Jewish World Review July 26, 2004 / 24 Tamuz, 5764
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What Kerry Has to Do
For most of American history, presidential nominees never went to political conventions. They stayed away from the baking-hot, smoke-filled auditoriums, remaining unsullied and above it all, usually at home, while waiting to be "notified" of their good fortune. Then they were supposed to act surprised.
While the notification tradition may have been dignified, it robbed the many thousands assembled at the convention halls of seeing and hearing the candidate.
But Franklin Roosevelt pronounced the tradition absurd and decided to fly to Chicago in 1932 to accept his nomination in person and to prove that he was not, as advertising man Bruce Barton had called him, "just a name and a crutch." (Friends begged Roosevelt not to risk his life in a "flying machine," but he made the long flight from Albany to Chicago anyway and while his son, John, emerged looking green, FDR looked invigorated.)
Roosevelt drove a nail in the coffin of the notification tradition by telling the delegates and all those listening by radio, "You have nominated me and I know it!"
Harry Truman was not sure in 1948 whether he should continue the FDR tradition, but in the end Truman decided he had to go to the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia and make a speech. "The Democratic party was dispirited and dejected. I meant to give them something to cheer about and something to campaign for," Truman wrote in his memoirs.
Now that conventions are just long TV commercials for the political parties, the acceptance speech is just about the only excitement left.
So I asked some prominent Democrats what John Kerry has to accomplish with his speech and what advice they would give him just before he walked out on stage.
Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee: "What John Kerry has to show is his vision and the specifics of how he will get the economy moving again, fix health care and education and convince the American public which will not be hard to do that John Kerry will keep us safer at home and more secure. There is a huge opportunity to show the American public they are not safer today than four years ago, and Kerry has the opportunity to show how he will make us safer and stronger.
"With the electorate so evenly divided, he needs to reach out to everyone. He has a huge opportunity from a political point of view to reach the truly swing voters. And there is a percentage of the Republican base who thinks now they will vote for Bush, but after this convention they will decide they really want to vote for John Kerry."
Last piece of advice: "John, go out there and light 'em up, pump 'em up, and give a hopeful and optimistic message to all Americans!"
Joe Lockhart, White House Press Secretary for Bill Clinton: "Conventions generally have multiple political tasks, but Sen. Kerry is already ahead of the game. He has already picked his vice president and the choice works. There are going to be no Dan Quayle or Tom Eagleton controversies.
"So Kerry has the single task of introducing himself as the nominee of the party and offering a clear and alternative vision to George Bush's America. He has to say: 'This is John Kerry and this is my vision.' On the one hand, that's easy, but this is a big moment and there is no take two. He has got to get it right. And there is no reason to believe that he won't.
"People who decide elections those in the middle will watch his speech with an open mind and this is the point at which they will make their decision. They can change their minds, events happen, there will be the debates, but this is the one moment he gets to speak directly to the American public without the media filter, without partisan sniping, and it is an enormous opportunity and enormously important because you don't get second chance.
"There won't be harsh rhetoric concerning the president, but there will be an accounting of his record. Those who genuinely haven't made up their minds will see something in John Kerry they can support."
Last piece of advice: "Tell them why you want to be president."
Anita Dunn, Democratic strategist and communications director for Bill Bradley's 2000 presidential campaign: "The convention is that first handshake with the vast majority of Americans who don't pay attention to the presidential nominating process. So Kerry must lay out where he will lead the country. There are very few moments where the national community is focused on politics. This is one of them.
"This is the opportunity for people to learn about John Kerry. Most people have no idea that he was a prosecutor. Many will be surprised to learn he is a veteran. This lack of information should not be underestimated. Most people would be surprised to learn the president once owned a baseball team!
"A successful convention presents an agenda in a compelling fashion. The speech is when all the elements come together. The convention itself sets a tone and the speech is where Kerry personally ties all the pieces of the four-day convention together. It is an exercise in repetition, in themes, and in illustrating a story."
Last piece of advice: "Be yourself."
Jeremy Ben-Ami, policy director for the Howard Dean campaign: "This is John Kerry's debut. He has to connect with people on issues that matter in their day-to-day lives. I'd urge him to focus on the middle-class squeeze theme that he introduced a couple of weeks ago: that Democrats offer real help on healthcare, childcare, and the cost of college. And he should contrast that with the Republican tax-cuts for the wealthy."
Last piece of advice: "Stick to the script!"
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