No one takes conventions seriously. They’re not where democracy happens anymore. They’re mere enactments of politics, not the real and gritty thing. And yet we have to have them because they serve a purpose: They provide the platform for the big speech.
The big speech—the acceptance speech of the presidential nominee—is always important. It can be revealing, it can be inspiring and it can give you insight. It can make you give a candidate a second look, or a first; it can make you turn away from him for good.
A week from tonight John Kerry gives his acceptance speech. If it is good or great it will be turned into a million commercials and will be cut up and quoted so often on TV that people who don’t see it will think, a year from now, that they did. If it is good or great it will inspire a lot of memorable bad writing from the newspaper poets—The Knight of the Woeful Countenance who dazzled the crowd from the moment he rode forward and unfurled his banner. If it’s a poor or merely average speech it will be a reason Mr. Kerry lost if he loses.
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Normally an acceptance speech is an opportunity for a candidate not to unveil his beliefs but to restate them in a way that breaks through to the public mind. In Mr. Kerry’s case, since the average American probably doesn’t know what he stands for beyond the idea that he can’t stand George Bush, the speech is an opportunity to paint himself anew. He is not “Not Bush,” he is “Kerry Who Believes in . . .”
In what? Mr. Kerry is a “liberal,” or a “progressive.” What is that these days? He could tell us. He might take this opportunity to actually redefine what liberalism is, and rescue it from its dread L-word status as the thing Democrats are and can’t admit. Conservatives aren’t afraid to call themselves conservative. They even do this when they’re acting like liberals. Mr. Kerry should tell us what liberals intend with regard to domestic policy. Another way to say this is: The past half century liberals have won a great deal—Social Security, Medicare, civil rights, the megastate. What exactly do they want to win now?
Some say Mr. Kerry must use the speech to make his position on Iraq clearer. In purely political terms there’s little benefit in this. When you’re cloudy you’re not a clear target. There’s no difference between Bush and Kerry on the war except people know Mr. Bush means it and assume Mr. Kerry doesn’t. This gives Mr. Kerry a certain flexibility. It is the one area where his lack of sincerity is a plus. To the extent he can, he should leave it alone, which is to say damn Mr. Bush in general terms and keep walking.
Mr. Kerry has a problem with rhetoric. He doesn’t have his own sound. You may hate Mr. Bush’s sound but it’s his, and a lot of people like it. He sounds normal, which for all its pluses and minuses as a style does tend to underscore the idea that he is normal. Mr. Kerry and his speechwriter, Bob Shrum, have long relied on a sort of proto-New Frontier sound that is the rhetorical default position for lost Democrats. Now is their chance to reinvent the Democratic sound. JFK himself came forward as JFK. He didn’t present himself to the world with a cigarette-holder, a jut-jawed chin and rimless eyeglasses. That is to say, he did not make believe he was FDR, the party’s giant who’d died just 15 years before. JFK knew to be JFK. Kerry should be Kerry. This is assuming there is a Kerry. For argument’s sake, let’s.
Mr. Kerry should give us something fresh and awake—true to him while being new from him. It should not be orotund. He might consider surprising everyone by approaching things in a low key, plain-speech way. In conversation he doesn’t sound weird, but on the stump he often does. (It’s odd that we’re in a time when candidates seem more compelling when they’re not making speeches. They seem more interesting when they’re overheard talking. It used to be just the opposite.)
Will Mr. Kerry get real and be plain as a plank, or will he “ask not”? Don’t ask. A prediction: People do what they know how to do, and for decades Mr. Kerry and Mr. Shrum have been doing the JFK thing. And it will please many in the hall. But it won’t play as well in America. Mr. Kerry is one of those rare public men who never get over self-consciousness in public. He’s also that rare athlete who seems to lack physical grace. (In these things, oddly, he’s like George Herbert Walker Bush.) He seems affected because he’s self-conscious, and this is compounded by an air of premeditation. In all the pictures of him taking part in sports he always has the perfect right gear on, striking sort of the right pose. He seems to be enacting sports more than enjoying them. He always seems to be enacting rather than enjoying. This is why John Edwards in comparison seems normal.
Mr. Edwards is going to be bigger than the Democrats and Republicans think. You can talk about how vice-presidential nominees don’t make a difference, or about how they can maybe lose it for you but not win it, but watch him. He’s going to be a better candidate than Mr. Kerry (which the campaign seems to be conceding with their latest ads, which feature not Mr. Kerry talking about the future but Mr. Edwards vouching for Mr. Kerry).
Mr. Edwards has the sun on his face. He’s a happy man, and happy candidates have unseen power. He has successfully hidden his desire for personal power behind a “people vs. the powerful” populism, and he sees no reason to believe he’s going to get busted now. The compelling personal story—he’s a one-man John Grisham novel—the kids, the smile. His wife looks and acts like a normal American woman who didn’t turn her accomplishments into a gritty sense of entitlement and whose engine is not a robust resentment.
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Which gets us to Hillary. It’s a great favor to her that she won’t be giving one of the big rabble-rousing speeches. When she speaks to a sympathetic audience eager for red meat her voice becomes high, harsh, grating—the first wife that your nice husband fled. People think the evil woman Meryl Streep plays in “The Manchurian Candidate” is Hillary because, well, they’ve seen Hillary make a speech. She’s better in interviews where her voice is conversational and her chuckle ever-ready. If Mr. Kerry wins, no one will remember she didn’t speak. If he loses she doesn’t want to be part of the retrospectives on How the Democrats Turned America Off.