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Historians Discuss Renomination Acceptance Speeches

September 2, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: What does history say about what makes a great re-nominating acceptance speech, or one a president or his campaign may come to regret?

For that, we turn to presidential historian Michael Beschloss; Richard Norton Smith, director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library; and Meena Bose, a professor of American politics at West Point. Welcome back to you all.

The New York Times, Richard, this morning said that only one president in the 20th century had “pulled it off.” which was give a re-nominating speech that made a lasting impression. And they were speaking of FDR in 1936. Are they right?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: You know, maybe in terms of sheer eloquence. We quote that speech; we don’t quote many other speeches. But that year FDR could have read the phone book and he would have carried every state but Maine and Vermont. Harry Truman is, I would say, the president in the 20th century who wrote the book about how, trailing going into a defeatist political environment, seizing the initiative.

Remember, the incumbent has one advantage– they always go second. And the other advantage is, they’re an incumbent. A president can scramble the playing field and that’s what Harry Truman did. He didn’t run against Tom Dewey, his nominal opponent, he ran against the so-called do-nothing 80th Congress.

He said he was going to call them into session on what they called Turnip Day back in Missouri. He put the ball in their court knowing Congress would not adopt the liberal platform and then driving a wedge right down the middle between Dewey and his allies.

MARGARET WARNER: Is that the way we should look at these speeches, Michael, not that they’ll make a lasting impression that historians will quote but whether they do the political job?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Whether they work. As you will well remember, eight years ago tonight you and I were in Chicago for the NewsHour when Bill Clinton gave his acceptance speech accepting a second term. It was 66 minutes, one of the most boring speeches I have ever heard, something that was shared by everyone on the panel and I went back to the transcript, we all thought it was dreadful.

And I remember going out of the sky box like this, ran into a Clinton aide, said “How’d you like the speech?” I said “was it really necessary to go through this laundry list of proposals like cleaning up toxic waste dumps, it wasn’t very interesting.” He said “the speech wasn’t for you. What we did was this, we wrote the speech assuming that people might tune in for a couple minutes then tune into the ball game.

During those two or three minutes we wanted them to hear three or four proposals that they might like that might bind them to Clinton, get them to vote for Clinton” and the speech worked in that sense.

MARGARET WARNER: You’re talking about his first shot at it, not the re-nomination?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: No, I’m talking about ’96.

MARGARET WARNER: Sorry, my math is fuzzy.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It increased his margin over Bob Dole.

MARGARET WARNER: Meena, would you like to give an example of another one that was successful, or should we shift to ones that have been unsuccessful.

MEENA BOSE: I think the successful ones are more interesting, obviously, the positive stories. I would echo what Richard was saying about Truman in ’48. Even though Truman wasn’t up for reelection, per se, he hadn’t run for president before, but that was an important example of a president who was not just celebrating what he had done and not just emphasizing continuation but throwing down a challenge.

And Eisenhower would be another good example in ’56. Now Eisenhower didn’t have the same divided party that Truman had in ’48. Truman had critics from the left and right and people walking out of the convention and forming their own conventions, the Strom Thurmond supporters and Henry Wallace.

But Eisenhower talked about nuclear weapons and said in this era of thermonuclear weapons, war would be preposterous.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Go to an example, Richard, of one that failed to do the job.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: 1992 and the first President Bush. Remember, these things take place within a context and there was a feeling, whatever the statistics might say, that the economy was in the doldrums and in some ways the president’s great strength, foreign policy, had been turned against him because it was believed that he was really December engaged from domestic policy. It had been a negative kind of convention.

All of… the whole burden was on his shoulders and he really needed to hit one out of the park. Instead, he got up there and he had a speech that frankly was a bit of a mishmash, not very thematically coherent, the one thing people remember was it contained an apology for the tax increase that he had gone along with in 1990 as part of the budget.

MARGARET WARNER: And Jim mentioned to him in the interview today.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I’m not surprised he doesn’t remember it. He probably doesn’t want to remember it.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: He’s repressed things.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Yeah. It didn’t help the cause.

MARGARET WARNER: What about the challenges of wartime incumbents? I think we can even throw Hubert Humphrey into that mix because he was a sitting vice president. What have been… what are the special challenges? Who’s done it well and how?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, it’s when… actually, this is something that’s not un-germane tonight. It’s when you near a time of war and a president uses that stature to make himself popular in a way that he might not otherwise be. Richard Nixon in 1972 was still fighting the Vietnam War and also the Cold War.

And the language was not memorable, but what he was conveying was with the I’m the guy who made the opening to China, who was doing diplomacy with Russia, on the verge of ending the Vietnam War. If you all want to throw that away, fine with me but I don’t think you should.”

MARGARET WARNER: In other words, he was painting McGovern as unfit to lead in the time of war.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Without mentioning the name of McGovern. And one interesting thing he said at the beginning, he talked about his vice president, Spiro Agnew just after McGovern had thrown Eagleton the off the ticket.

Nixon said about Agnew “I won’t change my mind tomorrow.” Of course, the next year Agnew quit after corruption charges.

MARGARET WARNER: You’ve heard in Gwen’s earlier segment, Meena, that there was a discussion about how much George Bush, this George Bush, should talk about domestic issues being that it was a time of war.

Again, historically, what have wartime presidents done? Have they played up the wartime aspect or have they also attended to the economic and domestic concerns?

MEENA BOSE: Well, they certainly can’t ignore the domestic issues, but I think what Michael was just saying is the importance of actions over words, so they emphasize what they’ve done already — the accomplishments they’ve had in office, be it during the Cold War, detente, or moving forward in the Vietnam War, peace talks, and then what’s to come ahead.

So domestic policy is really secondary, I would say. And the primary focus is on the importance of the president leading the foreign policy agenda.

MARGARET WARNER: What would you say about wartime?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: It’s interesting. If you look at 1944, there was this perception on the part of many that if the voters thought the war would be over soon, they might vote for the challenger, Tom Dewey. Whereas FDR –


MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Churchill the next year.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: A tired old man. So FDR –

MARGARET WARNER: We don’t need him so we can switch?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: We have the luxury of making the change. FDR gave a war speech. He didn’t speak at the convention hall.

It was announced he was speaking from an undisclosed location. A military installation on the West Coast.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s another rich tradition.


MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: But, you know, the one thing is that if a wartime president makes himself seem indispensable he can get Americans to vote for him even if they may not like his domestic policies. I think we’re going to see that to want.

MARGARET WARNER: And we’ve heard that theme already from other convention speakers.


MARGARET WARNER: Michael, Richard, Meena, thanks. We’ll see you later.