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Historians Discuss Nomination Acceptance Speeches

July 29, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: And they are NewsHour regulars Michael Beschloss and Richard Norton Smith. And Ellen Fitzpatrick, professor of American history at the University of New Hampshire.

Well, the newspapers, the airwaves, including our own, are filled with all these analyses about what John Kerry has to do. Richard, has an acceptance speech ever been such a success that it’s really had a measurable impact on the future of that campaign?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Absolutely. Beginning with the first one in 1932 when Franklin Roosevelt got in a plane and flew from Albany to Chicago, something never done before, and said, I’m going to break with foolish tradition, and so when he promised a New Deal for the American people and had credibility backed up by the symbolism of what he had already done.

MARGARET WARNER: Give me an example.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: In 1948, the Democrats thought Harry Truman would lose. It was hot, they were in Philadelphia. Truman got on stage and for the first time spoke from the heart.

He usually used text. First thing he says is Sen. Barkley and I will win this election and make those republicans like it. Don’t you forget that. The place roared and it gave them the sense of confidence they need.

MARGARET WARNER: What’s your favorite?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: The election of 1896. It technically wasn’t an acceptance speech, but William Jennings Bryant came to that convention as a delegate.

He left as the nominee of the Democratic Party because he gave one of the greatest speeches in American political history.


ELLEN FITZPATRICK: The cross of gold speech. The issue was a kind of dismal one; it was about currency but he transformed the moment.

MARGARET WARNER: Richard, what makes for a successful acceptance speech? Let’s come to the modern, more the modern era, the post-television era.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: What you want to do, because you’re introducing yourself to America, you want to connect with people emotionally and intellectually, but emotionally first. You want to try to frame the fall campaign along the lines that you think will help get you elected.

Bill Clinton did that arguably as well as anyone in the opening sentence of his 1992 acceptance address where he said he accepted the nomination on behalf of all the people who do the work and raise the kids and pay the bills and play by the rules, all the hard-working Americans who make up our forgotten middle class.

Well, first of all, that was sheer genius because that was most of his audience, but secondly it was also a very shrewd way to calling an attention to an incumbent president, the first George Bush, who many people thought was out of touch.

MARGARET WARNER: So a distillation of the campaign’s entire message.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: In a sentence or two.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And giving the guy legend. In 1976 I was watching Jimmy Carter with my mother in Chicago. He came through delegates in the hall, which has never happened before instead of just out on the stage, something that it’s said John Kerry might also do tonight, and Carter went on stage after a film in which it told about his life.

The first thing he says is, “my name is Jimmy Carter and I am running for president.” Which he had said all through the early campaign. It showed you how far he had come from a peanut field in Georgia. My mother, not especially Democratic, had tears streaming down her cheer.

She said, “isn’t it wonderful we live in a country where someone can come from anywhere and become president?”.

MARGARET WARNER: We’re told this is going to be quite a personal speech. He’s going to connect his personal story to his issues. We’ve heard in the analysis that Ray did, they mostly talked about character traits that need to come through.

When did that become such an important part of how we judge the success of an acceptance speech?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: I think it’s a relatively recent phenomenon, and it really connects to the television age. I think also to the political moment in which we live.

Think about the fact that no one ever saw or heard Abraham Lincoln, one of the greatest presidents in American history, and yet Americans had a sense, a deep sense of his character.

Now, because television and radio exist, they are extremely important in shaping perceptions of character, but character is not enough. He must rise to his historical moment.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Another thing, I think Bill Clinton really marked a turning point — the great empathizer, you know. But stop and think of the television age, particularly the 24-hour news cycle, presidents and their families come into our living rooms all the time.

They become part of the extended family. So one of the things we need to have is a comfort level with these people, and that’s why their personal story and personal qualities sometimes trump their platform.

MARGARET WARNER: And this is one of the few times that the candidate really gets a sustained, unfiltered opportunity to speak to the voter.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It does, especially because in the old days Franklin Roosevelt because the leaders of the party essentially chose him.

Now we don’t have those gatekeepers, so we have a John Kerry, most Americans still do not know who this is, so he has to introduce himself to Americans in a way that an earlier age people would have said, well, if the party leaders chose Franklin Roosevelt, he must be of good character.

MARGARET WARNER: Now let’s talk about unsuccessful ones. Your favorite.

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: An unsuccessful acceptance speech, well, unsuccessful ones are the ones that fall flat, which most of them, by the way, do.

I think it’s much easier to pick maybe two or three very successful ones. The most important thing when you think about it is to remember that it operates on two planes.

It has to be a speech that will energize the party, the delegates that are here in the convention hall to go out and work for the candidate, but it also has to connect the candidate to the national audience.

MARGARET WARNER: Give us your favorite historical example of that.

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Of someone who did that, again I have to go back to 1896 in the pre-television age. It’s a fantastic price of political oratory.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I won’t say it’s unsuccessful, but you don’t want to give the opposition ammunition. In 1988 Michael Dukakis, who celebrated the immigrant experience in a speech that was in many ways quite memorable, but he also used the line, he said, “this is an election not able ideology but competence.”

That doesn’t sound very exceptionable today out of context, but at the time, it sounded as if he were trying to run away from his record as a classic Massachusetts liberal. Republicans did not let him forget it.

MARGARET WARNER: Give us your favorite unsuccessful example, Michael, but has it ever been so bad that it more than just didn’t meet expectations…

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: No one has been booed off the stage.

MARGARET WARNER: No, no, but it’s presaged the failure of the campaign.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, Hubert Humphrey in 1968. You saw his speech and knew it was a big problem. People were looking at this guy who had been Lyndon Johnson’s vice president, which was not a pleasant experience. He had had to truckle to Johnson for four years.

They were asking in the tumult of Chicago, demonstrations over Vietnam, is this guy going to be his own man? One of the highlights of the speech was, Humphrey listed the accomplishments of Lyndon Johnson and says into the cameras, and tonight I want to say, thank you, Mr. President.

It was exactly the opposite of what he needed to do. He wasn’t able to separate himself.

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: His far bigger problem, however, I think Michael probably would agree, were the riots on the floor of the convention hall, and one of the things to remember is that the speech cannot trump the historical reality.

We have 1,000 soldiers that have died in Iraq. We’re in two war zones rights now in Afghanistan and in Iraq. This is a very serious moment. And the speech must address the realities.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: The other problematic speech, and in many ways it was an impossible situation he was in, but Walter Mondale in 1984 gave a speech many people thought was defensive.

He said that basically we got the pants beaten off us in 1980; we didn’t blame the American people. We listened to the American people. In effect we made changes. Look at our platform. We’re not raising taxes, we’re not cutting defense, et cetera, et cetera.

It was a speech that is most remembered because he said that he would raise… he said Ronald Reagan would raise taxes and so will I…

MARGARET WARNER: Because there is a difference, we both will but I’ll tell you.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I just told you.


RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Exactly. He gets points for candor, but it probably didn’t help him on Election Day.

MARGARET WARNER: Briefly, is that what happen, Michael, that a candidate tries redress or fix an image problem and may move….

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Mondale may be an example of that very germane tonight because the wrath among Mondale among many at the time was he was too cautious, he’s not going to take a risk.

So when this speech was written with this dramatic, I’ll raise your taxes, one of the purposes was to show that Mondale was a daring politician. Needless to say, it did not help.

MARGARET WARNER: We’ll be back during the convention show. Thank you both… three.