Alan Brinkley Christopher Caldwell Karlyn Bowman
8:21 a.m. Friday 8/30/96
To borrow a phrase from my five-year-old daughter's favorite movie of the moment, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, this was topsy turvy day: a day that began with the squalidness of modern politics in full and embarrassing view, and one that ended with one of the great ceremonies of our political tradition. Neither, I think, will make very much difference in the end to the outcome of the election.
Unlike some of the late-night television pundits, I thought Clinton's speech was pretty good. Yes, there was a laundry-list quality to some of it. Yes, the proposals were generally minor. Yes, there were few great flights of rhetoric. But like most of the rest of the convention, it did what Clinton wanted and needed to do: it made him appear presidential; it made him seem moderate and sensible and responsible; and it made him seem young, energetic, and forward-looking. The "bridge to the twenty-first century" line got tedious after a while, but it was a good message for Clinton--who can't differentiate himself dramatically from Dole on very many big issues, but who can seem to embody a kind of youthful, optimistic vigor that Dole will have great difficulty projecting. The last few minutes of the speech were very good indeed, as the reaction of the audience suggested. The rest was an exercise in getting the job done.
I do get a bit tired of hearing nostalgic references to the good old days of great acceptance speeches. I take a back seat to no one in my contempt for the elaborate orchestration of these conventions. But having spent much of last weekend watching films of these "great" speeches of the past, I have to say that very few of them would meet the standard that today's pundits claim they set. Truman in 1948 ticked off a string of disagreements with the Republican Congress in a flat monotone, almost as if he was reading a phone book (to use the old cliché). Stevenson plodded through an utterly predictable string of banalities leavened only by a few flights of sophisticated wit that probably did him more harm than good. Even Kennedy in 1960 only rarely raised the temperature of the audience. Clinton and Dole both gave perfectly good, solid speeches, both of which served their (very different) purposes pretty well. Neither was a speech for the ages--but these things almost never are.
As for Dick Morris, when you get 15,000 journalists in a city and do your best to ensure there is nothing for them to cover, anything unpredictable will get their full attention. Bad news may or may not drive out the good, as many people claim; but bad news certainly drives out no news.
It's hard to know whom one should view more contemptuously: Morris, for his reckless arrogance and immaturity (not to mention his betrayal of his family and the president); or the Murdoch press (the National Star and the New York Post) for, in effect, hiring a hooker to get them a story and then sitting on it until the last day of the convention. Certainly this was an embarrassment and an unwelcome distraction for the president on this important day. But a week from now, I suspect, it will be largely forgotten. Does anyone still remember Walter Jenkins? If it has a lasting effect, it will probably not be on the opinions of the voters, but on the Clinton political organization itself, which now has to run the most intensive weeks of the campaign without the man who put the whole effort together.
All in all, I think the Democrats had a "good convention" as they themselves define the term--in crafting an image for themselves that will position them for the fall campaign. It was not, perhaps, as "good" in that regard as the Republican convention. But it didn't need to be. They're ahead. This will keep them there--at least for now.
9:07 a.m. Friday 8/30/96
The moderator is right. The big weakness of President Clinton's overlong speech Thursday was its everything-but-the-kitchen-sink quality, which dragged it far, far away from the traditional business of federal government. All of these are fine local initiatives, and in fact, this seems like the politics of a high-tech machine boss: keeping schools open late, that insane literacy initiative (what is this, Haiti?), and various other stuff the president didn't mention, like the free cell-phones for neighborhood watch groups.
The forty or so action items have no principles behind them. ("Build a bridge to the 21st century" is an image, not a principle.) They leave Clinton with an ideology that's incoherent: Why should we, as the president says, "honor our teachers" if we need a supplementary literacy program? On what grounds do we chase down deadbeat dads if women are equal participants in the workplace?
As such, good riddance to Dick Morris. I applaud Clinton's rightward shift on a lot of issues, but Morris played to the Clintonite fallacy that you can have major, intrusive policy initiatives divorced from principle. What you wind up with is major initiatives imposed capriciously--or merely as "boob bait," in Sen. Moynihan's memorable phrase.
Incoherence won't hurt Clinton politically. What might hurt him is that all of the items on this laundry list increase the complexity of life, a key modern gripe (the lifeblood of the '96 Forbes and '92 Jerry Brown boomlets). None of these initiatives involve building stuff: They're all about regulating personal conduct. "The era of big government is over" only in the sense that the era of big computers is over: government no longer needs to be big to find its way into ever more private corners of our lives.
One staple of convention rhetoric was strikingly absent all week: any invocation of liberty (other than "a woman's right to choose"). I heard lifestyle and quality of life mentioned constantly, but liberty and freedom not once.
P.S. Is anyone else thoroughly sick of this spate of Carl Sandburg-quoting?
4:22 p.m. Friday 8/30/96
The Dick Morris story will probably last another 48 hours. It's Dick Morris, after all, and not the president. But still, putting the words "scandal," "sex," and "Bill Clinton" in the same headlines is bound to remind people--if only for an instant--of the similar allegations surrounding Bill Clinton.
Bill Clinton played it safe with his acceptance speech. It was overly long. The list of proposals was dizzying, almost overwhelming. He barely mentioned the Democratic Congress. I thought the "bridge to the future" line was used too many times, but it did address what I thought was a weakness in the Dole speech. A couple of pollsters in the past decade have explored nostalgia, and not surprisingly, they find that people think the 1950s were a very good time for the country and for families. But the pollsters also find that people don't want to go back. Looking ahead is just part of what we are.
It Takes a Village is this year's twist on an idea that the Democrats have been talking about for a long time. Mario Cuomo's convention speech in 1988 talked about America as a family. Lyndon Johnson talked about America as a family before that in his Great Society speeches. Since the progressive era, Democrats have talked about the idea of national community--a recreation at the national level of family and local community that enables Democrats to keep Washington centrally involved in people's lives. It's seductive, but I agree with Herb Stein that the federal government is not able to supply the things that families and neighborhoods and local communities must supply if we are to deal with the education and crime problems we have today.
Christopher Caldwell Karlyn Bowman