Waiting for the speech

Posted: Jul 27, 2004 12:00 AM

BOSTON -- There are plenty of things happening here in Boston on the first day of the 44th Democratic National Convention. You can see Dick Gephardt reminisce with his old supporters at the Wang Center in the Theater District; you can watch Howard Dean speak, maybe even scream, to his erstwhile supporters of AFSCME at the Sheraton Boston; you can listen to Harold Ickes and Steve Rosenthal brief high rollers who are supporting their independent expenditure Media Fund at the Four Seasons (the big contributors are all hanging out at the Four Seasons and the recently renovated Ritz Carlton).

 Tonight at the convention, Hillary Rodham Clinton will introduce her husband and former Vice President Al Gore will be speaking, too. I haven't heard many Democrats say nice things about Gore since December 2000, and lately Gore has been making hysterical charges against George W. Bush.

 But don't expect him to sound that note tonight. The Kerry managers want to keep Bush bashing to a minimum at this convention. Their people are already full of hatred toward Bush. A CBS/New York Times survey of the delegates showed that only 7 percent believe Bush won the 2000 election legitimately and only 3 percent believe the Iraq war was "worth the costs." Most Kerry voters say they are voting more against Bush than for Kerry. The Kerry people would like to turn this around. The Clintons' speeches, the Gore speech, the goings-on around Boston -- all are perhaps interesting. But what really will matter is Thursday night, when John Kerry delivers The Speech.

 What is curious is that, at this point, The Speech seems to be one of the less scripted moments of the convention. Over the weekend, the line from the Kerry people is that Kerry himself was still writing it out on yellow legal pads. (This is how Richard Nixon drafted his speeches, though none of the Kerry people makes this comparison.) That's a little odd, since Bob Shrum, one of the best speechwriters in the business, is a central figure on the Kerry staff, and the Kerry people will admit that Shrum has started working on Kerry's drafts. It seems likely that the final product will be more a Shrum than a Kerry product. But this is also a candidate who has a high regard for his own abilities. Anyone urging a major rewrite of the yellow legal pad version might be well advised to use some diplomacy.

 What will the final product be like? Rather different, I suspect, from Kerry's usual campaign speeches and from Shrum's famous efforts ("the dream will never die") for Edward Kennedy. Kerry tends to speak in the formal language of 1940s and 1950s politicians, a style he adopted contemporaneously: Classmates of his at St. Paul's and Yale tell me he was already a fluent speaker then, speaking with the formality you would expect from one familiar with the speeches of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Adlai E. Stevenson and Dwight D. Eisenhower. (Note the middle initials, generally used in the 1940s and 1950s, but usually replaced by nicknames today, though John F. Kerry is fond of his F.)

 Today most politicians speak in a more demotic, personal style, and people have come to expect that: witness the positive response to the differently demotic acceptance speeches of George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000.

 As for Bob Shrum, his great efforts have been clarion calls to achieve liberal dreams. And that, too, does not seem to be the note Kerry wants to sound. All year the Kerry people have been talking about Kerry's moderate record (he supported welfare reform, he prosecuted criminals, etc.), and in recent weeks Democrats have been talking about how Boston and Massachusetts are not all that much more liberal than the rest of the country (the local tax burden is not as much higher than the national average as it was when Michael Dukakis was the party's nominee, etc.).

 Kerry does have his plans to expand government, notably on health care, and to raise taxes, but only on the very rich, he says -- but he wants to emphasize his strength more than his compassion.

 All of which means that Kerry and Shrum, in whatever combination, are probably trying to produce a speech rather different from any that either has produced before. It's an interesting test for a man whose political career goes back 31 years, and a speechwriter and consultant whose first brush with national politics was as a low-level aide at the Los Angeles convention that nominated the first JFK 44 years ago.