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Senator John Kerry to Deliver Nomination Acceptance Speech

July 29, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST
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TRANSCRIPT

RAY SUAREZ: Aurora, Colorado, John Kerry’s birthplace, was the first stop on a six-day, six- state tour in the run up to the Democratic National Convention. Here, Kerry recounted lessons learned from his parents.

SEN. JOHN KERRY: Through the power of their mutual example, they both taught me that the most fundamental values in life is service to others. During the war… (applause) during the war, my mother wrote to my father. “You have no ideas of the ways in which one can be useful right now.” She said, “There’s something for everyone to do.”

My mother’s words I think ring just as true today as they did 50 years ago. There is something in America for everyone to do to help build community.

There is so much work to be done in our nation, and that’s why I’m here. That’s why I’m running for president.

RAY SUAREZ: At Cape Canaveral, Florida on Monday, he talked about health care and the economy.

SEN. JOHN KERRY: You can have a choice. You can lower your cost of health care and put $1,000 in your pocket. You can have affordable prescription drugs for mom and dad and grandpa and grandma.

You can turn around and have health care that is going to give you a choice, that really delivers, but to do it, you’ve got to vote for Kerry, because Kerry is going to make sure we have a tax system that’s fair.

We’re going to roll back George Bush’s unaffordable tax cut for the wealthiest Americans so that we can invest in health care for all Americans. That’s how we do it, that’s the choice.

RAY SUAREZ: In Norfolk, Virginia on Tuesday, it was the war in Iraq.

SEN. JOHN KERRY: And the first and most important lesson of all is that the great United States of America, our beloved country, never goes to war because it wants to.

We go to war because we have to. That’s the standard of our country. (Applause) A good commander-in-chief who’s thinking about the nature of the conflict and thinking through the consequences and the next moves, ought to make certain that when we send our troops into harm’s way, they have the body armor they need.

They have the vehicles they need. They have the equipment they need, and that we don’t need to conduct and I will stop the back door draft that makes guards and reservists into full-time active duty personnel in this country. (Applause)

RAY SUAREZ: And arriving in Boston yesterday, he recapped his campaign and looked to the future.

SEN. JOHN KERRY: This has been an amazing journey for me over the last few days. The whole thing has been an amazing journey, from the beginning of reaching out to Americans and going into people’s homes and having people just share their personal stories and hopes for our nation.

And nobody can ever properly give the honor due to that privilege, that gift of being able to listen to you and try to translate it into a vision that lifts our country up and takes us to a better place.

RAY SUAREZ: After a week of testing convention themes in front of different crowds, tonight John Kerry has to put it all together, before a nation watching as one.

RAY SUAREZ: For a closer look at John Kerry’s mission this evening, I’m joined by his Senate colleague, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, attorney Michael Waldman was Bill Clinton’s chief speechwriter during the president’s second term and helped craft Mr. Clinton’s acceptance speech at the 1996 convention, and Amy Walter, a reporter with the Cook Political Report. Senator, what is the assignment for your colleague, John Kerry, tonight?

What does he have to accomplish with this speech?

SEN. JACK REED: Well, I think his primary responsibility is to establish himself as a credible commander-in-chief, someone who can immediately step in and lead our forces and protect the nation, not just from the threats of terrorism but a whole range of threats. I think his best evidence is his own career as commander of a swift boat in Vietnam and his personal courage and sacrifice, his knowledge.

All those things I think will come to play in tonight’s speech.

RAY SUAREZ: How does he demonstrate that, though? Is it by showing personal traits and attributes? Sen. Barbara Boxer said Americans need to see what’s inside him.

SEN. JACK REED: That’s exactly I think what he must do. He must be able to communicate the same kind of commitment, the same kind of sense of duty and selfless dedication that he showed as a young naval lieutenant, the same kind of character traits that have endeared himself to those members of his crew that are with him today.

Then I think he has to make some concrete proposals that will shape the national security, raising the size of the army, increasing our flexibility to deal with complicated threats throughout the globe. That combination of personal and policy issues I think is critical.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Waldman, with so much perceived as being riding on this, this must be a tough speech to write.

MICHAEL WALDMAN: It’s a tough speech to write. It’s a tough speech for him to get ready to give. He’s been working on it for several weeks.

From what I’m told from people who are inside the process, the idea that he’s actually working on it, writing it, crossing out isn’t just spin, or may be accurate spin in this case. And it’s tough because, you know, this is the first time most Americans, even people paying a lot of attention to politics, will actually hear from him for more than thirty seconds or ten seconds, and they’ll get a measure of him as a person.

But I do sometimes think that in this day and age, we’ve gone overboard in wanting to see the person in these speeches. FDR didn’t get up and talk about how he overcame polio. So I hope in addition to the story and learning about his life that there’s a real set of concrete proposals so people get a sense of where he wants to take the country.

RAY SUAREZ: Amy, do modern politics demand that personal story, whether you think it’s appropriate or not?

AMY WALTER: Well, I thought you point was excellent, but remember what kicked off this whole convention.

It was former President Clinton coming and showing us exactly what we’ve become accustomed to, which is this real sense of reaching out, seeing the man, the personal connection, the idea of being able to go back and to do the sorts of speeches like we saw from an FDR even — I started thinking this week what if we put Robert Kennedy up on that podium? Would Americans still feel as moved as they say they were in the ’60s? I don’t know.

We have a very different threshold now from what we expect from politicians, and we do expect this personal connection. We expect them to tell us not just what they’re going to do, but who they are as a person and the whole character issue certainly was a key component of the 2000 campaign, it’s still going to be important in this one.

RAY SUAREZ: So you’re saying that the way the Clinton speech was received earlier this week, and maybe throw into the hopper the Barack Obama speech, his own wife’s speech, makes things more difficult, sets the bar even higher for the nominee tonight?

AMY WALTER: Well, I think the interesting point in terms of the threshold and the expectations, there certainly is an expectations game to play. It’s impossible not to see that here and how important this is for John Kerry. But I think that he does not need to come out here and hit a homerun so that people come home and say, “oh, the best speech I have ever seen in my entire life.”

What he needs to do– remember, he is tied right now with a sitting president of the United States. He’s in a very good position right now and certainly I think it’s President Bush in a much more vulnerable position going into the fall campaign.

What John Kerry needs do is talk to these undecided voters, these voters who have… they’ve already said, “I don’t think I can vote for George Bush right now, but I got to know a little bit more about John Kerry. He needs to pass the threshold for me, and then I can support him.”

That’s who he needs to talk to tonight and say, “okay, here’s who I am. I need to pass this bar,” but it’s not as if he needs to go in there and hit some sort of homerun. Getting on base I think is going to be important.

RAY SUAREZ: Senator, is there a real feeling, going into this, that it’s not just the 15,000 accredited reporters, not just political prose, the delegates who are watching, but lots of people, people who haven’t made up their mind, people who don’t even think of themselves as politically interested?

SEN. JACK REED: I think that’s exactly right, Ray. This is an opportunity to speak to the nation. One of the few opportunities for a candidate unobstructed, because generally the convention is… the custom is that you get your opportunity to be on the stage alone almost.

And he has the chance and opportunity to communicate with the American people and build a sense of trust, his judgment, a sense of understanding, his vision, and really to build this trust, this hope, and I’m confident he’ll do it. I think he’s worked hard, and I think it will show tonight.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, they tell you in journalism school to always keep your reader in mind or your listener/reviewer in mind.

How do you do that when you’re talking to people who have been paying a lot of attention, some who have been paying no attention at all, some who are going to full a full-length set piece speech from this man for the very first time?

MICHAEL WALDMAN: Well, it’s tough because you’ve got the people in the room who will cheer at semicolons. You’ve got reporters who are listening for nuances and any conflict with something else he said.

You’ve got people at home who may not have been paying that much attention, and if a speaker gets up and pounds the podium and gets red in the face and gives a great speech that people in the hall are cheering over, it can look kind of crazy on television. So I think that Kerry’s strongest style, in a way, is actually when he gives interviews, when he talks in a direct way.

It’s often the case that he’s less effective when he’s trying give grand oratory, you know, sound like John F. Kennedy. So I hope, I think it’s likely, that he’ll try keep it low-key and sort of true to who he is rather than trying to put something they’ll carve on the wall at the John F. Kerry Library some day down the road.

RAY SUAREZ: When you are writing a speech like this, do you have to almost have a schematic diagram — because a lot of it will be cut up into pieces tomorrow morning on the news, tomorrow night on the news. It will be seen not in its entirety as an argument, but in little chunks.

MICHAEL WALDMAN: People know, including the candidates, the people that work with the candidate, they know which lines, they hope at least, will be the ones that get applause, that get in the newspaper. They know which ones are going to appeal to their own party faithful.

They know which ones send little messages. President Bush in his campaign last time, in his convention speech, he used language that was very powerful to evangelicals who recognized it as biblical language, and everybody else didn’t even know what… that’s what it was.

So there’s plenty of calculation that goes into these things. But you know, a lot of the greatest moments in American political history came from these speeches.

You think about FDR talking about a rendezvous with destiny or the new frontier. Those were not inaugural addresses, those with the sweaty, smoke-filled and, in those days, political speeches.

RAY SUAREZ: Do they get the same kind of attention these days?

AMY WALTER: You know, it’s interesting — we keep talking about this as the most important political election of a political lifetime for many voters who say they have seen as, “this is the one that means more to me than any election I have ever voted in.”

And yet at the same time, we’re saying, yeah but people don’t really watch these speeches anymore and they don’t care about conventions anymore, and they can’t listen to a 50-minute speech anymore. And so we’re really sending mixed messages, which is we’re saying, this is a very, very important election and you need to be able to hear from both of these men and what their views are because that’s really what we’re talking about here, two contrasting views.

At yet the same time, there’s… we’re also sending this message that I don’t know if Americans can sit through a 65- minute speech anymore.

RAY SUAREZ: Is this particularly important for Sen. Kerry because even after he’s already been officially nominated as the Democratic Party’s nominee for president, one of the main things that people are telling the public opinion researchers is they don’t know that much about it.

AMY WALTER: You know, again, Michael brought this point up, too. They don’t need to love him after this, right? Voters need to… yes, they’d like to know a little bit more about him, but fundamentally he’s not and he shouldn’t go out there and try change to himself and change his personality.

Remember that was the Al Gore that we talked about so much in 2000. Which Al Gore is going to show up tonight at the debate? Which Al Gore is going to show up at the speech? Keeping that sort of consistent personality, John Kerry has a personality that is not going to be warm and fuzzy. It’s not going to be John Edwards.

That’s not the kind of person or speech he’s going to give. And at the same time, I think that what he needs to convey to voters is much more– and the senator said this, too– it’s much more about what his proposals are.

And voters may go away thinking, I don’t know this man intimately, but again, if we’re talking about the issues that I’m concerned about, that’s what… I wanted my questions answered on that. I did that. I don’t need to love him. I just need to feel confident in him.

RAY SUAREZ: I don’t need to love him, but it wouldn’t hurt, would it, Senator?

SEN. JACK REED: It wouldn’t hurt, but I think fundamentally it’s about respect and trust — respecting his intelligence, respecting his position for the country, the seriousness of his purpose. And I think that’s what he hopes to strive for and achieve in tonight’s speech.

RAY SUAREZ: Does he need to get a big boost out of this? Is this sort of a diving platform or…

SEN. JACK REED: No, I think he’ll get a boost out of this convention and the speech. I think he’ll do a good job. But we’re really looking at a very small margin of voters who are intensely interested but undecided.

And then the larger blocks have already made decisions either for President Bush or Sen. Kerry. So I don’t think there’s a big bump coming out of here, but I think this is important. And it’s also, I think, as my colleague has said, this is not the last major speech he’ll give.

This is the prelude to campaigning, to debates. But now this is the first impression he’s making on so many Americans, and it should be a good one. I hope it will be.

RAY SUAREZ: In your experience, would it still be getting fussed over at this point in the game, or is it pretty much locked? ( Laughter )

MICHAEL WALDMAN: Well, my experience it’s I’d say is off the bell curve. Having worked for President Clinton in 1996, we were still working on the speech in the limousine on the way to the convention hall, and TV camera crews were following the motorcade. You could see the blue glow of a laptop in the back seat of the car.

So I hope that that’s not happening now. But you know, I think it’s much better for someone to actually work on their own speech, to write it, or be very involved in the writing of it, and fiddle with it. It’s a big speech, better than having deniability about what’s in your own speech, which we’ve seen with some politicians and even some presidents.

RAY SUAREZ: Thanks very much for being with us.

GROUP: Thank you.