TURNING A PHRASE
AUGUST 29, 1996
To take a look at the President's speech, what he must do and how he does it. David Gergen, editor-at-large of U.S. News & World Report, talks to Theodore Sorenson. He was a speechwriter and special counsel to President Kennedy. His most recent book is "Why I am a Democrat."
A RealAudio version of of this NewsHour segment is available here.
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DAVID GERGEN, U.S. News & World Report: Thanks, Jim. Ted, as the oratory of Ted Kennedy continues to echo through this all, let's begin by you taking us back to the summer of 1960 in Los Angeles when the young 32-year-old Ted Sorenson went to a convention, Democratic convention, with 43-year-old Jack Kennedy, where he accepted the nomination of his party. What's it like for the candidate of the party as he prepares for this speech? What's it like for Bill Clinton tonight?
THEODORE SORENSON, Former Kennedy Speechwriter: It's much easier for an incumbent President, particularly one sitting on a reasonably solid lead, with a reasonably united party, against a reasonably weak opponent. In 1960, Jack Kennedy was still regarded with some skepticism by a lot of members of his own party. And he had to shore up that political base first. The Democratic Party was the majority party in the country, if he could get back those who had deserted Eisenhower.
DAVID GERGEN: How much has oratory changed since 1960? All of us know the phrases that you helped to collaborate on with President Kennedy there at the grave. How has oratory changed since then?
THEODORE SORENSON: It's declined in my own opinion. On television, old-fashioned eloquence sounds too heated and perhaps a little pompous. Ronald Reagan has been the only first class orator we've had since John F. Kennedy, and his came mostly from carefully written scripts. Presidential candidates and incumbents today talk more informally; they talk a little less perfect English, and frankly, I think the standard has declined.
DAVID GERGEN: It also seems less inspirational. I've often wondered whether our political figures are less inspirational in part because they're not quite sure we can make it to the same--scale the same kind of heights that one believed say 35 years ago.
THEODORE SORENSON: I think that's part of it, but I think part of it is frankly they are dodging some of the issues and prefer to use platitudes and obscure phrases instead of specific principles and problems.
DAVID GERGEN: And when you say dodging issues, could you elaborate on that just for a moment?
THEODORE SORENSON: Well, I'm all for community responsibility and opportunity.
DAVID GERGEN: And those are the themes here in this Democratic convention.
THEODORE SORENSON: But those are also themes in the Republican convention. Everybody is for community responsibility and opportunity. But what does it mean? Are we talking about middle class working families, are we talking about those who are denied the opportunity? Are we talking about the lack of resources in so many of our communities? If we would be specific about those phrases so that we could see the differences between the two parties, that would be one thing. That's why I wrote the book, because too many people are not sure what the differences between the parties are anymore.
DAVID GERGEN: Well, you did write a book, "Why I'm a Democrat." It's just come out. I'm curious, as a Democrat, what advice you would give to Bill Clinton tonight in his speech as he comes before this audience.
THEODORE SORENSON: I think he cannot be a pseudo Republican because Harry Truman was right. Given a choice between a pseudo Republican and a real Republican, the voters are going to support the real thing. I don't think he can run away from his party. He can't attack his own political base, as some of his advisers have urged him to do, or maybe some of his former advisers have urged him to do because that base has to be activated. It can't sit on its hands the way so many of them did in 1994. So I hope tonight Bill Clinton will say why he's a Democrat and what distinguishes the Democratic Party from the Republican Party and what he can do with the help of a Democratic Congress. It's time for Bill Clinton to think not only about the election--
DAVID GERGEN: Right.
THEODORE SORENSON: A lot of, a lot of candidates, a lot of Presidents have won second terms in our 200-year history without accomplishing a great deal. If he wants to go down in history, he needs a Democratic Congress to help him do it.
DAVID GERGEN: You're, by implication, saying or suggesting that he hasn't been quite as Democratic as you would have liked or you think he should have been oratorically in the last few months.
THEODORE SORENSON: Yes. I'm not criticizing him because frankly, once the Republicans under Dole and Gingrich deserted the middle and moved their party to the right, it was very clever of Bill Clinton to occupy that middle, where most of the voters are.
DAVID GERGEN: Final question. How do you compare Bill Clinton as an orator to John Kennedy?
THEODORE SORENSON: I think Bill Clinton is a superb communicator, in some ways better one-on-one than John Kennedy was. John Kennedy was shier and more reticent than people realize. But I think I'll still take John Kennedy's oratory.
DAVID GERGEN: Well, Ted, thank you very much. We'll look forward to hearing from you later this evening after the President concludes his address.
THEODORE SORENSON: Thank you.
DAVID GERGEN: Jim.
MR. LEHRER: Thank you, David.
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