Bob Dole’s acceptance speech was big—stern, daring, even at moments Churchillian—but it was marked most by a kind of interrupted eloquence. The speech betrayed the weight of a few too many hands. Even in its strongest, most poetic passages there seemed to be something missing. When Dole stirringly pointed to the exits in the convention hall and declared the Republicans the party of Lincoln, he invited any bigoted delegates to leave, “as I stand here and hold this ground.” But the way the section was constructed, it seemed as if he were telling the party it was bigoted and no longer welcome at his convention.
The speech didn’t quite hang together. Yet it was a brave speech and deserves credit for its ambitions. It was brave first in that it ignored many of the time-honored conventions of political oratory, and did so in a way that asked a lot of the audience—especially the people in the hall. Half the delegates had been to dinner, had had a few drinks and were ready to rock. But Dole gave them little to play with. He didn’t offer much humor, didn’t inspire a chant, didn’t ask them to hoot ‘n’ holler.
What he asked them to do was stand there and think. And that is a lot to ask of a delegate surrounded by guys in elephant hats. But the most interesting part of the speech’s bravery was its high moral seriousness; it attempted to address what really ails America. And it did so while rejecting the florid optimism of political speeches and asserting instead that America is in trouble because of the way modern Americans have been living their lives. He scored the small corruptions of our lives, of ambition and unthinking selfishness that damage first individuals, then a whole society.
“Permissive and destructive behavior must be opposed,” Dole said, “honor and liberty must be restored.” How? Through personal “right conduct, every day at every level.” What stops us from rising above ourselves? The answer was beautifully put—if not utterly convincing: “It is because for too long we have had a leadership that has been unwilling to risk the truth…An Administration in its very existence communicates this day by day until it flows down like rain. And the rain becomes a river, and the river becomes a flood.”
But what worked on page didn’t always work onstage. Dole never seemed to “own” the speech, didn’t have it absorbed so deep it was bubbles in his blood. My guess is he never really liked it, but stuck with it because his previous collaboration with his speechwriter, the novelist Mark Helprin, was such a hit. Aaargh, eggheads all liked the resignation speech, do it again. There was a lovely spareness to certain small sections, and if it had been sustained, it would have resulted in elegance. Helprin had given Dole a first draft of the speech on April 22, then met with him roughly a dozen times to work on it. But in San Diego things unraveled when Dole asked for new writers. Soon sections of eloquence were followed by blocks of boilerplate. After more than a dozen drafts, Helprin turned in his beeper and went home to upstate New York. There he issued a statement. It said in part, “Early on I was happy to volunteer to Senator Dole a first draft of an acceptance speech, and he then made it his own…In the end the legitimate and understandable requirements of political speechwriting did not mesh with the principles of my profession, which I can in no circumstances abandon. So I stood down, without rancor.”
That is pretty strong rhetoric. Perhaps some of the best at the convention.