There are few times when the public awaits a speech. The State of the Union address, the presidential inauguration, and the acceptance of a party's presidential nomination are the only regular fixtures on the political speechmaking calendar, and they are relatively rare.
But because these addresses are so anticipated -- and, in the past, have made so much history -- more memos are written and more drafts are discarded surrounding these speeches than perhaps any others. These are opportunities for presidents and presidents-to-be to set the agenda, change the debate, and perhaps even alter the course of history.
Next week, for the first time in his life, John Kerry will be given one of these opportunities: one hour on stage at the Democratic national convention and on prime-time television. It's the most important speech of his career, and the most important speech of this election year.
Now, in some alternative universe, it is Al Gore who is accepting the renomination of his party, and it is I, one of his speechwriters from the 2000 campaign, who is huddling with him over a keyboard working on the speech. Instead, in the spirit of backseat drivers and Monday-morning quarterbacks everywhere, all I can do is offer this advice to the Kerry campaign.
First and foremost, speak to the audience at home, not to those gathered in the convention hall. Since nominating conventions ceased to actually nominate the nominee, the challenge has been not to get the partisans sitting in front of you to their feet but to get the undecided voters watching at home to move to your side.
That means speaking to these swing voters, not to the party base. In 1968, Richard Nixon understood that when, at the very start of his acceptance speech, he invoked “the forgotten Americans, the non-shouters, the non-demonstrators.”
Bill Clinton did a similar thing in 1992, when he accepted the party's nomination “in the name of all those who do the work and pay the taxes, raise the kids, and play by the rules, in the name of the hardworking Americans who make up our forgotten middle class.”
Clinton continued by speaking to these constituencies directly, even if it wasn't the safest political route to take in the hall. He called for welfare reform, economic growth, public-school choice, and a streamlined federal government. At each point, before the audience members at the convention knew what hit them, Clinton was on to safer Democratic ground, but the message was sent to the audience at home.
Second, mesh biography with destiny. The American people know who Kerry is through misleading Bush ads, know his professional résumé since he left Vietnam, or know nothing at all. Like Jimmy Carter, who in 1976 made it clear to America that he was a Washington outsider (“I have never met a Democratic president, but I've always been a Democrat.”), Kerry needs to tell the American people who he is, what experiences shaped him, and how that story meshes with the story of America. Simply put, he must lay out why his life story has prepared him to lead our country at this moment, and why he is the next logical choice in the history of America.
Third, do not be bold. Unlike Walter Mondale, who in 1984, while facing a popular incumbent, decided to bet that honesty about raising taxes would trump any misgivings voters would have about him actually raising taxes, Kerry does not need to throw long. All the available polling shows that Kerry is clearly in this race, if not ahead by a nose. That means that voters are ready to get rid of the incumbent, and are waiting to be reassured that Kerry can do the job. The convention is no place for Kerry to be unveiling a bold new policy or a whole new message. Instead he should reassure voters on the one area in which they still look to President Bush: the war on terrorism and keeping American safe and secure.
Fourth, mention Ronald Reagan. In 1980, Ronald Reagan not only accepted the Republican Party's nomination in Detroit, a Democratic town if there ever was one, he also quoted one former president at length: Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It's too late to move the convention to Salt Lake City, but just as Reagan incorporated this liberal lion into his remarks to prove himself to skeptical swing voters, Kerry should incorporate into his speech a reference to the now-deceased conservative icon. He should embrace Reagan's optimism, his resoluteness, his patriotism, and his belief in peace with strength -- and claim them as his own.
Fifth, less John F. Kennedy and more John Wayne. Kerry is a great orator. He can deliver a formal address better than anyone in America -- and his inaugural address is sure to be memorable. But despite the thousands gathered in front of him and the importance of the occasion, the acceptance speech is not the place for soaring rhetoric. Remember, he is speaking to people sitting in their living rooms, watching a talking head on TV.
In this setting, the “ask nots” and hortatory “let us” don't work; conversational language does. Look at President Bush: The ability to speak in simple, direct sentences and sound like one of the guys is probably the only rhetorical gift he has. Fortunately, Kerry can speak like this, too, as he showed in countless town-hall meetings during the nominating campaign. If he puts aside the enormity of the convention hall and imagines that he is speaking at a town hall in New Hampshire or Iowa, Kerry will sound strong, resolute, and like a commander-in-chief to the television audience.
Finally, don't go over the time allotted. In fact, this is smart advice for columnists, too. So with that, I will end with perhaps the only words that John Kerry will use from this column: Thank you, and God bless America.
Kenneth S. Baer, a former senior speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore, runs Baer Communications, a Democratic consulting firm.