Saying yes

Rupert Wilkinson

The Democratic and Republican National Party Conventions (opening on 16 July and 20 August) will culminate in the acceptance speeches of the two nominees for President. When the nominees step up to the microphones to address the cheering party faithful in the convention hall, and the nation on television and radio, they will leave behind them the committee wranglings over party platforms and the balloting of the state party delegates which brought them their nominations. Although one nominee will be the incumbent President, re-selected without serious contest, whereas the other will have racked up his votes through the Democratic Party primary elections, the task of each speech will be much the same: to sound a chord for the campaign battle ahead while reaching for ideas and images that project national unity and personal statesmanship. The speeches will contain policy statements that reveal some choices and priorities, but they will be high-toned rather than specific. The acceptance speech is an affirmation, not a programme.

I have read every Democratic and Republican acceptance speech from those of Truman and Dewey in 1948 to those of Carter and Reagan in 1980, as well as those of some of their illustrious predecessors. What strikes me is the extent to which they represent a canon – albeit a rather fossilised canon – in the literature of American political rhetoric. They follow well-established conventions governing what should and should not be said. They speak to enduring American myths and images, and they employ standard rhetorical devices in bridging and balancing opposite values and appeals.

Their quality is largely determined by the symbolic nature of the Presidential election. Presidential elections are not just about choosing leaders and discussing policy. In a rather contradictory fashion they celebrate collective traditions while legitimating competitive struggle. The major party Conventions mark the midway stage of the election. And so, while sounding full of fight and confident of victory, the acceptance speech must also bind up the wounds of strife within the party and anticipate the more peaceful tones of post-election rhetoric: the loser’s speech of concession, the victor’s magnanimous reply, and the President’s Inaugural Address.

This double-edged requirement reflects a traditional tension between the fear that the country is winding down and losing its competitive vigour, and the fear that it may fall apart. This tension has, if anything, become more acute. In the Democratic Party contest between Hart and Mondale we saw a growing concern among party supporters that the two candidates’ attacks on each other were ‘tearing apart the party’. Yet, as the columnist George Will pointed out, the charges that passed between the two men were nothing compared to the insults that used to spice American politics. Americans seem to be getting increasingly sensitive to name-calling, however much their system of choosing political leaders, being based on personal contest, encourages it.

The acceptance speech that is fashioned in response to these requirements is the joint product of the nominee and one or more speech-writers. The way in which Presidential candidates use their speech writers varies (some candidates edit closely, some provide key phrases, some just set out general aims), but they all know what they want rhetorically and they get it – that is their business. The actual circumstances in which the speeches are written also vary widely, but this variety has no great effect on the speeches. The speech given by George McGovern in 1972 was still being written during the hectic closing stages of the Democratic Convention: almost to the last moment, views as to what should go into it were being collected from diverse sources, even a British Sunday Times reporter. Yet the final result (largely written by McGovern’s speechwriter, Robert Schrum, who later went to work for Edward Kennedy) was at least as good as the speech made by President Carter in 1980, even though Carter’s chief speechwriter and other aides spent over two months preparing two series of drafts, an ‘A’ series for Jimmy and Rosalynn and a ‘B’ series for the speechwriting staff. Out of both series, and a flurry of memos and marginal comments (‘I think we need more on compassion’; ‘I’ve built this draft around Micah 6:8’), emerged the President’s acceptance speech. It, too, ended up being written mainly by one speechwriter (Rick Hertzberg, now editor of the New Republic), and though less eloquent and tightly-written than McGovern’s, it spoke much the same language.

This is not to say that acceptance speeches are simply one of a piece. Events and concerns of the day, and the difference between speaking as an incumbent President and as a challenger, leave their mark. So do party differences, and not just in matters of policy. Allison Brown, a student of mine at Smith College, discovered that Republican and Democratic acceptance speeches of the Sixties and Seventies took different approaches to ‘sovereignty’. Republicans stressed the ultimate authority of God, which they implicitly separated from the authority of the people. The Democrats were more likely to bring the two together, stressing the sovereignty of the people and investing it with spiritual qualities. There are also differences of personal style. Despite Eisenhower’s reputation for bumbling at Presidential press conferences, his two acceptance speeches were well-crafted, making a number of smoothly-meshing points around central images – crusade, change, the future. Richard Nixon, for his part, was apt to jump from dignity to folksiness, as if the strain of keeping up a high tone was too much.

The most deviant of the post-war acceptance speeches was Harry Truman’s in 1948. Today, if you read the speech rather than listening to it on tape, he comes across as a scrapper who, despite being President, has chosen to run as an underdog against the Republican-dominated Congress. The ‘priest of the people’ stance, so strong in most acceptance speeches, is not very evident. He begins abruptly: ‘I am sorry the microphones are in the way, but I must leave them the way they are because I have got to be able to see what I’m doing – as I’m always able to see what I’m doing.’ He goes on to declare that his Vice-Presidential running-mate and he will ‘win this election and make these Republicans like it’; that the farmers will be ‘the most ungrateful people in the world if they pass the Democratic Party by this year’; that the Republicans are a party of rich men and special interests. The speech is long on combat and short on unity.

If one listens to the speech, however, and also reads it closely, one soon realises the limits of its insouciance. His opening words are spoken with effective, dignifying pauses. He pays all the required respects to his own party and its leaders. On his Cold War foreign policies, he establishes a cliché: ‘partisanship should stop at the water’s edge.’ And when he attacks Congress, he does so on behalf of ‘the people’, suggesting that the country’s troubles lie with a small but powerful group. Both in style and in substance, Truman’s speech follows the rules: he merely defines the extent to which these rules can be stretched.

What are the rules? The first is to accept the nomination correctly. The nominee must stress that he is proud to be nominated, in a way that wraps assertiveness within modesty. In saying that he is deeply honoured to receive the prize, he must also make it clear that he has won the prize and welcomes it. The emotion should be more than democratic gratitude: it should include a sense of consecration by the people for great battles and tasks ahead. For example, Eisenhower in 1952 stressed the idea of being ‘summoned’ by millions of Americans ‘to lead a great crusade’. This enabled him to remind his listeners of his wartime attainments (Crusade in Europe was the title of his war memoirs): ‘I know something of the solemn responsibility of leading a crusade. I have led one.’ The classic mode of acceptance, however, was John F. Kennedy’s in 1960: ‘With a deep sense of duty and high resolve, I accept your nomination. I accept it with a full and grateful heart – without reservation – and with only one obligation – the obligation to devote every effort of body, mind and spirit to lead our party back to victory and our nation back to greatness.’ By contrast, Adlai Stevenson’s in 1952 was a model of how not to do it. Having declared his sense of awe at the honour of being nominated and at the burdens of the Presidency itself, he added that he had not sought the nomination and that others were better qualified for it. He then repaired to the New Testament before attempting a more fighting stance:

So, ‘if this cup may not pass from me, except that I drink it, Thy Will be done’ ... And now, my friends, that you have made your decision, I will fight to win that office with all my heart and soul ... You have summoned me to the highest mission within the gift of any people. I could not be more proud.

In combining humility with resolve, Stevenson was following the basic rule, but he didn’t integrate the two elements: the resolve sounded unresolved, the note of a sensitive loser.

Another rule of the acceptance speech is that it should enfold the speaker’s party rivals. The standard tack here is to pull the competitive threat of former opponents onto the nominee’s side. The speaker will admire the stiff fight put up by other contenders for the nomination, and declare relief that they are now on the same team. If the battle for the nomination has been particularly bruising, the nominee will honour the struggle as true American competition and democracy. If there has been no real contest for the prize, the nominee will hail the ‘great’ figures of the party, both living and dead, attaching a phrase to each that makes them represent an attractive aspect of the party tradition. Praise for a rival figure can also be a covert attack, however: a compulsory enlistment of support from someone who might otherwise drag his heels in the main election campaign. At the 1980 Democratic Convention, after Edward Kennedy had withdrawn his challenge to President Carter’s re-nomination and delivered a ringing oration (most of which had been designed as his acceptance speech), Carter’s own speech made a special appeal to him: ‘Ted, you’re a tough competitor and a superb campaigner ... your party needs you and I need you.’ The attitude behind this shows up in a memo to Carter from his pollster and political adviser, Pat Cadell, which advised the President to omit his tributes to Kennedy from the typed copies of the speech so that they would appear ‘spontaneous’ – the tributes would ‘nail EMK to the wall’.

In the same section of his speech that honours party figures, the nominee must also stress his ties with ordinary Americans. Like Walt Whitman, he might list them in occupations – workers, teachers, farmers, small businessmen and so on. For if it is important for the candidate to sound statesmanlike and even Olympian, to place himself in a historic succession of party and national leaders, it is also important to sound ordinary, down-to-earth and in touch with the productive wisdom of the common people. (In the same spirit he must, if possible, indicate that he is a regular family man, nourished by wife and children.) At the same time, in sounding close to the common people, he can use them to invoke a sense of the greatness and range of America. If he has fought primary elections across the nation, he can import into his campaign the mysticism of a special journey that represents America’s e pluribus unum. The relay runners who zigzagged across America not long ago, bearing the Olympic flame, set off amazing outbursts of patriotism from crowds gathered along their route. The acceptance speaker can tap some of this feeling by implying that he is a traveller through the people. He can also use the image of girdling the country to make a point against his opponents. Gerald Ford did this in 1976, picking out the home states of his two Democratic opponents: ‘We will wage a winning campaign in every region of this country – from the snowy banks of Minnesota to the sandy plains of Georgia. We concede not a single state. We concede not a single vote.’

An important principle governing the acceptance speech as a whole is that it should identify the speaker with dynamic action and change yet offer reassurance and stability. One way to do this is to connect an exciting future with an idealised past. Even Kennedy’s speech of 1960, which eschewed the ‘safe mediocrity of the past’ (i.e. the Eisenhower Fifties) and asserted the claim of a ‘new generation’ to take charge in ‘revolutionary’ times, used the rhetoric of ‘leading the nation back to greatness’ and coined the expression ‘new frontier’, linking America’s pride in its past to the promise of new adventure. Similarly, in 1980, Ronald Reagan spoke of ‘renewing the American compact ... The time is now, my fellow Americans, to recapture our destiny, to take it into our own hands’ (my italics). Expressions such as ‘renewal’, ‘rebirth’, ‘regenerate’, ‘kindle anew’ are standard fare in acceptance speeches as in Presidential Inaugurals, and so is the idea of the particular moment in history being a difficult but significant one, a critical juncture for the fulfilment of the past.

George McGovern’s speech of 1972, the most ‘left-wing’ of the collection, followed all these conventions. ‘Come home, America’ – home from Indochina, racialism, exploitation and waste – was his peroration; he prefaced it by saying: ‘It is time for this land to become again a witness in the world for what is noble and just in human affairs ... So join with me in this campaign, lend me your strength and your support, give me your voice – and together, we will call America home to the founding ideals that nourished us in the beginning.’

In fact, the sources of this language go back beyond the founding of the Republic, to the election sermons of colonial Massachusetts, when a divine would address the newly-elected legislature. One tradition of election sermons was the jeremiad: the speaker would scold his audience for falling away from the ideals of the past and the mission laid upon them by history to establish a righteous society. In diluted form, the standard acceptance speech says the same thing. The people have been in danger of losing their path; false prophets are at hand to lead them astray; but history has a glorious future ready for them if they will seize the opportunity.

Two images – ‘light’ and ‘the dream’ – have become part of this tradition and recur in many acceptance speeches. ‘Light’ can refer to that shining future into which a strong, wise leader may escort the nation; it can also be the virtue that America shines forth to the world – an image made much of by New England’s founding Puritans. At the Republican Convention in 1948, Thomas Dewey ended his speech: ‘The ideals of the American people are the ideals of the Republican Party. We have lighted a beacon here in Philadelphia, in this cradle of our independence. We have lighted a beacon to give eternal hope that men may live in liberty with human dignity, and before God and loving Him, stand erect and free.’ As Lyndon Johnson demonstrated in 1964, the image of light versus darkness can also be the image of the dream:

The Founding Fathers dreamed America before it was. The pioneers dreamed of great cities on the wilderness that they had crossed. Our tomorrow is on its way. It can be a shape of darkness or a thing of beauty. The choice is ours – yours. For it will be the dream that we are to dream.

Johnson chose to stress dreaming – perhaps he felt he had to – because of his past reputation as a ‘wheeler-dealer’ politician. All acceptance speakers, however, try to sound visionary while insisting that they are more realistic and effective than their opponents. In 1980, both Carter and Reagan used the term ‘make-believe’ to describe the world in which their opponent lived, which didn’t stop them indulging in the usual grand and fanciful phrases themselves.

Two decades ago, in an essay on ‘Civil Religion in America’, Robert Bellah noted that American political rhetoric contained a strong religious strain; that, in some senses, America itself was a civil religion. Bellah stressed the dangers in this, the moral arrogance, the potential for imperial messianism. Acceptance speeches reproduce much of what he observed. From this standpoint, their saving grace is the elasticity of their tradition. As several nominees have shown, the language of mission and destiny can be used to seek freedom from racial discrimination and a better deal for the poor and the sick as well as to justify counter-insurgency overseas. Perhaps this canon is not so fossilised after all.