Gerson, Waldman on Democratic Convention Rhetoric

It was an important historical moment ... a moment that helped heal some of our nation's deepest and oldest wounds, a moment for all Americans to be proud of the great but still partial progress of our country. But it was not a historic speech. It was, in fact, very much as advertised: "workmanlike." The setting invited comparisons to JFK. The anniversary invited comparisons to Martin Luther King, Jr. The stage invited comparisons to Zeus. But Obama delivered a political stump speech. Not a bad speech, just a small one—designed for focus groups, not for history. Not ineffective, just unmemorable.

Obama argued it was "not a time for small plans"—then talked about toy safety and "the next generation of biofuels." His applause lines were generally weak and uncreative—"We are a better country than this," "Enough!", help people "afford a college education." The speech was lacking in effective humor and wit. "Eight is enough"? A reference to a 1970s sitcom?

But the speech was smart in its own way. It asserted generally popular Democratic themes—almost indistinguishable from any of Bill Clinton's convention speeches or States of the Union—in a year when typical Democratic themes may be enough for victory.

Yet something was lost tonight. The speech had little to do with the freshness or promise of Obama's initial themes running in Iowa—the themes that raised the hopes of many that he might be a different kind of politician entirely. That Obama of hope and unity now seems (as Bill Clinton once said) like a fairy tale.

Obama delivered a deeply partisan speech. It was even, on occasion, snide and small. "I've got news for you John McCain," Obama exclaimed, "We all put our country first." It was a moment of touchy defensiveness that bordered on nastiness. And there were others. Is John McCain actually responsible for a tripling of American oil imports during his Senate career? Is he really at fault for not entering bin Laden's cave himself? These were cheap shots. In a better, nobler speech, similar points might have been made with humor and a lighter touch.

On the anniversary of "I Have a Dream"—America's preeminent speech about unity—Obama chose to emphasize division. It may have been politically smart. But it was very much politics as usual.

First, the scene at the Invesco Stadium: remarkable. I watched much of the speech again on TV, and in this instance, I don't think the small screen does justice to the spectacle. It didn't feel stagey or like a rock festival or the Nuremberg rally. People did the wave, chanted "U.S.A., U.S.A." and heard country music. The stage, I should mention, did look absurd. Clearly designed to resemble the portico of the White House. It must have been designed by the best set designer in Denver (the one who didn't get the contract to do Caesar's Palace). On TV, it looked like he was giving his speech in a Benihana.

Obama's speech itself, on the other hand, was even better on TV than in person. I thought the it was terrific, presidential, strong, strong, passionate.

For three decades, every Democratic presidential nominee has mounted the stage and told the country, "Don't worry, I'm not like the other Democrats." In polls Obama runs markedly behind the generic Democratic brand. He stood up and said, "Don't worry—I am like other Democrats."  In passages it was far more explicit about the role of government than Democrats usually allow themselves to be. He did so by talking in values terms, about rewarding work and government's mutual responsibility.

He of course did what I had hoped he would do, by setting out a specific policy agenda.  He said we would not make "small plans," borrowing from on of my favorite quotes—from Daniel Burnham, the famous Chicago architect, "Make no small plans. They will fail to stir humanity's blood, and will not be built anyway."  In other speeches, when he turns to policy, he can sound like he's reading talking points. Not tonight.  He invested the policy talk with real passion.  He slyly used a Martin Luther King, Jr. riff, announcing "now is the time!" as he unveiled tax cuts and energy policies.

The other striking thing is how hard he went after John McCain and the Republicans. He was fierce. He shouted "enough!"  When he declared, "John McCain wants to follow Osama Bin Laden to the gates of hell, but he won't even follow him to the cave where he lives," he seemed genuinely angry. "We need a president who can face the threats of the future, not keep grasping at the ideas of the past." But I didn't think that he seemed shrill, even on television. It reminded me, actually, of old footage of Reagan. In 1980, Reagan was far from the grandfatherly figure we remember. He was the candidate of backlash, and in some ways, Obama is too.

Some things could have been done better. It went on a little long (of course, I worked on those Bill Clinton speeches, so who am I to complain?). He was so eager to show he understood other people's problems that he kept inserting them into passages that didn't need it, such as the end. There was no attempt to give his program a moniker.

But in all, it was a very, very effective political speech, with flashes of real eloquence all through and a breathtaking finish evoking King's speech. A friend joked, "For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country"—but it's hard to think of a speech that made listeners prouder.

On Monday, Barack Obama claimed that his convention speech will be "more workmanlike" and not have "a lot of high rhetoric"—but that will not be good enough. His dramatic stadium setting and historic nomination require an ambitious, memorable speech, which reasserts his themes of unity and national healing, reassures Americans questioning his qualifications, and defines a cause larger than his own biography, ambition and destiny.

As the first nominee since Reagan to triumph largely due to "The Speech," Obama faces Rockies-high expectations. It's time for him to focus on a clear agenda — what is his vision of the role of government, the state of the economy, America's place in the world? Senator, don't tell us your story, tell us our story.

Big Speeches from Bill Clinton and Joe Biden
Posted at 12:30  a.m. ET Aug 28

Several years ago, I traveled as a journalist with Bill Clinton aboard Air Force One to St. Louis where he would appear at an event with Pope John Paul II. It was in the smack in the middle of the Lewinsky scandal, and many assumed that sharing a stage with His Holiness might be, well, awkward. Instead, Clinton was pitch perfect-composed, deferential, well spoken. I have never seen a more gifted political figure, especially under pressure.

Tonight all those gifts were on full display. Given his angry, tin-eared performance during his wife's primary campaign, it should have been an awkward moment for Bill Clinton. But he gave the finest speech of the convention so far-fluent, tough, tightly constructed and assured. Most importantly, Bill Clinton did what Hillary Clinton could not bring herself to do-he made a full-throated case for Barack Obama's readiness as president, based on Obama's background, experience and beliefs. It is the best presentation of a thin resume I have ever witnessed.

I am not sure Bill Clinton actually believes that Obama is fully qualified to be president-past Clinton statements seem to indicate otherwise. But he said it tonight, and said it emphatically. He didn't merely argue Obama holds the right views. Bill Clinton argued that Obama is the right man for the job. And reassurance on this point is Obama's greatest current need.

In the process, Bill Clinton went a long way toward restoring his own standing in the party he led for so long. A few weeks ago, Clinton was forced to insist: "I am not a racist."  Tonight, he was once again the Democratic hero, as of old. It was yet another resurrection for Bill Clinton.

Senator Joe Biden's speech was also effective, at least initially. His own appealing personal story of working class struggle-when you get knocked down, get up, then bloody the nose of the bully who hit you-appeals to a demographic that the cool, cerebral Obama has difficultly in reaching. And the recounting of his own background led seamlessly into Biden's middle class economic pitch. This half of the speech was delivered earnestly, with few applause lines, and made for compelling viewing.

But in the foreign policy section of his speech, Biden was suddenly back on the floor of the United States Senate-more pompous than earnest. And he attempted a very difficult maneuver: Attacking his friend John McCain's judgment on foreign policy. It was a selective and unconvincing case. McCain's judgment on the largest issues - criticizing Donald Rumsfeld's initial conduct of the Iraq war, and supporting the successful surge in Iraq (which Obama opposed)-now looks rather good. Very few people in America will end up voting for Obama because they think he can handle a crisis such as Georgia better than McCain. And there is no reason that they should.

First, Bill Clinton. My old boss has given a major address at every Democratic convention since 1988. I was worried about this speech. I had heard from too many people that Clinton was disaffected-I winced at his remarks in Africa last week. When Clinton walked out, he got what used to be common in conventions-a "spontaneous demonstration" that was, in fact, spontaneous. The Clinton delegates' affection was understandable. The Obama supporters were roaring and pleading at the same time. For all the bruised feelings, they wanted their former president to embrace their cause.

I thought he did very, very well. At some level this was a pass-fail exam. Was he willing to say that as a president, he believed Obama was ready? He did, and did so far more than I expected. He rooted his arguments in his own experience. Most compelling was when he noted that the Republicans had tried to argue he was too young and inexperienced to be commander in chief.

But more than that, he did something that far too few speakers do: He didn't belt out applause lines. Partly as an ex-president and celebrity for life, he knows that people will listen-even to extended thoughts and paragraphs. He, more than anyone else so far, spelled out the stakes-what a good keynote should have done, but, I'll take it from a former president as well.

He was not formally eloquent. He didn't soar. We heard little poetry, and more numbers in one speech than you might hear in a whole day from Barack Obama. But he loved being there. He loved explaining. He finds poetry in specificity. Clinton warmed to his own argument, so that by the end it was hard to believe he didn't passionately want Obama to win.

For me, seeing him at the podium at a convention inspires both nostalgia and post-traumatic-stress disorder. In 1996, as his chief speechwriter, I worked on Clinton's acceptance speech. He was in full procrastination mode; we had some perfunctory meetings in the White House before setting off on a Harry Truman-style train trip. We thought he would be trapped and have to work on the speech. Instead, he preferred to wave from the front of the train. I churned out draft after draft, never sure if he was reading them. Twenty-four hours before the speech, he finally kicked in-and worked nonstop to write nearly an entirely new draft around the metaphor of "bulding a bridge to the 21st Century," a phrase he had been testing on the stump. We weren't finished as we piled into the limousine for the ride to the convention hall. (Hillary scolded, "You work. I'll wave.") Let's just say it was harrowing. It was all broadcast live on television-the motorcade, flags flapping, motorcycles, crowds cheering …and in the back of the presidential limousine, the unmistakable blue glow of a laptop. One of the network anchors, watching this, intoned, "Let this be a lesson for all the young people watching tonight. Don't save your work for the last minute."

Joe Biden gave a very good, but not a great, speech.

He is strongest when he is most human-when he pours on the "schmaltz," as I doubt they say in Scranton. The family stories, the lessons learned from father and mother, the notion that work conveys dignity and not just a paycheck, all were plainspoken and quite moving.  There can be no doubt that even when Joe Biden is laying it on thick, he believes every word of what he is saying. (When he recounted the story about his mother telling him to bloody the nose of bullies, on the screen his elderly mother could be seen saying to the person next to her, "That's true!") He will be a candidate with a wonderful touch, who will be fun to watch.

The policy sections were a bit more ...senatorial. Biden's discussion of foreign policy was passionate and impressive; his touching on domestic concerns a bit more episodic. He was willing to attack McCain (as, say, Lieberman and Edwards shrank from doing against George W. Bush). But the long list of items where "John McCain was wrong and Barack Obama was right" does not add up to a memorable critique. His repeated metaphor, based on his father's admonition, that the country needs help to get back up when it is knocked down, was effective, but doesn't add up to a theory of where the country is economically, and what government can do about it. Democrats don't sound like they're simply worried about the poor these days, but they don't do enough to paint an optimistic picture of American growth and future prosperity, either.

Obama's brief visit showed a rollicking sense of political theater. ("Hillary Clinton rocked the house!") In the room, reconciliation seemed genuine. Maybe it is up to the nominee, in the end, to fully lay out the case tomorrow - where, precisely, we are in our national journey, where we made a wrong turn, where we should go next. Obama should not tell us his story; he needs to tell us ours. He can cap off what is shaping up to be for the Democrats a very successful convention.

Hillary Clinton's Speech
Posted at 11:45  p.m. ET Aug 26

MICHAEL GERSON

The lead-up to Hillary Clinton's speech tonight was a statement by team Clinton: We can show a fairly lifeless convention how these things should be done. The video introduction was among the best I've seen—energetic, humorous and memorable.  Her affectionate welcome by the crowd—with her beaming, misty-eyed husband looking on—must have felt to Democrats like a return to the golden age of the 1990s, when the Clintons outsmarted and outfought hapless Republicans at every turn.  (Some of us remember those years with less nostalgia.) 

The speech that followed was good for Hillary Clinton, and less obviously good for Barack Obama. Clinton effectively assumed the roles of feminist hero, defeating ancient prejudices, and of party elder, honoring the Democratic fallen.

But the kind of party unity she endorsed consisted of shared adherence to Democratic talking points—universal health care, increasing the minimum wage, equal pay for equal work—instead of a shared enthusiasm for Obama himself.  She offered no compelling praise for his character and judgment.  There was no mention (at least that I can recall) of the historic nature of Obama's own quest for the presidency. Hillary Clinton's endorsement of Obama was perfunctory—the minimum she could get away with without hurting her own future in the party.  Team Obama is likely to smile in public and seethe in private.

And, amazingly, Clinton's attacks on McCain (whom she called a "friend" in her speech) were actually mild by convention standards—the kind of generic attacks that any Democrat could make on any Republican. She clearly disagrees with McCain on many issues—but she could not muster disdain for the man.

Hillary's speech pointed out two problems for Democrats in the coming campaign:

Second, Hillary's speech did nothing to refute her own main assault on Obama during the primaries—that he is inexperienced and untested in international affairs.  She did not even attempt to explain why he should be trusted with the 3 a.m. crisis call (her most famous and effective ad against Obama). Tonight, Hillary left Obama undefended against her own best attacks of a few months ago.

In this speech, Hillary's revenge was subtle—but it was revenge nonetheless.

MICHAEL WALDMAN

Hillary's speech was very effective—it did exactly what it had to, to the relief and then exultation of the people in the hall.

This was far from a foregone conclusion, not only because of bruised feelings.  Hillary began her campaign with weak podium skills.  As a debater, she proved immediately and startlingly strong, but her speeches were stentorian.  She grew enormously throughout her campaign.  By the end, Hillary had become a consistently strong speechmaker.  Her most effective presentation was as the voice of middlebrow populism.  She learned to lower her voice, lean in, convey emotion.  She wasn't quite there in delivery tonight - the teleprompter is not her friend.

Wisely, she hit her main note in the first thirty seconds.  With a lot of momentum, she endorsed Obama far more emphatically than I had heard her do it before.  There was little solipsism.  In a sense, everything after that was commentary.  Interestingly, she pitched her talk to her female supporters, rather than her working class supporters.

She did address, rather pointedly, two audiences.  Many of her supporters are still angry, as even casual conversations in the restaurants of Denver will make clear.  She asked them, "Were you in it just for me?"  I heard the Harriet Tubman-inspired riff, "keep going," as an exhortation but also an explanation of why Clinton herself kept going.

One more point on the earlier speeches in the evening, perhaps of interest only to a lapsed speechwriter and convention connoisseur.   The Dems needed a real keynote this year. After yesterday's session, there was little sense of the stakes.  Yesterday, nobody pressed the urgency of this pivotal election, the idea that our national greatness depends upon making the right choices, that there is a slow-motion financial meltdown, that the United States has plummeted in power in the world.  No sense, either, that Democrats believe in a different role for government, let alone have a plan to do something about any of it.

That's what the keynote is supposed to do.  Mark Warner was the keynoter. Let's just say that this speech is highly unlikely to propel him to the nomination four years from now.   "I don't know about you, but that's just not right."  "You ain't seen nothing yet." "China's going for the gold."  "America has never been afraid of the future, and we shouldn't start now." "We'll get it done." America has never been afraid of a cliché, and you ain't seen nothing yet!  In fact, the governors who followed him—especially Brian Schweitzer of Montana—were  rousing, funny and far more effective in conveying the stakes.  But what a difference it would have made had Schweitzer's speech been at the beginning of the week.  Bring back Mario Cuomo!

PREVIEW: Hillary Clinton's Speech
Posted 4:30 p.m. ET, Aug. 26

MICHAEL GERSON

Hillary lost, in part, because she's among the worst communicators of her partyunable to distinguish between genuine emotional intensity and a hectoring tone. She would help herself with self-deprecation and graciousness, while summarizing the economic and social discontents of her union and feminist constituents, who feel steamrollered by Obama's coalition of minorities, the young and the affluent.

MICHAEL WALDMAN

Often, the runner-up gives the best speech: Reagan, 1976; Kennedy, 1980; Buchanan, 1992. Hillary's talk demands deftness. Her speechmaking improved enormously month by month. She wants to shine, but can't simply give another campaign pitch. Rather, she should give a de facto keynote boosting Democratic themesno need for timidity this year.  If she links her fight for "invisible Americans" with a rousing embrace of Obama, she helps herself, and him.

MICHAEL GERSON

Sorry to disappoint on this initial outing, but I found Michelle Obama impressive—confident, fluent and appealingly personal. The sharp political edge she has sometimes shown on the stump was nowhere in evidence. Instead, she told a compelling working-lass story and rooted her own considerable accomplishments in the American dream. She clearly brings a liberal sensitivity to a variety of issues, but, in this speech, it was the soft liberalism of service and community, not the hard liberalism of anger and radicalism.

The Obama girls, by the way, would clearly be the cutest occupants of the White House in American history. And, as a father myself, I don't think there is any more meaningful, heart-melting endorsement than "I love you, Daddy."

The political purpose of these remarks was simple—to refute the notion that Obama is a cool, Ivy League elitist by demonstrating all the elements of an ordinary, admirable life. But this sets up an interesting contrast. Some will find Obama's story appealingly typical. Democrats usually win on the poll question: "Does he care about people like me?" This very ordinariness, however, serves to highlight that, only a few years ago, Obama was a rather obscure member of the Illinois legislature. And this will do nothing to reassure people concerned about his inexperience.

The biographical difference with John McCain could hardly be more dramatic. McCain has lived one of the most extraordinary lives in American politics—a story shocking in its valor. And "cares about his country under torture" is also likely to have some appeal to Americans.

By the way, I was also glad to see tonight that one plot of the vast, right-wing conspiracy worked out better than anyone imagined. Former representative Jim Leach was supposed to be a Republican turncoat endorsing Obama. Actually, he was a particularly effective Republican plant, acting the part of a lost, doddering uncle who can never quite get to the point. The code phrase announcing the plot, by the way, was "a kilter."

MICHAEL WALDMAN

The first night was emotional and powerful, more than I expected. And yet ....

I was riveted and moved by the tribute to Ted Kennedy. In the hall, thousands around me wept. Kennedy's speech was punchy, and his lungs were as strong as ever. Far more impressive was his sheer courage. It recalled the legendary moment at the 1924 Democratic convention, when Franklin Roosevelt appeared at a podium for the first time since he was stricken by polio.  Roosevelt "walked" to the lectern with stiff braces on the arm of his son.  Historians report that the crowd was dead silent as he struggled, then let loose a roar of pure emotion. (The scene is the heart of two movies, "Sunrise at Campobello" and HBO's "Warm Springs.") The crowd tonight was shouting not for Kennedy, but to him.

Michelle Obama's speech was tremendously effective.  It was beautifully written; I loved the line, reminiscent of Seamus Heaney's poem, about "the current of history meets this new tide of hope." She did a great job, better than I have heard before, connecting Barack Obama's story with core American values of hard work and upward mobility. Her performance skills were near dazzling. She did one of the hardest things to do: rouse a crowd in a hockey arena, while conveying intimate emotion to the TV audience. When she declaimed emphatically, "That is why I love this country," on TV you could see she had tears in her eyes. I believed her utterly.

But I still have some doubts.  At the risk of being churlish, I don't like this emerging tradition of family members speaking at these conventions.  It didn't start here—Tipper, Hillary and Liddy Dole all spoke at their conventions in 1996—but in lesser hands it can be mawkish and diminishing. (Like the practice of pointing out the "heroes" in the First Lady's gallery at the State of the Union.) Conventiongoers heard a panel discussion, a parade of  "ordinary folks," people who knew Barack Obama as an organizer, and so on. I put in a vote for professional politicians who hone arguments from the podium, thus creating a common language.

Minor quibbles about an impressive first evening.

Overview: What to Expect this Week:
Posted at 5 p.m. ET Aug 25 

Having just finished watching the closing ceremonies of a vast, expensive, tightly controlled, made-for-TV spectacle sponsored by a party of the left, Americans now turn to … a vast, expensive, tightly controlled, made-for-TV spectacle sponsored by a party of the left.

The Democratic convention may lack the excitement and scandals of the Olympics (though Obama does look suspiciously young), but the venues this week offer some drama of their own.

First, how will Bill Clinton get out of this one? During a campaign in which he compared Obama to Jesse Jackson, hogged media attention from his candidate wife and was forced to explain, "I am not a racist," national affection for the former president has waned.

It won't be easy to recover. But, like Houdini bound in chains and submerged in a shark tank, Clinton will escape, and it will be fun to watch. Bill Clinton is at his very best in this type of circumstance. Seemingly doomed by his own excesses, he triumphs with a formidable set of strengths: amazing fluency, a roguish likability and a keen political sense (which failed temporarily during the bitterness of his wife's campaign). If given enough room to run by the organizers, Clinton should deliver one of the most effective speeches of the convention and recover some of his standing in the party.

Second, will there be a serious Democratic appeal to pro-lifers? It was this issue more than any other that drove many religious conservatives (previously Democrats in many parts of the country) toward the Republican Party in the 1970s and 1980s. This campaign of alienation reached its peak of intensity in 1992, when Democrats prevented Governor Robert Casey of Pennsylvania—a courageous, pro-life Catholic—from speaking at their convention. This time Obama has offered Casey's son, Senator Bob Casey, Jr., a chance to speak. What will he say about his father? How will the young Casey appeal to pro-life voters?

Third, will the venue of Obama's speech—the reverberating vastness of Invesco Field- undermine its content? The McCain campaign has effectively painted Obama as a celebrity with fans instead of a leader with convictions. A rock-concert setting—with glowing cell phones and fainting, screeching teenagers—would tend to confirm this image.

This McCain strategy works if Obama's speech is weak—if it consists of strained, self-absorbed, self-important platitudes that sound like second-rate Sorensen. Obama is fully capable of that kind of speech, as we saw in his overreaching Berlin remarks. But he is also capable of something much grander, as we saw on the night of his Iowa primary victory.  A great speech will transcend any setting—even if the stadium is empty and knee-deep in rain.

When the Democratic Convention is tweaked for being overly efficient with high production values, it's come a long way! If the explosions are only in CGI, then the Democrats should really breathe a sigh of relief.

First, a fond word for this dinosaur institution. For years, pundits have moaned that conventions play little real role. That's silly. With parties atomized, candidates self-nominating, and much of the work of politics subsumed in the slog of fundraising, these gatherings are the only time when "the party" can be said to exist in one place. So much of our rhetorical tradition comes from conventions. Partly that's because orators are allowed to ham it up—to use humor, anger, pathos, and mawkish sentiment in ways that would be inappropriate to a dignified Inaugural Address. Lincoln declared that a "house divided will not stand" at the 1858 state Republican convention in Springfield, Ill.  William Jennings Bryan's 1896 "cross of gold" speech (actually, a statement about the party platform) laid out a century's worth of populist economic arguments. It was at the 1932 convention, the first addressed by a nominee, that Franklin Roosevelt first pledged "A New Deal for the American people," and Kennedy's "New Frontier" was proclaimed at the 1960 gathering. Nothing George H.W. Bush ever said in office was as memorable as his 1988 convention speech. "Read my lips: no new taxes" probably won him the 1988 race, and helped lose him the 1992 race when he broke the pledge. (It didn't help when he pointed to his derriere and told reporters, "Read my hips.")

This one is different from other recent Democratic gatherings, for a few reasons.

For starters, it's the first Democratic convention held in the post-conservative era. The Democratic Party has been unified by the fiercely held view that Bush is a disastrous president. (Sorry, Mike. I like the speeches though!)  Now it appears the country agrees. This seems more than an electoral downtick, but that the powerful conservative surge that began as a backlash to the 1960s—what Sean Wilentz has dubbed The Age of Reagan—seems emphatically over. This will be reflected in speeches that are less timid, more robustly partisan than we have heard in years. The bizarre edict in 2004 that speakers not criticize Bush and Cheney won't be repeated.  Ironically, this time the nominee will gain points if he persuades voters he is not a "different kind of Democrat."

Also, far more than any time since 1980, you'll see the drama of conflict and reconciliation played out in the big addresses. By its nature, this convention will be less scripted and stage-managed than many recent ones. We won't just parse the Clintons' words, we'll squint for their facial expressions and tone of voice. We'll scan the crowd to see if the Hillary delegates cheer or scowl. I thought it a bit much when Hillary referred to Greek drama to describe the convention, but she was onto something.

I agree that the atmospherics of the Invesco Field speech are tricky. For one thing, it's harder to give a good speech outdoors. It has been done before—not just JFK, but also FDR's "rendezvous with destiny" before 100,000 people in Philadelphia in 1936. But, the political challenge is harder. Obama will want to soar rhetorically. But he must do so while emphatically spelling out his vision for governance—what he would want to do as president. He needs to impress, not with the loft of his peroration, but with the passion of his concern over economic anxiety. Obama is a sharp and substantive guy, but too often, when he reaches the policy sections of his speeches, he switches into rote. The best leaders meld policy goals into a broader narrative of the country and its mission—and the best place to do that can be a convention speech.