Accepting the Inevitable

What McCain can learn from the acceptance speeches of Reagan, Bush, and Gore.

John McCain. Click image to expand.
John McCain

Yes, it was exciting for us political types to play Al Roker and figure out the potential impact of Gustav on the campaign. Yes, riffing on the limits of abstinence-only sex education was diverting. And, Lord knows, it was eye-opening to watch Republican delegates applaud as Joe Lieberman excoriated Republican corruption and corporate cheats while praising Bill Clinton. Those weren’t balloons descending from the Xcel Center’s roof; those were pigs flying.

But it may be worth remembering that the most important business of this convention will come Thursday night, when John McCain delivers his acceptance speech. It’s the one time when voters, 20 million or 30 million or 40 million of them, will listen to a potential president—one of two—make an extended case for his election, interrupted only by the rapturous cheers of his supporters.

So what makes for a successful acceptance speech? The lazy answer is to say, “One that’s given by the candidate who wins.” But this is simplistic—and not always right. John Kennedy’s 1960 acceptance speech, while famous for a slogan—”we stand today at the edge of a new frontier”—helped convince Richard Nixon that he could out-debate JFK. Gerald Ford’s 1976 acceptance speech, in which he became the first incumbent president to challenge his opponent to debates, was highly effective, even though Ford’s comeback fell short.

The better measure, I think, is whether an acceptance speech persuades the audience at home to see the candidate the way he and his campaign want to be seen. A few examples suggest how and why some candidates’ succeed in this effort—and where John McCain might be going Thursday night.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan came to the nomination facing an electorate that had serious doubts about his qualifications and his seriousness. He’d been governor of the largest state in the union for eight years, but the public still saw him as an actor and as an ideologue a little too eager to undo the social safety net and to confront the Soviet Union. (As a Gerald Ford 1976 primary ad put it: “Gov. Reagan couldn’t start a war; President Reagan could.”)

So Reagan’s speech blended reassurance with lots of specifics. There was no personal history, no homey anecdotes of growing up in small-town America. Instead, he offered a mix of economic specifics and reassurance. At times, it often sounded like an economics lecture at the Heritage Foundation:

I’ve long advocated a 30 percent reduction in income tax rates over a period of three years. … Within the context of economic conditions and appropriate budget priorities during each fiscal year of my presidency, I would strive to go further. This would include improvement in business depreciation taxes. … We will also work to reduce the cost of government as a percentage of our gross national product.

On the reassurance front, there were gestures toward the afflicted (“We have to move ahead, but we’re not going to leave anyone behind”) and more than a hint of the famous debate closer he would use against Carter that fall: “No American should vote until he or she has asked, ‘Is the United States stronger and more respected now than it was three and a half years ago? Is the world a safer place in which we live?’ “

And, like the former Democrat he was, he twice invoked words from Franklin D. Roosevelt—Roosevelt’s “rendezvous with destiny” phrase from 1936 and his promises to lessen the size of the federal government. (It was as unlikely a move in 1980 as was Joe Lieberman’s praise of Bill Clinton Tuesday night.)

For George H.W. Bush in 1988, the challenge was very different. His dilemma was that he was seen, as most vice presidents are, as a vestigial appendage of the president; worse, he was seen as a political version of Thurston Howell III, a candidate for Upper Class Twit of the Year. While the speech is best known for the “Read my lips. No new taxes” line that helped elect him (and then unelect him four years later), the key to the speech is how writer Peggy Noonan dealt with both of those liabilities. After praising Reagan, Bush said:

But now you must see me for what I am: the Republican candidate for president of the United States. And now I turn to the American people to share my hopes and intentions and why and where I wish to lead.

And later, in a risky act of bravado, Bush said:

I know that what it all comes down to, this election—what it all comes down to, after all the shouting and the cheers, is the man at the desk. And who should sit at that desk. My friends, I am that man.

More striking was how Bush painted a portrait of himself as a pioneer, just like millions of World War II vets who struck out for the new life. Note how, as he tells his story, the pronouns drop out, underscoring the idea that this was more a conversation than a speech:

We moved to west Texas 40 years ago this year. The war was over, and we wanted to get out and make it on our own. And those were exciting days. We lived in a little shotgun house, one room for the three of us. Worked in the oil business, started my own. In time we had six children. Moved from the shotgun to a duplex apartment to a house. And we lived the dream—high school football on Friday night, Little League, neighborhood barbecue.

And in a classic example of political judo, he turned liabilities into assets: “I may sometimes be a little awkward, but there’s nothing self-conscious in my love of country. And I am a quiet man, but I hear the quiet people others don’t.”

Al Gore’s acceptance speech in 2000 came at a time when voters seemed more than happy with peace and prosperity but more than willing to make a change rather than casting their votes with a wooden vice president linked to a president still bearing the marks of scandal. Gore’s triumph was to borrow a page from Reagan’s 1980 speech, but to add something new—a speech filled with Skutnicks.

Skutnick is a term used to describe the human props that now fill the galleries of the House of Representatives during State of the Union speeches; they’re named after Leonard Skutnick, a D.C. civil servant who helped save the lives of passengers in a 1982 Air Florida crash and who was lionized two weeks later by Ronald Reagan. Today, they may be teachers, soldiers, AIDS volunteers, ministers, or whoever serves the political purposes of the president.

So in the hall in Los Angeles were many Skutnicks: the parents of Ian Malone of Everett, Wash., who had to battle their HMO for a nurse; Jacqueline Johnson of St. Louis, who couldn’t afford her prescription drugs; and Mildred Nystul of Waterloo, Iowa, a welfare-reform success story. In each case, Gore told their story, introduced them, and promised that he would “fight for a real, enforceable patients’ bill of rights”; “fight for a prescription drug benefit for all seniors under Medicare”; and “fight for a targeted, affordable tax cut to help working families save and pay for college.”

Toward the end of his speech, he borrowed directly from George H.W. Bush—and indirectly addressed Clinton misbehavior:

I know my own imperfections. For example, I know that sometimes people say I’m too serious. … If you entrust me with the presidency, I know I won’t always be the most exciting politician. But I pledge to you tonight, I will work for you every day and I will never let you down. [Translation: No interns on or under the desk.]

So what does this tell us about John McCain’s speech? How does he want us to see him? He probably wants to underline his straight-talker image, which means he is likely to tell members of his party that they have lost their way—maybe even that they deserved to lose the Congress.

He will ride the “reformer” theme hard—it is why he picked Sarah Palin—which means an all-out assault on congressional waste, a theme a lot easier for Republicans to hear now that Congress is in Democratic hands. He is likely to use a light touch about his POW years, although the campaign ads and his surrogates have shown a willingness—no, an eagerness—to tell the story of his ordeal.

Fundamentally, though, I am guessing that McCain’s speech will be an oral version of the imagery his ads and posters feature: He is Gary Cooper in High Noon. He is Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines. He is the lonely warrior. He is facing the battle, wounded but not fallen, fighting for a cause greater than self, at whatever cost.