Monday at the DNC


Carol and I watched about two hours of the Democratic National Convention on Monday night (sorry, I'm not quite enough of a political junky to watch the entire thing). Unfortunately, I didn't take notes, but the speeches of Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter are very fresh in my mind still and here are some notes about them for those who didn't get (or take) the opportunity.

Monday night was the kick-off for the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. Among the featured speakers were Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Al Gore. I missed Al's speech, and you can guess how happy or unhappy I was about that, but I can write about the speeches of former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

After watching these two speakers have their way with the crowds (and the cameras) Monday night, all I can say is that the speakers in the rest of the week have a lot to live up to, and that the organizers knew what they were doing when putting them on Monday night to put their best feet forward.

As we have seen since the end of his Presidency, Mr. Carter has become a thoughtful and energetic speaker. At the age of 80 (which I could hardly believe watching him speak), he embodies what I think is the right posture for an American ex-President. He spoke with firmness and conviction, compassion and strength, thoughtfulness and inclusion. He addressed a breadth of topics with a firm focus on the future of the country, its place in the world, and an optimism that we will get there. All-told, I think that Kerry should be extremely happy to have had him speak at his convention, and the networks should be ashamed that they didn't see their way to play his speech live. Thanks to C-Span, we were able to watch it in real- time.

One particularly interesting point in Carter's speech was when he referred to the current President's "mistakes and miscalculations" in dealing with the Middle East and allies. Considering how strongly President Carter feels about this issue, I think it was a wise and well-thought-out way to address the issue. It doesn't attempt to paint the "evil" card, just questions whether Bush is the right man for the job.

However, Carter was definitely not the best show on Monday night. That position goes to one of the best campaigners in decades (say what you like about him, but this part is hard to dispute), former President Bill Clinton. Love him or hate him, I think that anyone who watched this speech got a thorough dose of how this man was able to energize his supporters and pull cross-over voters in the best tradition of Ronald Reagan (although not quite to that extent).

Clinton's speech was poignant and direct, with all of the energy that people have come to expect from Clinton. Unfortunately for the Democrats (and, quite frankly, for our nation), there were even fewer people watching this speech than the ones at the last Democratic convetion in Los Angeles (as mentioned in this Washington Post article, viewership was down 10% this year).

What was also clear was that both Carter and Clinton were keeping their speeches "on point". Most of the so-called attacks on the Bush administration were soft-played so as to not alienate swing voters who may have voted for the President in 2000. Further, in keeping with the required optimistic tone of American politics, both talked about a brighter future and hit on the Kerry tag line of "Strength at home, respected abroad".

This isn't to say that I agreed with every word said by these two speakers, but they were certainly speaking the right language and keeping away from the things likely to push people away from the candidate. There was no mention of abortion; the use of the word "partner" to replace "husband" or "wife" was the only sign of the gay marriage debate; Clinton and Carter stayed away from the 2000 election "irregularities" (although I'm told that Gore did not); and discussions of tax raising were kept to Bill Clinton volunteering to give up more of his own wealth to fund programs.

In retrospect, some of the most interesting moments in the Clinton speech were when he approached his weaknesses. Unlike the issue that brought him to impeachment, he addressed his issues straight on, likening his lack of service in Vietnam to that of Bush and others and saluting Kerry for eschewing his privileged background to go to Vietnam. Further, when he discussed taxation and the Bush tax cuts, he used himself as an example of the rich, saying that he never expected to be treated so well by the President.