation that Bush is playing dirty.
For this occasion, Kerry demonstrates an array of virtues he has conspicuously lacked on the campaign trail. He humbly acknowledges each of his Democratic rivals by name. "Thank you for teaching and testing me," he tells them. He expresses the awful beauty of Sept. 11: "It was the worst day we have ever seen, but it brought out the best in all of us." He affirms his faith and its privacy: "I don't wear my religion on my sleeve. But faith has given me values and hope to live by, from Vietnam to this day." He concedes his penchant for caveats: "There are those who criticize me for seeing complexities. And I do, because some issues just aren't all that simple."
I've heard people argue that Kerry needs surrogates to tout his military service because he can't talk about it himself. Not true. Tonight, he recalls patrolling the Mekong Delta. "I defended this country as a young man, and I will defend it as president," he promises. He thunders that the flag belongs to no president or party. "Strength is more than tough words," he says.
As he finishes, the chords of "Beautiful Day" fill the FleetCenter. The two Johns, Kerry and Edwards, hug and wave. Kerry looks as happy as I've ever seen him. When you're amazed to be alive, every day is beautiful. 2:25 a.m. ET
The Kerry girls, Alexandra and Vanessa, enter the stage in evening dresses to hug the Heinz boys, Chris and Andre. It's a handsome illusion: two families campaigning as one. Vanessa, Kerry's blond daughter, draws frat-boy hoots as she takes the podium. I expected intimacy from Kerry tonight, but this is a bit more than I had in mind. Vanessa says she "knows all six feet four inches" of her dad and is here to "share some secrets" about him. She recalls how "he enveloped me with that dad hug that overwhelmed me." I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed myself.
Vanessa recalls the "long, cold" month of December 2003, when her dad was tanking in the polls. "There was not moment when he doubted his ability to win," she says. "He had the courage to take risks–ahem–our house. ... He stayed the course."
I remember those days. Kerry lived in a $10 million house because he had married the widow of a Republican senator who had inherited a fortune. He mortgaged the house for a cause greater than himself: his presidential aspirations.
This is courage?
Alexandra does a better job. She describes how her dad once jumped off a dock to rescue a caged hamster that had fallen into the water. Then she recalls a sunny day when she was griping about her troubles. Her father told her, "I know men your exact age who thought they had the same future you have, whose families were never born, who never again walked on American soil. They don't feel this sun. ... Remember that you are alive and that you are an American. Those things make you the luckiest little girl in the world."
Now, that's a story.
Next comes the Kerry video. It's full of the usual images: the planes his dad flew; Kerry in a hockey uniform; Kerry in a Navy uniform; his swift boat crewmates. What's different is the clips of Kerry today, recalling episodes from his life. He sits in an open-collared blue shirt, framed against a window. He's funny, emotional, and at ease. He remembers playing guitar in a high-school band: "It was a great way to meet girls." He remembers the births of his daughters: "I cried like a baby." He explains what it's like to survive a war: "I am alive today through the grace of a higher being. Every day is extra."
Why is none of this footage in Kerry's ads? It's lightyears better than the stiff takes his campaign has been putting on television.
Next comes Jim Rassman, the green beret Kerry saved in Vietnam, followed by former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, a triple amputee. They describe how Kerry risked his life for his country and his comrades. "Ladies and gentlemen, there is no greater act of patriotism than that," says Cleland, driving the point home with his one remaining arm.
Even at a political convention, some things are so true and profound that nothing more can be said about them. 1:05 a.m. ET
Nobody boos Joe Lieberman as he takes the stage. This is noteworthy, because Lieberman was easily the most hated candidate in this year's Democratic presidential field. He ran a full-throated centrist campaign against Howard Dean, earning the enmity of lefties everywhere.
You'd hardly know it from what Lieberman says tonight. In fact, you'd hardly know he ever ran for president. He's introduced as the party's 2000 vice presidential nominee. He calls himself the first Jewish-American ever given that honor. He calls it a "barrier-breaking opportunity" and nods toward the African-American keynoter of this year's convention, Barack Obama, as more evidence that the American Dream is alive and well. The delegates roar their approval. They can accept Lieberman as a way-station to the ascent of other minorities, if not as an advocate for a centrist party.
Lieberman goes out of his way to solidify the ethnic bond. We must "build bridges with Islamic people" based on our "belief in one God," he declares to another round of applause. In a remark certain to score with black Democrats angry about Florida, Lieberman recalls that he and Gore won the popular vote but never took office. "That was a heck of a campaign in 2000, wasn't it?" he asks with a twinkle. "Don't get me started."
The worst moment in the speech comes when Lieberman urges the delegate so support the "Kerry-Edwards positive, constructive, affirmative vision." Wasn't the original Edwards message of "positive, hopeful, optimistic, uplifting" vapid enough? Isn't Kerry's adoption of these redundant, meaningless buzzwords sufficient cruelty? Do we have to add "constructive" and "affirmative," too?
The reason Lieberman is speaking tonight is that he's got a long record on national security issues. He's the guy who proposed a Homeland Security department back when Bush opposed it. Tonight he reminds everyone that Democrats had that idea first, and he exits the stage with far more unanimous applause from his party than he got when he exited the primaries. But just as I'm about to declare his speech a success, the band starts playing "Shout," the convention's wake-up song. 9:35 p.m. ET
Last night I joked that Tuesday was Failed Candidates' Night and that Wednesday was Really Failed Candidates' Night. Tonight seems to be Failed Candidates With National Security Credentials Night. Wes Clark, the former supreme NATO commander, kicks it off. Joe Lieberman will follow.
Clark calls himself a soldier and vouches for Kerry's manhood. The retired general does all the stuff that worked for him on the trail. He requests an ovation for veterans and their families. He takes a moment of silence to honor the fallen. He gestures toward the flag. Anyone who says patriotism belongs to one party "is committing a fraud on the American people," he thunders. The audience cheers enthusiastically. Clark reminds them that Democrats have fought for the flag and seen comrades buried under it. "And nobody will take it away from us!" he vows. The response is deafening.
Kerry will join a "great pantheon of wartime Democrats," Clark continues. He names Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and—in a nod to his own Kosovo service—Bill Clinton. The audience erupts with pent-up vindication at the tribute to Clinton, who, in Clark's words, "brought peace to a shattered land."
"War," says Clark. "I've been there. So has John Kerry. … John Kerry has heard the thump of enemy mortars." But Clark draws a telling distinction. Kerry "proved his physical courage under fire," says the retired general, but Kerry proved his "moral courage" in other ways. Kerry came home and fought for peace, "and I respect him for that," says Clark. He concludes that in voting for Kerry, Americans will choose a man of "physical courage, moral values, and sound judgment."
Clark's closing crescendo is drowned out by a corresponding crescendo from around the arena, but he has conveyed more than he intended. After Vietnam, no one can challenge Kerry's physical courage. It's his moral courage that arouses suspicion, as illustrated by his adjustable positions on the Iraq war and other issues. It's precisely because Democrats doubted Kerry's moral courage that Clark got into the presidential race nine months ago. Clark's defeat did nothing to erase those doubts. Neither does his speech. 9:05 p.m. ET
Nothing particularly interesting has been said yet tonight, so I'm going to go back to a subject I wanted to talk about a couple of days ago: stem-cell research. It's suddenly a political issue. At least half a dozen evening speeches at this convention have mentioned it. On Tuesday, the party gave Ron Reagan a slot in the 10 p.m. hour—a big prize—to talk exclusively about it. Hillary Clinton talked about it. Kerry talked about it for a whole week on the campaign trail, and he brought it up again a few days ago.
Obviously, the Democratic Party believes this issue is a big winner.
I haven't seen any polling that validates this belief, but no political party puts forward such an orchestrated effort to raise an issue's profile without survey data to back it up.
I thought the science of stem-cell research was too preliminary and arcane to parlay into a political issue. But Ron Reagan tried to prove otherwise in his address, and he did a pretty good job of it. He warned that it would be a bit hard to follow and conceded that the audience might decide it was a good time to walk away from the television and get "a tall cold one." He asked for patience and explained the basic biology in a couple of minutes, battling his way through eye-glazers such as "adequate dopamine." He concluded, "In other words, you're cured." The delegates applauded. In comments afterward, several indicated that for the most part, they understood it. And they responded overwhelmingly when Reagan charged that some opponents of the research "are just grinding a political axe and they should be ashamed of themselves."
As the research advances and patients and their families continue to organize politically, this issue will only get bigger. I'm curious to see how aggressively—and successfully—Democrats exploit it. 8:25 p.m. ET
John Edwards begins his speech at 10:21 p.m. He'll have plenty of time to finish, thanks to Elizabeth Edwards, who zipped through her introduction. This is in pointed contrast to Hillary Clinton, who took her time Monday night and kept Bill Clinton waiting till about 10:40, causing him to be cut off by some networks before he could finish. Either the Edwards' marriage is healthier, or the convention supervisors have learned from Monday's debacle to enforce the schedule more aggressively. Take your pick.
Elizabeth has fun with her husband's sex appeal. "He even looks dashing in a Santa suit," she jokes. She says they're going to celebrate their anniversary at Wendy's as usual. "It's not where you go; it's who you go with," she says. What a regular guy. The crowd loves it.
For three nights, I've sat in the periodical press section with cynical and often disinterested reporters. Tonight, however, our section is packed. For the first time all week, journalists are standing up all around me, craning to see the speaker as he strides onto the stage. This tells you all you need to know about the media's relationship with Edwards. Their lips say nothing, but their necks say yes, yes, yes.
Edwards rubs his hands together as he strolls back and forth across the stage, basking in the welcoming applause. He turns away from the delegates and waves in the direction of the press section. He's the first speaker I've seen do this. *
The speech is familiar to anyone who has heard Edwards speak during the primaries. My colleagues are unimpressed. But tonight's only important target is the folks at home who haven't heard him before. And while it's true, as my colleagues complain, that the speech is uneven, I doubt that will matter. What matters is that Edwards says several things the Democratic ticket urgently needs to say, and he says them perfectly.
He begins with the Democratic buzzwords of the year: values, faith, family. Kerry now trots out these words regularly, but in his mouth they sound like a foreign language. Coming from Edwards, they sound natural, in part because he addresses them not to the audience as a whole but to his parents, who are in attendance. "You taught me" these values, he tells his mom and dad. This becomes the speech's trademark device: the use of the second person singular.
"You taught me that there's dignity and honor in a hard day's work," Edwards tells his mother and his father. "You taught me ... you never look down on anybody." I follow him through the advance text that's been handed out to reporters. He keeps ad libbing, substituting the second person for the third, or changing the plural to the singular, or turning second-person statements into second-person questions. He's personalizing the speech.
The text says, "You don't need me to explain it to you." Edwards says, "You don't need me to explain this to you, do you?" The crowd shouts, "No!" Seconds later, he turns another statement into a question and waits for the audience to respond. Then he substitutes a "John and I" for a "we." Toward the end, he switches to the third-person singular. He speaks of a mother who can't pay her bills because her husband has been called up for National Guard duty in Iraq. "She thinks she's alone," says Edwards. "But tonight in this hall and in your homes, you know what? She's got a lot of friends." The crowd roars its approval. In the next breath, Edwards promises not to bring our troops home but to "bring him home"—the woman's husband. Everything is singular because stories are what people understand. So when you return home and pass a mother on her way to work, he tells the convention, "You tell her, hope is on the way."
Edwards tells America that Kerry volunteered three times for his country: first for military service, then for Vietnam, then for dangerous Swift boat duty. He recalls how Kerry pulled a soldier from a river under fire and on another occasion turned his boat toward the enemy and beached it to take out the threat. What Edwards adds is a concise summation of why the story matters: "Decisive, strong—is this not what we need in a commander in chief?"
On economics, Edwards takes a subject that has been droned to death at the convention and sharpens it into a weapon that can pry culturally conservative voters away from the GOP. "A job is about more than a paycheck," he says. "It's about dignity and self-respect. Hard work should be valued in this country, so we're going to reward work, not just wealth." Responsibility, he argues, implies reciprocal responsibility. "Their families are doing their part," Edwards says of full-time workers. "It's time we did our part."
Edwards pledges to fight poverty "because it is wrong," hitting the word wrong with a force no other convention speaker has mustered. Then he hits it again. On race, he does the same thing. "This is an American issue," he says. "It's about who we are."
On national security, too, he hits the right points in the right way. "We will take care of them, because they have taken care of us," he says of veterans. To al-Qaida, he delivers with bull's-eye precision the words millions of nervous voters have waited to hear from the Democratic ticket: "You cannot run. You cannot hide. We will destroy you."
Edwards slows down as he utters these words because he understands that they're the most important moment of the night. At other junctures, he signifies crucial statements and quiets the crowd not by raising his voice but by lowering it. He does this when he turns the discussion to racial discrimination. He does it again when he turns to national security. We must unite the country, he says, with a descent into hushed gravity, "because we are at war." He does it again when he speaks of soldiers wounded in Iraq. "They need their mother to tie their shoe," he says. "Their husband to brush their hair. Their wife's arm to help them cross the room." The hall goes absolutely silent.
When he's done, his younger daughter, Emma Claire, runs onto the stage, and Edwards hoists her in one arm as he waves to the crowd. Elizabeth joins him, carrying their son, Jack. It's the perfect picture. A minute later, Edwards puts Emma Claire down, but he doesn't let go. Clutching her playfully by the arms, he bounces her up and down to the music. "You Can Feel It All Over," says the song. That may not be true up here in the press gallery. But I bet it's true in Toledo. 1:10 a.m. ET
Wednesday, July 28, 2004
Bob Graham comes to the podium immediately after Sharpton. This is an offense against God, nature, and every delegate in the hall. Everybody starts milling around and talking, realizing that nothing will be said. Graham proceeds to utter the following words:
"Fellow Democrats …"
"My fellow Americans …"
"Florida has made a difference to me. I know that we are going to make a difference for John Kerry and John Edwards. …"
"As governor of Florida, I learned that the FBI and CIA failed to communicate with state and local agencies. …"
"As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee …"
"And as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I investigated the September the 11th tragedy."
"Through all of my service …"
"Yes, there are real threats. But there are also real solutions. …"
I stop taking notes. What possessed this man to run for president, I have no idea. He's so inanimate that when he delivers his last line, nobody's sure he's done. He simply steps back from the microphone and starts waving toward the Florida delegation. The band breaks into "Shout," which seems to be played only after the worst speeches. I guess it's the convention operators' way of waking people up. 10:18 p.m. ET
Al Sharpton takes the stage about 15 minutes after Kucinich exits. What a difference. Kucinich tried to fire up the crowd with energy. Sharpton does the opposite: He strolls casually to the podium and puts all the zip in his words. His body hardly moves. He doesn't need to come to you. He's going to serve up the hot stuff and let you come to him.
As usual, Sharpton has a nifty conceit. He's going to answer questions posed by President Bush in a recent speech to the National Urban League. "If George Bush had selected the [Supreme] Court in 1954, Clarence Thomas would have never got to law school," Sharpton thunders. The hall explodes. Then Sharpton turns to Bush's claim that the GOP is the party of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas. Sharpton recalls that the Emancipation Proclamation's promise of 40 acres and a mule was never fulfilled. "We never got the mule," he says. "So we decided we'd ride this donkey as far as it would take us."
What follows is the longest standing ovation of the whole convention. The place goes absolutely nuts. I have to put my fingers over my ears, but Sharpton, who has to wait nearly a minute for the enthusiasm to die down, doesn't bat an eyelash. This is his specialty: the deadpan reception of overwhelming response.
Sharpton runs through a litany of what Democrats have done to earn black people's votes: the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the right to organize. He has to wait again for a wave of applause to subside. "Read my lips: Our vote is not for sale," he tells Bush, earning another ovation. He screws up Barack Obama's name, calling him Obama Barack, but Sharpton hardly cares. The reverend has already been treated seriously as a presidential candidate despite refusing to apologize for falsely accusing a man of rape. Once you get away with something like that, you figure no error matters.
I swore I'd never forgive Sharpton for his defamation, but like everybody else, I find it hard to let it obscure his virtues. Sure enough, he ends his address with the most beautiful metaphor of the convention. He recalls hearing Ray Charles sing "America the Beautiful." Charles had never seen purple mountains or fruited plains, Sharpton observes. The blind man was singing not about what he knew but about what he believed. That's what blacks see in this country, Sharpton explains to the absent Bush: Not that slave-owning America was born beautiful, but that "we would make America beautiful."
I'll say it again, he's a scoundrel. But if there's a better speaker in American politics right now, I'd like to meet him. 10:08 p.m. ET
Last night was Failed Presidential Candidate Night at the convention. Howard Dean, who came in third in Iowa and battled halfway through February before giving up, got a speech in the 9 p.m. hour. Dick Gephardt, who came in fourth in Iowa and dropped out right away, got a speech in the 8 p.m. hour.
Tonight is Really Failed Presidential Candidate Night. Dennis Kucinich, who gave up last despite being dead from the outset, speaks in the 7 p.m. hour. He's followed by Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, who dropped out before the primaries because he had no sense of humor, and the Rev. Al Sharpton, who got creamed because he had nothing else.
The band plays "Power to the People" as Kucinich takes the stage. He's one of those student-council types whose self-image as a world-historical figure can't be shaken by any audience or election result. But tonight he doesn't have to withstand humiliation. He gets a huge whoop from the floor.
Unlike most of the convention's white speakers, Kucinich speaks with his whole body. On the presidential campaign trail, John Edwards was the only other candidate who did this. Kucinich pivots this way and that, speaking earnestly to each corner of the hall, though the podium hides his effort. He smiles as though he's selling salvation because that's what he thinks he's doing. He can keep the corners of his mouth up for hours.
"We are left, right, center—we are one!" Kucinich tells the crowd. "We are one for John Kerry!" It's an obligatory message for the occasion but an odd one from Kucinich. Among the defeated presidential contenders, he was the last holdout. He refused to relinquish his delegates to Kerry and fought all the way to the platform committee.
Why? Because Kucinich is a real lefty. He cares more about the issues than about sucking up. Good for him; bad for his party. The illuminated red band around the FleetCenter says "A STRONG AMERICA," but that isn't the gist of Kucinich's message. He tells the Democrats they're "One for peace." He says America must work with the International Criminal Court. He calls for the "courage to take the principles of nonviolence and make them part of the everyday life of our nation." I've read Kucinich's platform, so I can tell you what that means. It means that everything from domestic violence to military power should be brought together under a federal "Department of Peace." Not exactly the message Kerry wants swing voters in Wisconsin to hear tonight.
Kucinich is fond of melodramatic refrains. Tonight it's "Courage, America!" which he repeats ad nauseam. At least he spares us his singing. On the campaign trail, he was known to break into "The Star Spangled Banner," an experience that could have been prosecuted as the defacement of federal property. Tonight he quotes the words of Francis Scott Key but, in a gesture of mercy, doesn't try to put them to music. Sometimes discretion is the better part of courage. 9:31 p.m. ET
Let's talk about Teresa.
Teresa Heinz Kerry is the concluding speaker Tuesday night. That's the most important slot. I have to say first that this is absurd. The whole obsession with first ladies is absurd. George W. Bush went around in 2000 talking about what a "fabulous" first lady Laura would be. It was the first thing he said at virtually every campaign stop. No issue or potential member of his administration got that treatment. You were supposed to vote for him not because of his agenda or his team, but because of his wife, a woman who would have no official power and whose views on issues, notably abortion, he thoroughly ignored. Bush still talks this way: Vote for me because Laura is fabulous.
Is there any stupider reason to vote for a presidential candidate? And judging from the emphasis each campaign puts on the spouse, is there any surer way to attract voters?
So how does Teresa do at this stupid game? Not very well. In the video preceding her speech, one of her sons praises her as "multifaceted" and "multidimensional." This is not the way ordinary people talk. The son also lauds Kerry for "the depth of his character, his soul." This seems to be one of the peculiarities that brought John and Teresa together: their obsession with depth, thoughtfulness, and other fine qualities that people don't particularly care about in a president. We want you to make good decisions. The length and earnestness of your pondering are not a plus.
Also, please don't justify our suspicion that the pondering has no practical meaning. "Their compassion stems from their concern," Teresa's son says of her and Kerry in the video. Really? You mean, as opposed to their concern stemming from their compassion?
In the video, a friend vouches that Teresa has been "exposed" to people who have been treated badly. This is the way rich people talk about working people, and working people know it. Teresa's son, Chris Heinz, commits more gaffes as he follows the video with a speech introducing his mom. He points out that she speaks five—"five!"—languages. He says she's been praised by the New York Times. He talks about her fine stewardship of the Heinz endowments. He calls her "organic."
One of the uncomfortable oddities of the Heinz-Kerry marriage is Teresa's late husband, Jack Heinz. Heinz was a Republican senator from Pennsylvania. Teresa never stops talking about him. Her son introduces her as "a spouse to two wonderful men." Has nobody screened this speech? Then Teresa takes the stage. "Thank you, Christopher," she begins. "Your father would be very proud of you and your brothers." I don't begrudge her this family moment. But is this really the best time or venue to remind everyone of the man whose place in the family—but evidently not in Teresa's heart—Kerry has taken?
Teresa tries to play the first lady game. She wears a red dress. She clutches both hands to her chest, conveying how moved she is by the welcoming ovation. She bows ever so slightly. She poses as a downtrodden everywoman, noting that she has a right to speak her mind and be taken seriously. But it's hard to believe anybody with half a billion dollars has trouble speaking her mind or being taken seriously. During her speech, Teresa shows off her fluency in several languages, including French. Nice touch.
Teresa is New Age. "This is such a powerful moment for me," she says. Teresa is thoughtful. What Americans want, she asserts, is "not a moralistic America" but "a moral nation that rejects thoughtless and greedy choices in favor of thoughtful and generous actions." Teresa is a big thinker. "We sent Galileo to Jupiter, we sent Cassini to Saturn, and Hubble to touch the very edges of the universe at the very dawn of time," she says. Not long ago, Bush talked about going to Mars and had to shut up because Americans resented their money going to Baghdad, much less another planet. But for Teresa, Mars isn't far enough.
Finally, after going on and on without much applause, Teresa delivers a winning line. She concludes a long-winded musing on the kind of president Americans want by announcing, "I think I found that guy." Six simple words, and the crowd erupts. As she exits the stage, the band breaks into "Shout!" Teresa doesn't give the faintest sign that she feels the music, but the place is rocking. It's that monosyllabic magic. 1:26 p.m. ET
So this is the guy everybody's been talking about. Barack Obama, the first black president.
Well, he isn't president yet. The last Democratic convention keynoter was a young black man, too: Rep. Harold Ford Jr., of Tennessee. I don't see a lot of folks still swooning over Ford. What Obama has is a glide path to the U.S. Senate, now that his Republican opponent has dropped out. I see Jesse Jackson Sr. standing to applaud Obama, though Obama is taking an Illinois Senate seat that Jesse Jackson Jr. probably covets. The contest to be the next black president is getting crowded. In other words, America is working.
Obama isn't exactly black. His mother is white and came from Kansas. His father came from Kenya. Obama is, in short, African-American—a term that Jackson Sr. has too casually applied to people many generations removed from Africa, often through other continents. Obama's father went back to Africa years ago, but that doesn't change the hue of his son's skin or remove his African name, Barack. So the son embraces his blackness.
Like Ford but unlike Jackson Jr., Obama positions himself as a centrist in the Clinton mold. He speaks proudly of his grandfather marching in Patton's army and his grandmother assembling bombers. "People will tell you they don't want their tax money wasted by a welfare agency—or the Pentagon," Obama adds, earning an ovation. "Go into any inner city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can't teach kids to learn."
Obama understands what Clinton understands and Kerry doesn't: how to disarm the liberal stereotype sharply and quickly, allowing the audience to hear the compelling part of the liberal message. But only half of this pivot is Bill Clinton's strategy. The other half is Bill Cosby's substance. Children can't advance until we "eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white," Obama warns. The crowd erupts in approval.
The black/white duality runs through the style as well as the substance of the speech. It begins with the formality of a Harvard law graduate giving the biggest speech of his life. But when the text turns to God, Obama loosens up. "We worship an awesome God in the blue states," he thunders, and suddenly he's in a different gear, dropping g's and rolling with the rhythm of the black church. Soon he invokes the Almighty again: "That is God's greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation: the belief in things not seen." Try to imagine Kerry saying anything like that.
Two things about the speech trouble me. They bothered me yesterday, and in a way they've been nagging at me for months. Obama just happens to bring them to the fore by representing them in person as well as in words. One is the Democratic Party's exploitation of hostility to free trade. Obama, like other speakers at this convention, complains about "companies shipping jobs overseas" and workers "losing their union jobs at the Maytag plant that's moving to Mexico." At the same time, Obama holds himself out as a symbol of a diverse, welcoming America. How can Democrats be the party of diversity at home but xenophobia abroad, the party that loves Mexican-Americans but hates Maytag plants in Mexico, the party that thinks Obama's mom deserves a job more than Obama's dad does? I understand the politics of it. But what about the morals?
The other thing that bothers me is the Democrats' hypocrisy about division. They never cease accusing Republicans of dividing the country. It's like the old joke that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don't. Except that in this version of the joke, the comic goes on to claim that he's one of the people who don't.
Clinton did this last night. Kennedy did it tonight. Now Obama. "E pluribus unum," he preaches. "Out of many, one. … There's not a liberal America and a conservative America. There's the United States of America." The crowd goes nuts. But when Obama speaks of "those who are preparing to divide us," it's clear who he's talking about: the party that will soon convene in New York.
That's a month from now. And we won't have to wait that long to hear an accusatory message about two Americas. We'll hear that message tomorrow from John Edwards. 2:55 a.m. ET
Tuesday, July 27, 2004
"I was hoping for a reception like this. I was just kind of hoping it would be on Thursday night instead of Tuesday night."
So begins Howard Dean, jovially, at the convention that could have been his. Gazing around the hall, it's hard not to imagine how this building would have looked tonight if the man onstage were accepting the nomination instead of conceding it. I bet Dean is imagining it, too. He has to stand there quite a while thinking about it as delegates interrupt him with ovations. Many of these delegates originally signed up for him, but I can't see a single Dean sign on the floor.
The speech is a compressed retread of Dean's greatest hits, like some nostalgic Vegas nightclub act. Kerry and Edwards will "take this country back for the people who built it," says Dean. "We are all here to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." The applause lines go on: "I'm Howard Dean, and I'm voting for John Kerry. … An America that's restored as the moral leader of the world. … We can take our country back." He ends with his favorite exhortation: "You have the power! You have the power!" But this audience, unlike those that worshiped him in the primaries, doesn't pick up the refrain. Howard Dean is back to being just Howard Dean.
If this were Dean's convention, how would it look? How would it sound? For starters, the nominee would be a lot shorter. Clinton was here last night, looking like a giant. Kerry's even taller. Standing where Clinton stood, Dean looks like a midget. Yet I'm certain Dean would have been a more authentic and authoritative heir to Clinton. Like Clinton, Dean believes he owns the room. Like Clinton, he doesn't need to search the crowd for approval. Self-approval is enough. It's the thing Kerry most conspicuously lacks, and the thing that can't be taught.
If this were Dean's convention, the candidate would be better. But the message might be worse. "We're gonna be proud to call ourselves Democrats in Texas," Dean shouts. The delegates cheer wildly. But that isn't what Dean said during the primaries. He took caustic joy in pledging at every campaign stop "to send George Bush back to Crawford, Texas," usually with "a one-way bus ticket." On morals and religion, Dean was even more reticent and secular than Kerry. Bush could easily have started the general election with 230 electoral votes in his pocket.
Above all, if this were Dean's convention, what would the biographical tributes look like? Kerry's convention is Vietnam, Vietnam, prosecutor, swift boat, aluminum hull, bulls-eye, Silver Star, Vietnam. What would the Dean video look like? A lifetime of practicing medicine? The courage to fill in for Dick Snelling?
This may be the biggest reason why Kerry got the nomination and Dean didn't. In the final days in Iowa, Kerry's long-lost crewman, Jim Rassman, came to campaign for his old skipper. He told the story of how Kerry had turned around his boat under fire to pull Rassman out of the water. Nothing in Dean's life can touch a moment like that. And now he goes home. 11:02 p.m. ET
Poor Dick Gephardt. He's the guy who conspired with Kerry to stop Howard Dean in Iowa. He's the guy who got out of the race immediately afterward and endorsed Kerry while John Edwards battled Kerry through a dozen more primaries. A month ago, Gephardt was being talked up as the guy Kerry really wanted for vice president, if only pretty boy Edwards would get out of the way.
What does Gephardt end up with? A seven-minute speech at 8:30 p.m. on the night when the networks won't be watching. He warms up the crowd for Tom Daschle, the Senate minority leader who decided not even to run for president. Worse, Gephardt has to deliver a line praising Kerry for picking Edwards.
Gephardt was the national security vice president, the guy Kerry would have picked if he had needed to convince the public that his running mate was ready to assume the presidency. Unfortunately for Gephardt, Kerry decided—correctly—that he needed no such credentials in his running mate. "John Kerry will take on the terrorists where they live before they can threaten us where we live," Gephardt tells the convention. Wait a minute—isn't that the GOP's defense of the Iraq war? Never mind. Nobody's paying attention anymore to what Gephardt says.
"I didn't come from much," Gephardt tells this crowd, as he has told a thousand others. "My dad was a milk truck driver, a proud member of the Teamsters. My mom was a secretary. Neither of them finished high school." It's a better pedigree, for political purposes, than Kerry's or Al Gore's. But it's no better than Edwards', and the one form of unfairness everyone still respects—native good looks—has helped Edwards beat out Gephardt for the vice presidency.
"I stand proudly at John Kerry's convention," Gephardt tells the delegates. It's a noble testimonial, but a sad one. What a good and loyal man. And what a plastic, monotonously emphatic speaker. I feel bad for Gephardt. But like nearly everybody else in the hall, I'm glad he's not on the ticket. 10:46 p.m. ET
What prize do you get for picking the winner in a nine-way presidential primary and sticking with him? Tonight we get our answer. Ted Kennedy, the senior senator from Massachusetts—Kerry's the junior one, though you'd never know it from the worship he's been getting the past two days—takes the stage to deliver his traditional stemwinder.
No indulgence is spared. Howard Dean, the man who shattered Democratic fund-raising records last year and pioneered all the campaign themes that Kerry absorbed without acknowledgment, will deliver a speech that fits on a single page. Kennedy's speech takes four pages. It a paean less to Kerry or to America than to Boston, the heart of Blue Country. Kennedy talks about the tea party, the harbor, the Irish, and the 13 colonies. He claims for Boston the title of "liberty's cradle." Standing 20 feet from the Ohio and Iowa delegations, the Massachusetts senator tells them, "Welcome home." He promises that Kerry will bring us an America whose roots "are planted deep in the New England soil."
Did anybody tell Kennedy this is that national Democratic convention?
In fairness, Kennedy has given up a few things. He's looking as slim as I've seen him in a long time, much better than when he campaigned for Kerry in Iowa in New Hampshire. Back then, his gut was practically hanging out of his shirt, never mind his pants. He sure has cleaned up nicely. Tonight he's wearing a dandy suit with a hankie in his breast pocket. And his speech, though interminable, is confined to the 8 p.m. hour. Not that time slots matter much tonight—the networks aren't even tuning in.
Kennedy offers the same self-contradictory criticism Bill Clinton delivered last night. "We have seen how they rule," he says of Republicans. "They divide and try to conquer." Are the Democrats and their speechwriters unaware how phony this sounds? Do they imagine that voters who remain genuinely undecided between Bush and Kerry hear this stuff and think, "You know, the Democrats are right: It's those nasty Republicans who go around saying nasty things about the other party"?
"Franklin Roosevelt inspired the nation when he said, 'The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,' " Kennedy recalls. "Today, we say, the only thing we have to fear is four more years of George Bush." Is Kennedy proud of this difference? Is he proud that a party that ran against fear is now running against one man? I understand this as a necessity. But as a boast?
At past conventions, Kennedy poked fun at the Bushes and their royal trappings. Tonight he takes a different tack. "Our struggle is not with some monarch named George who inherited the crown," he jokes—"although it often seems that way." He continues, "Our struggle is with the politics of fear and favoritism in our own time. … We hear echoes of past battles in the quiet whisper of the sweetheart deal, in the hushed promise of a better break for the better connected."
This is what populism sounds like in the mouth of a Boston Brahmin: absurdly poetic. It sounded equally absurd in the mouth of a Tennessee-Washington Brahmin, Al Gore, and it'll probably sound just as absurd Thursday night in the mouth of fellow Bostonian John Kerry. Maybe Bob Shrum, the consultant who coached Gore on his message and is now coaching Kerry, isn't to blame. Maybe you just have to be a real man of the people to make words about the people sound as plausible in your mouth as they look on paper. For that, we'll have to wait till tomorrow night, when John Edwards speaks. 9:44 p.m. ET
The real prime-time hour on Monday night opened with a remembrance of Sept. 11 by Haleema Salie, who told the delegates she had lost her daughter and son-in-law on that awful day. Oh, and one more family member—"my unborn grandchild."
Whoa! This is exactly the kind of speaker whose words are gone over with a fine-tooth comb by the presumptive presidential nominee's speech reviewers. Did they suggest changing the "unborn child" language? If they didn't—or if they did, and Salie resisted, and they relented—isn't this an acknowledgment that most people are going to think of the human fetus this way, whether or not leaders of the Democratic Party like it?
Bush's television ad that bashes Kerry for opposing the Unborn Victims of Violence Act is a fraud on many levels. But Salie's comment ought to remind Democrats that they can't just call the fetus a "pregnancy," as they did in the UVVA debate, and walk away.
As Salie left the stage, a young violinist treated the audience to a solo rendition of "Amazing Grace." The hall lights dimmed, and all around the convention floor, delegates flicked lighters to create the sense of a memorial service. All evening long I'd grumbled about how lousy it is to watch a convention from the hall: You get a better view of the podium from your living room sofa than I do from the periodical press stand. But this was one of those moments when you had to be there. A packed arena that had chattered through every speech went dead silent. You can call it God, or you can call it a universal understanding of the sacred. It was unlike anything I've seen at a political convention.
Sadly, the next speaker, the Rev. David Alston, put God back to, er, conventional use. Alston shared truly grave moments with Kerry on their swift boat in Vietnam. But his tribute to Skipper Kerry sounded more like a bad novel: "I can still see him now, standing in the doorway of the powder house, firing his M-16, shouting orders through the smoke and chaos." Then Alston brought the Man Upstairs into it: "I stand before you only because Almighty God saw our boat safely through those rivers of death by giving us a brave, wise, and decisive leader named John Kerry."
Hey, I don't begrudge any soldier the right to believe that God is watching over him. But in Alston's and Kerry's faith, the last person God sent to save people was already God. And he wasn't running for president. 2:24 p.m. ET
A few more observation's on Monday's proceedings:
The Democrats chose Rep. Kendrick Meek, a black congressman from Florida, to kick off the early prime-time segment of their program at 7 p.m. ET. Meek lost no time reminding everyone of the injustice he and other blacks and Democrats felt they had suffered. "Four years ago, they threw out thousands of presidential votes that were cast" and "prevented thousands of us from voting," he fumed.
A minute later, Meek added, "I am proud to be a member of a party that honors our Constitution and doesn't treat it as a rough draft."
A party that doesn't treat it as a rough draft? You mean, the way Democrats honored the Constitution by opposing the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments?
Please. If you're going to teach history, learn some first. 1:42 p.m. ET
Monday, July 26, 2004
I thought Gore's speech was terrific and well-received. But his reception was nothing like Hillary's. Even before she walks onstage, the mere mention of her name by convention emcee Bill Richardson brings the house down. For the first time all night, the roar becomes so loud I have to press my fingers against my ears.
Her speech is soporific, a collage of the usual expensive promises: health insurance for all, more funding for first responders, more benefits for veterans, and, of course, more money for New York City. "I know a thing or two about health care," she adds, and everyone laughs. But this crowd, including Hillary, thinks the joke is just about bad politics. They don't understand that it was bad policymaking, too.
No matter. Hillary knows she'll end with the night's surest applause line, introducing her husband. The place goes nuts as Bill strides forward. You have to see him standing where lesser mortals have stood—in this case at the podium 100 feet from me—to appreciate what an imposing figure he cuts. The frost that has covered his hair since he left office accentuates the effect. In the arena, far more so than on the TV screen, he looks so majestic you almost can't believe the trashy, pointless, inconsequential way in which he disgraced his office.
Clinton, the male version, is the night's last speaker, and he uses that position to pull together the strands of the preceding speeches. He praises Carter, who mistrusted him, and Gore, who came to resent him. In Clinton's all-forgiving, self-forgiving world, they and he and all Democrats are united. Next to patching things up with Hillary and Chelsea, this reconciliation is a piece of cake.
The tribute to Gore is painfully telling. Gore showed tremendous patriotism and grace during and after the 2000 recount, Clinton recalls. Indeed, Gore "is the living embodiment" of the principle that "every vote counts." In short, Gore will be remembered, even by his allies, as a good loser and an inanimate emblem.
All speeches at this convention are supposed to be positive, or at least to look positive. Clinton illustrates the difference. He promises "a positive campaign," unlike the nasty, negative campaign Republicans are running. Borrowing a page from Newt Gingrich (who loved to credit the sincere belief of "our liberal friends" in this or that perversion), Clinton stresses that the two parties have "fundamentally different views." Democrats believe in shared responsibilities, shared benefits, global cooperation, and giving everyone the tools to make the most of their lives. Republicans believe in clubbing baby seals. Well, not quite. According to Clinton, Republicans actually believe in elitist authoritarianism and concentrating wealth. But the message is almost as coarse. "They need a divided America," he concludes divisively. "But we don't."
Clinton can be almost as funny as Gore. He gets a round of laughter by marveling that since he left office and joined the GOP's favorite tax bracket, Republicans have become, through their tax policies, downright friendly to him. Then he twists the blade, explaining that he decided not to send Republicans a thank-you note for his tax cut because he realized that working folks were paying for it. Substantively, Clinton's speech isn't very different from his wife's; the GOP has shamefully defunded this program or that one, whereas Democrats will fund it. But the difference between his presentation and hers is the difference between singing and reciting. The delegates rise and applaud as he pounds the podium.
If you don't like what the Republicans are doing—taking cops off the street, putting tax cuts for the rich before homeland security—"take a look at John Kerry, John Edwards, and the Democrats," Clinton concludes. That's the most effective pitch of the evening, and it's not surprising that Clinton, the only Democrat in 20 years who has proved himself effective as a political strategist, was the one to figure it out. But by now, it's almost 11 p.m. Eastern Time, and Clinton's blistering rush to finish his speech before the networks sign off has failed. A speech that should have started 15 minutes earlier, to let the night's best speaker play out his "take a look" message, has been pushed to the edge of prime time and compressed to a pace difficult to follow. If only they'd given Clinton more minutes at the podium in exchange for fewer pages in his memoir.
The worst loss for the Democrats in this clock mismanagement is their failure to capitalize on Clinton's presidency as a success story. Kerry has been far more eager than Gore ever was to embrace and exploit Clinton's record of peace and prosperity. And Clinton tries to make that point tonight. We tried it the Republicans' way for 12 years, he says. Then we tried it our way for eight years. Then their way for another four. "Our way works better," he says.
The other thing Clinton represents is the intelligence Bush lacks. Bush 41 seemed like he didn't care, so we elected a president who at least seemed like he cared. Clinton seemed like a liar, so we elected a president who at least seemed too straightforward or dumb—call it whatever you want—to lie. Now it's time to elect a president who at least seems smart enough not to screw up a budget, an economy, and a war. "Strength and wisdom are not opposing values," says Clinton softly, and to my amazement, the convention hall erupts. People are standing and clapping. I thought the dig was too subtle—and the lesson too profound—to come across. But in this building, everyone gets it. We'll find out three months from now whether the folks at home agree. 12:25 a.m. ET
The video introducing Jimmy Carter touts him as our nicest ex-president, a good Samaritan who travels the world feeding and clothing the needy. But what he has come here to do to President Bush tonight is rather less charitable.
Carter was always a vowel-impaired mumbler. Now that problem is compounded by jaws slowing with age. For the first couple of minutes, if you can't make out what he's saying, you're not missing anything; it's all platitudes. Then the kindly old preacher brings out the fire and brimstone. The crowd erupts as Carter accuses Bush of "a virtually unbroken series of mistakes and miscalculations" since Sept. 11. Capitalizing on his saintly reputation, Carter scolds Bush for selling America's soul, betraying "freedom and justice" in the choice and conduct of a preemptive war.
When Carter was president, his early career as a Navy submarine officer was treated as an afterthought. But in the year of Kerry, no opportunity to centralize military service is left unexploited. Both Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, the presidents under whom Carter served, "faced their active military responsibilities with honor," the man from Plains recalls. Because they knew the horrors of war, they exercised "restraint and judgment" in the White House, he says. Kerry, who "showed up" for duty in Vietnam, would resume that tradition, Carter adds.
Ouch. This is Mr. Nice Guy?
Finally, Carter plays the trust card. Widely regarded as a failure in practice, Carter has preserved and nurtured a reputation for at least having good intentions. His message tonight is that Bush flunks both tests. Beyond the "unbroken series of mistakes," Bush is a liar. Well, Carter doesn't use that word. He claims that presidents who served in battle "would not mislead us" on issues of national security and says of the current state of affairs, "We cannot lead if our leaders mislead." The delegates burst into the most forceful ovation of the night. They get the message.
When he's done, Carter steps back humbly from the podium, waves amiably, and flashes that famous smile. What a sweet old man, if you're not a Republican. 9:39 p.m. ET
In 2000, when Al Gore was debating Bill Bradley, my wife told me that the less she had to look at Gore, the easier it would be to vote for him. I was pretty hard on Gore, too. I still think he blew the election with a needlessly angry brand of populism. Afterward, I wondered how he ever got the nomination.
Tonight he reminds me. He reminds us all. He electrifies the convention with the most powerful speech of the evening. The jokes are familiar to those who have watched Gore over the past three years, but the laughter around the hall makes clear that they're new to most folks. First Gore sighs that he doesn't want the audience to think he lies awake counting "and recounting" sheep. Then he speaks of an America in which "every little boy and girl has a chance to grow up and win the popular vote." Later, he laments, "I know about the bad economy. I was the first one laid off."
But behind the humor, Gore carries a hammer. The 2000 election taught several hard-earned lessons, he observes. The first is that "every vote counts." In a shot at Ralph Nader, Gore tells viewers not to let anyone take away their right to vote or talk them into "throwing it away."
Gore wallows a bit in the tiresome Democratic habit of blaming his 2000 defeat on the referees. He asserts again, as falsely as ever, that the Supreme Court chose the president in 2000. But he does drive home one point no politician could have made clear in 2000, for the simple reason that hadn't been illustrated yet: What happens in a presidential election matters a lot.
The man whose kiss last fall fatally infected Howard Dean brings a big smooch tonight for Kerry. He vouches for the Massachusetts senator's patriotism (it helps that Kerry actually saw combat and wasn't a mere Army reporter) and environmental record. He praises Kerry for fighting the good fight "no matter how powerful the foe." It's an inadvertent reminder that Kerry, despite sharing Gore's populism consultant, Bob Shrum, doesn't use Gore's offputting buzzwords, "the people" and "the powerful." That seems, without overt acknowledgment, to be the most important lesson Democrats—one or two in particular--learned from Gore's defeat.
A couple of odd moments stand out in Gore's address. One is when he praises Kerry's wisdom in choosing John Edwards as his running mate. How seriously can we take this, coming from the man who specifically passed over both Kerry and Edwards in choosing Joe Lieberman for his ticket in 2000?
The other odd moment comes when Gore, decrying the 2000 election, asks, "Did you get what you expected from the candidate you voted for?" "NOOOOOO!" the delegates shout. Um, excuse me, but this is the Democratic National Convention. Did anyone in this hall vote for George W. Bush in 2000? I thought not. So stop pretending you can speak for the people who voted for him and are disappointed. They'll speak soon enough.
As he wraps up, Gore draws huge applause by reprising his famous prolonged suckface with wife Tipper. But the loudest and longest applause, by far, came earlier, when Gore tipped his hat to the mate this audience is really in love with: Bill Clinton. Even now, the lesser pupil can't get escape the master's shadow. 8:54 p.m. ET
The 2004 Democratic National Convention begins inauspiciously. Delivering the invocation, Rev. Stephen Ayres of Boston's Old North Church warns the delegates that had it not been for the courage of Boston's American revolutionaries, "You might be gathered this week to nominate Tony Blair instead of John Kerry." Even with Blair's stock at an all-time low, the deal sounds tempting.
The afternoon hours are a parade of what Andrew Sullivan has called "azzas." Rep. Bob Menendez, chair of the House Democratic Caucus, addresses the crowd "as a Hispanic American." DNC Vice chair Gloria Molina speaks "as a woman and a Latina mom." The speakers talk of "communities" and note that the politician they're about to introduce is the first member of some downtrodden ethnic group to be given this or that convention honor. It reminds me of one of my favorite Web nooks, the "issues" page of the Democratic National Committee Web site, which lists the various ethnic, gender, or special interest groups through which you can qualify as a Democrat.
The frontier-pusher is DNC treasurer Andy Tobias, who uses his appearance at the podium to announce, "Charles and I are celebrating our 10th anniversary next month." At first I'm surprised that Kerry's speech screeners signed off on such a plain homosexual declaration at the podium. Then I look at my watch: It's 5 p.m. Nobody's watching. Let's see how brave the Democrats are in prime time. 7:45 p.m. ET
Correction, July 29, 2004: The paragraph originally continued, "I wait to see whether he'll make a similar gesture toward the corresponding section on the other side of the FleetCenter, which has no reporters. He doesn't." However, according to my colleague Chris Suellentrop, the opposite section of the FleetCenter did have reporters. Return to the entry.