In late July 1968, against the beautiful backdrop of Skipper’s Cottage at Gurney’s Inn in Montauk, Long Island, Richard M. Nixon worked on the acceptance speech he would soon be delivering to the Republican National Convention in Miami. Working on yellow legal pads, as was his custom, he experimented with words and ideas. He was looking for something beyond the routine campaign speech he had been giving along the primary trail. Somewhere during this incubatory phase, he decided to wax a bit sentimental and do something not usually done with major political addresses; he would talk a little about his journey. This was a break from tradition.
FDR had not talked in his speeches about his polio, nor had John Kennedy ever discussed descending from Irish immigrants. LBJ didn’t reminisce about his school teaching days in Texas. In fact, Dwight D. Eisenhower didn’t even talk about World War II. But when Mr. Nixon addressed the party faithful – and the nation at large via television - at 11:00 p.m. on August 8, 1968, he ended what had already been a very good speech with a personal touch:
“I see another child tonight. He hears the train go by at night and he dreams of far away places where he'd like to go. It seems like an impossible dream. But he is helped on his journey through life. A father who had to go to work before he finished the sixth grade, sacrificed everything he had so that his sons could go to college. A gentle, Quaker mother, with a passionate concern for peace, quietly wept when he went to war but she understood why he had to go.
A great teacher, a remarkable football coach, an inspirational minister encouraged him on his way. A courageous wife and loyal children stood by him in victory and also defeat.
And in his chosen profession of politics, first there were scores, then hundreds, then thousands, and finally millions worked for his success. And tonight he stands before you -- nominated for President of the United States of America.
You can see why I believe so deeply in the American Dream.”
So when Barack Obama uses his stadium moment next week to tell us about humble origins and his unlikely path to the presidency, he is walking down a road paved by our thirty-seventh president. In fact, both candidates will do so – and we are better for it because we get to know more about the men themselves.
Though the political conventions convene relatively late this year, and promise little in the way of compelling political drama, history shows that acceptance speeches can actually matter.
Mr. Obama has changed the address for his address to Invesco Field in Denver - no doubt to continue his not-so-subtle quest to be John F. Kennedy when he grows up. Watch for a rocking chair any day now. Maybe even an accent.
John McCain will give his acceptance speech to Republicans in Saint Paul, Minnesota a week later. But it will not – in fact, it could not – be as big of a deal as Barack Obama’s pre-inaugural media coronation. The fix is in on that.
Then again, maybe the Arizonian can use what the current resident of the Oval Office might refer to as “misunderestimation” to his advantage.
Back in 1896, William Jennings Bryan, a man with even less political experience than Barack Obama, gave a Democratic convention address that brought the audience to its feet. Then those feet marched to give the Boy Orator of the Platte the nomination. He was only thirty-six years old. Speeches can make a difference.
Actually, up until 1932 it wasn’t accepted practice for a nominee to even appear at a convention to accept in person. No – instead, after the votes were counted, a delegation would travel to the candidate’s hometown to notify him. This, for example, was the case with Republican Warren Harding, who accepted the nod in 1920 from his front porch.
Franklin D. Roosevelt changed all that. He broke with tradition and flew from New York to Chicago to promise a New Deal for Americans in 1932. The next time he was nominated (1936), he told that audience about America’s “rendezvous with destiny.” But that was only after some high drama. As he approached the podium that night, one of his leg braces broke and the polio-stricken president fell to the floor as thousands watched in horrified silence. But not a single flashbulb burst – nor did the radio audience hear about it. The press had more ground rules back then.
We all know, of course, that John F. Kennedy accepted the 1960 Democratic nomination speaking at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. What is seldom noted these days, however, is that the speech didn’t play well on television. JFK would make up for that with a better tube moment a few months later.
There have been occasions when a nominee’s speech has been overshadowed by someone else’s appearance and rhetoric. There is actually some potential for this in Denver as Hillary and Bill have their respective moments in the spotlight.
Very few remember what Lyndon Johnson had to say in Atlantic City as he accepted his party’s nomination in 1964. But Robert Kennedy’s moment, complete with a twenty-two minute ovation, has not been forgotten. And RFK’s contempt for his brother’s successor could not be completely disguised, in spite of the surface appearance of party unity. He shared a quote from Romeo and Juliet that referenced the “garish sun.” Some saw this as a thinly veiled reference to the president. Lyndon sure did.
Though not widely-known at the time, Mr. Johnson, just the day before he was nominated, was seriously considering withdrawing from the race. He wrestled with chronic issues of insecurity – even inferiority. It was left to Lady Bird to talk the tall Texan from the ledge. She had to do that a lot. Years later, she would recall many such moments in her husband’s career, referring to his chronic self-doubt as “the same old refrain.”
Though he won re-nomination in 1980, Jimmy Carter came in second to Ted Kennedy on the rhetoric meter at that year’s Democratic convention. Not only did the flawed heir of all things Camelot outshine him in the speech-making department, he wouldn’t do that thing all good losers are supposed to do. You know - when they join hands and raise their arms up in victory with a candidate. Poor Jimmy chased the senator all around the stage, but Teddy did the old stay-away-from-Jimmy shuffle.
Mr. Carter’s performance was so bad that night that he botched what should have been a great applause line. Democratic icon Hubert Humphrey had passed away a couple of years earlier and Jimmy wanted to say something gracious about the former vice president. But he butchered the line, not to mention the name, calling the late liberal “Hubert Horatio Hornblower…er…Humphrey.”
Too bad we didn’t have YouTube back then.
John McCain would do well to study a couple of great acceptance speeches delivered by men who were not known for their oratory and had been given little chance of ultimate victory. One of them came close to winning a race he seemed destined to lose by a wide margin. The other man actually won his race – to the shock and dismay of many political experts.
In the summer of 1976, Gerald Ford, who had assumed the presidency upon the resignation of Richard Nixon, was nearly thirty percentage points behind Jimmy Carter in many polls. He was not a great speaker; nor was he known for his quick wit. But he managed to pull off the greatest speech of his career at just the right time.
Mr. Ford’s chief speechwriter Robert Hartman, along with a few others on the staff, worked for weeks on the speech. The President himself studied every previous acceptance address (of either party) since 1948. He knew that a home run performance was his best chance to get back in the game.
Ford practiced the speech on videotape. He watched the video over and over again - even up to the beginning of the nomination roll call. The reviews were nearly universally favorable with Time Magazine calling the address “the best of his presidency and perhaps of his career.” Though he would lose to Mr. Carter in November, his convention appearance sparked a surge that moved him to within striking distance.
The gold standard, however, for come-from-behind acceptance speeches, not to mention campaigns, has to be that of Harry S. Truman in 1948. By the time of the convention, he was being dismissed as irrelevant and the election of Thomas Dewey of New York was widely considered to be inevitable.
Even Bess Truman didn’t think her husband could win.
The party was divided several ways, the Republicans had won big in the off-year elections two years earlier, and Truman himself didn’t seem to inspire anyone. The Democrats gathered in Philadelphia where the Republicans had met three weeks earlier. The city of brotherly love was strategically located along the path of a new coaxial cable, thus conducive to television coverage.
Something happened then and there to the Man from Missouri when he addressed a fractious convention and weary television viewers. He reached down deep into himself and found a spark that would be fanned into a flame. The great Methodist preacher, John Wesley, once revealed the secret to his success as a speaker: “I set myself on fire and people come to watch me burn.” That’s what Mr. Truman did that night – and for the rest of the campaign.
Far from the tightly scripted and carefully choreographed moments we have come to expect from political stars today, President Truman had to give his important speech while circumstances were spinning out of anyone’s control. His nomination wasn’t secured until 1:48 a.m. and some wanted him to wait a day to deliver the speech. But Harry was ready and didn’t want to delay at all. The convention hall was overheated and the convention agenda far behind schedule – yet he was able to maintain his edge and couldn’t wait to come out fighting.
Then, just as he was ready to come to the platform and during Sam Rayburn’s introduction, a woman carrying a large Liberty Bell made of flowers seized the microphone. She had a point to make. Her flower arrangement was accompanied by four dozen “doves of peace,” and she set them free. The birds went crazy, having been caged for hours in the heat. One publication reported that, “the dignitaries on the platform cringed and shrank away like troops before a strafing attack.”
That was a tough act to follow, but Mr. Truman ignored the distractions, as well as the problems in his party, and gave the speech of his life. It had been decided that the president would not speak from a manuscript, but rather from an outline describing basic talking points. Aides had recently noticed a tremendous difference in how their boss had been able to connect with audiences when he departed from a prepared text. It set him free and, as one biographer said, “he was suddenly a very interesting man of great candor who discussed the problems of American leadership with men as neighbors.”
Robert Schlesinger, in his book, White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters from FDR to George W. Bush, has calculated that only about forty percent of Truman’s words that morning were actually written in his notes. It was a technique he would further develop to perfection during his whistle-stop campaign that fall.
The recent forum at Saddleback Church in California showed Americans a side of Mr. McCain that is reminiscent of the Truman transformation sixty years ago. He was relaxed, witty, informal, and transparent. And Obama played the Dewey role that night.
As the conventions convene, followed by the campaign to come, it remains to be seen if McCain can continue to compete so effectively. Some polls now have him in the lead. But there is one thing for sure - by developing and delivering the speech of his life with passion, conviction, and vision, he could teach young Mr. Young-Whipper-Snapper-Rock-Star a thing or two about politics – and leadership.
Maybe John McCain should try to spend a night or two out on Long Island at Gurney’s Inn. The Skipper’s Cottage can be rented for a mere $1,600.00 a night these days.
By the way, Richard Nixon went back out there after his election in 1968. He stopped for a pineapple sundae at a local ice cream stand and got his picture in the town paper. It would be thirty years before local residents would have another chance for a presidential glimpse. The Clintons went there in 1998.But they didn’t stay at Gurney’s.