AUGUST 29, 1996
President Clinton's speech clocked in at 66 minutes. Did its quality match the quantity? A NewsHour panel of experts analyse the President's words.
Complete NewsHour coverage of the '96 elections.
Complete NewsHour coverage of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Complete NewsHour coverage of the Republican National Convention in San Diego.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Mark Shields, Paul Gigot, Ted Sorenson, and the others of our team, beginning with you, Ted Sorenson, just as, as a speech, let's start with this speech, how would you rate this speech, the President's speech?
THEODORE SORENSON, Former Kennedy Speechwriter: I would give it a high rating. It was a significant speech and a successful speech, significant in that it's practically the first speech of this convention not to use the word Gingrich. And I think that's an indication that he meant what he said, that it's going to be a positive campaign. There was comparatively little reference to the opposition. It's an indication it's going to be an issues-oriented campaign because in addition to the usual platitudes, there were some specific initiatives mentioned, maybe too many. There should be a difference between an acceptance speech and a State of the Union Address. I'm happy to hear about bridge to the 21st century; I'm not sure we had to touch on every single girder.
JIM LEHRER: The bridge?
THEODORE SORENSON: Of that bridge. Now, successful because he didn't touch all of the bases. He covered himself on welfare by saying we're going to create a million new jobs. He talked about the issues that are dear to the hearts of the Democrats. He talked about the Democratic Congress and the need for a Democratic Congress. And he reminded those people who say that, well, this is a namby-pamby vacillating, compromising President, that he's taken on some pretty tough foes--the tobacco lobby, the polluters lobby, the anti-free choice forces. That's--and the gun lobby.
JIM LEHRER: Was it a Democrat speech?
THEODORE SORENSON: More than I had expected, to be honest with you. I'm--as a Democrat who thinks that we ought to campaign on the differences between the parties, which is the purpose of my book, I'm happy to say he did talk about basic Democratic themes and his proposals for the future are not simply imitations of the Republican proposals.
JIM LEHRER: Mark, what did you think? What kind of rating would you give the speech?
MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: On a grade level, I guess, Jim, I think that Bill Clinton's speech tonight was in keeping with this convention. This convention is a four corners convention. The offense developed by Dean Smith, University of North Carolina, to keep a lead and to sit on a lead when you had it. There were no chances taken in the convention, quite frankly, or in this speech tonight. I thought it was the best I've heard Bill Clinton speak, but it was--if Bob Dole's speech was a laundry list, this, in many respects, was a Christmas list. There was not an erogenous zone of the body politic that went uncarressed in this, in this particular magnum opus. I thought, I thought the bridge to the 21st century worked. It's--he's casting it, I'm tomorrow, Bob Dole is a wonderful, good patriotic man, was wounded in World War II, a hero of that war, long and valuable service to his country, but this speech said I'm the guy that's going to be there for tomorrow, for the future, for what lies ahead. And he lost the audience, Jim, about halfway or maybe two thirds of the way we through. We all commented on--there was almost a--
JIM LEHRER: The audience in the hall.
MR. SHIELDS: The audience in the hall. And he brought them back with what I thought was the best section of the speech, which was the close, and the line that got me was, if you believe in the values of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, if you're willing to work hard and play by the rules, you're part of our family. And America is a journey and I thought that for that reason the bridge metaphor did work for him.
JIM LEHRER: Paul Gigot.
PAUL GIGOT, Wall Street Journal: As a political, as a rhetorical speech, I thought it was adequate to good. There were no real memorable lines in it, I don't think. Frankly, I think Bob Dole was more eloquent, playing against type there. I thought he had a lot more soaring lines of rhetoric. This was barely adequate. As a political speech, I was surprised at how defensive it was. The--there were very little--very little ambition in it. There were no, really no new initiatives, nothing that we hadn't heard before, no even new challenges. The--it was almost as if he took the places where he felt he was most vulnerable, either for the Republicans or from his own party's base, like welfare, and tried to somehow slide and counteract it, come up against it. Tax cuts, for example, and the Republicans, drugs, the national missile defense, and if I--unlike Ted, I think it was a barely Democratic speech. It was a speech that while Dick Morris is no longer his consultant, it was a speech that Dick Morris would have liked very much.
JIM LEHRER: Why do you say that? Where did you see the Republican--more of a Republican in there than Ted Sorenson?
MR. GIGOT: I saw in drugs and taxes and charter schools and education, for example, the school choice issue, I saw him trying to take what have been very--what Bob Dole tried to do two weeks ago as themes of attack--and try to move to the center and even coopt them or deflect them.
JIM LEHRER: Ted Sorenson.
THEODORE SORENSON: Those have all been issues that Clinton's been emphasizing from the start. And I think we'll hear a Republican response that disagrees with many of the initiatives that were mentioned in the talk tonight, and that's the best proof that it's not a Republican speech.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Well, let's go, go around now, expand this to other members of our team. Doris Kearns Goodwin, what did you think of this speech?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: Well, I think what worked was that it showed his energy, his vitality, that he was comfortable with the public arts of leadership, more so perhaps than Sen. Dole. It perhaps was politically successful to talk about the bridge to the future, rather than the past, because that's what people are going to want, but I think it was an incredibly safe, steady, unrisky, undramatic bridge to the future. The proposals were modest, and I don't think he called on the Democratic heritage. The great speeches of the past talk about what it meant to be a Democrat, the people that led us through World War II, that desegregated the armed forces, that brought us the Civil Rights Act, the Marshall Plan, the Voting Rights Act. He didn't put himself squarely in that tradition because he didn't want to be in the past, and he robbed himself of making people feel part of a larger hole. And I don't think it moved people to action. Great speeches make people want to go out and march in the streets to get people to vote. I don't think it touched those chords. I don't think it touched the heart and the soul. It was a very modest--I would say almost pedestrian--speech, delivered well, showing his energy, but I don't think it's going to make people feel, uh, I'm so proud to be with him, and proud to be a Democrat.
JIM LEHRER: Haynes Johnson.
HAYNES JOHNSON, Author/Journalist: I agree with that. I think that this was another--there's a paradox about Bill Clinton. He can be the most eloquent speaker I've heard in many, many, many years. And what I heard tonight was he's been saying all week long on the train. Each one of these was a speech on the train. I watched those segments on crime, on welfare, on all the rest, and I heard him give--on the environment. When he gave those, he was passionate, it was wonderful, it's stirring. This was a stitching them altogether. I think it worked politically. It did lay out the differences most importantly as we've all said here between the past and present, they're couching themselves, as the Vice President did last night, Vice President Gore, of a new generation looking ahead and implicitly, obviously comparing themselves to Mr. Dole and the past generation of American leadership. I think the--the best line to me in the entire speech wasn't the--I got tired of the metaphor--just as someone listening about the train and we're on the track and the bridge to the 21st century--but I thought that when he talked about this must be a campaign of ideas, not insults, I think he struck a very big chord, and I think the people will like that. I suspect the speech will play well politically, but one last thought. I found myself--I agree with Mark--he lost the audience. I was so struck, I got up from the table here and went to the window, looking down, looking at the audience in the middle of the speech. They were just dead, and I had to flash back eight years to the very day in Atlanta, when I watched this fellow, then Governor of Arkansas, give that speech, and people were--I was standing then on the floor, looking up at him, that long, long speech, when everyone was yelling, get the hook. He somehow can't do these large speeches in a way that, as Doris says, stirs or soars. Ironically, last thought, they're playing the "Les Miserables," that wonderful, stirring music. They could have used some of that kind of same metaphor in the speech.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. Bill Kristol.
WILLIAM KRISTOL, The Weekly Standard: I thought it was a little bit mind-numbing, honestly. I mean, Mark mentioned the four corners offense. You know, they put a shot clock rule in college basketball because it was so boring for the fans to watch Dean Smith's North Carolina team play the four corners, and it was such a laundry list of all the small bore initiatives. Seven months ago, the President said the era of big government is over. And I think what we saw today is if he's reelected, the era of busy body government is going to be with us, lots and lots of small policies, small programs, lots of attempts to tell Americans that they should do more, to read to their kids, and all of that. It may have been politically enough. He's ahead. He just needs to sit on the lead, presumably. That's clearly the strategy. Nothing memorable in the speech, I thought.
JIM LEHRER: Michael Beschloss.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Well, this is it, Jim. I think it was just an enormously missed opportunity. You know, this is a President with perhaps one of the most sensitive ears in American politics. If you go back to the speech that he gave in Memphis in 1993, that was a speech of enormously deep feeling and conviction. He was talking about how America in the 1990's was so different from what Martin Luther King had hoped it would be when he was looking out from 1963. Compared to Memphis, this was a politburo document, you know, especially at the beginning in these statistics, you know, one line after another, it was, I mean, numbing I think was the word that was just used. It really was mind numbing. And the thing is that I really can't understand it because for a President as politically skilled as Bill Clinton is, he knows how helpful it can be for a President to give a tight speech that people are going to remember and send the delegates out of this hall over the country to work for victory. I just begin to wonder why this President, especially with all the reasons that you can name for him not to give long speeches, after what he did in Atlanta in 1988, the almost 90-minute speech, the State of the Union in 1995, this reputation that we hear on Leno and Letterman for long speeches, you'd think he'd almost go to the other extreme. And I guess one thing I kept on wondering is despite all this, why did he feel compelled to make this such a laundry list?
JIM LEHRER: All right. And David Gergen.
DAVID GERGEN, U.S. News & World Report: Well, Jim, in my view, it was prose, not poetry. It was too long. Some may have wondered if the speech would last until the 21st century. The--but having said that, I think that it was very effective politically. In particular, I think this bridge to the future is a very effective theme for Bill Clinton. It allows him to contrast himself as a young, vigorous man with Bob Dole. It allows him to attack the Dole tax plan as a bridge back to the past and do that effectively. But most importantly, Jim, it seems to me that this speech allows him to shift the conversation in politics to something new, and that is to the politics of children. Instead of talking about balanced budgets, instead of talking about entitlements, which we should be talking about by the way, uh, this speech moved us over just as Al Gore and Hillary Clinton had done earlier in the convention. I think there were some 30 initiatives in this speech. More than half concerned children. I think this is a new politics for us, and it seems to me, by talking about the bridge to the future, Bill Clinton is seizing the high point on that bridge.
JIM LEHRER: Ted Sorenson, I wasn't keeping score here, but I think, if I were keeping score, you're outnumbered in terms of what they--
THEODORE SORENSON: Well, you've got a tough crowd here.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
THEODORE SORENSON: But keep in mind that the common wisdom, which I agree with, is it's Clinton's to lose. Dole can't win this election. So this had to be a safe speech. He has a lead. He has a weak opponent. He has a united party. What he had to do in this speech was not make any major blunders. He didn't say anything that divided his party. He didn't say anything that dispirited the Democratic base. That's enough for a successful political speech when you're sitting in the political position he's sitting in.
JIM LEHRER: Mark.
MR. SHIELDS: Let me just descend slightly from what Ted said, and that is Ted Sorenson said earlier tonight, and insightfully so, that Bill Clinton's a great communicator, not a great orator.
JIM LEHRER: That was earlier in a conversation with David Gergen.
MR. SHIELDS: That's right. He is not--Bill Clinton is "the" most articulate, least eloquent President in my lifetime. He is--his sentences flow, his paragraphs are constructed well, he speaks well, his sentences parse, his choice of words is fine, but there is no single memorable phrase. I mean, Bill Kristol would immediately say, the ear of big government is over. But I mean, there is no lifting phrase for the Clinton presidency. Why he needed it tonight, Jim, in the words of Bill Bradley, America needs a grand ambition, but most importantly, you need it going into a second term. Ronald Reagan suffered in his second term because he won a lonely landslide in 1984 by just muting all differences and by asking the same question he'd asked four years earlier, are you better off than you were four years ago, and Americans said yes in 1984, and reelected him, with no place to go. And that's what happened in the second term. Bill Clinton needed three proposals, not thirty-three tonight, to give a sense and a definition and a sense of mission and purpose and energy to this, not only to this campaign. That's going to be over in 10 weeks. We're talking about a presidency and another four years.
JIM LEHRER: Let's open it a little, slightly further from the President's speech, Paul, just to the question of this entire four days, or these four nights, and of course, we don't know how this is--we've been here so we don't know how it's playing in, in McKinney, Texas, and other places around the country, but as a convention, do you think this was a successful convention for the Democrats, and Bill Clinton?
MR. GIGOT: I think that the speech very much fit into the pattern of the convention, which was that the Democrats are sitting on their lead.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Which as Ted Sorenson--
MR. GIGOT: They are trying to--they are trying to run out the clock, and, uh, they believe this election is theirs to lose, so they aren't going to take any risks. But they also didn't put any ideas on the table. And they appealed an awful lot to sentiment. The theme of this convention, if anything, was, we care, Democrats care, we feel your pain, not just the President, we feel your pain. But I think Mark is on to something when he says, the President tonight, if this is the theme that plays out, as I suspect it will be, right through November, this is not a mandate to change American politics or to elevate yourself into the second tier of Presidents by itself. You can talk about, make rhetorical discussion about children all you want. But I didn't see an awful lot there that is really going to be substantive going on out through a second term.
JIM LEHRER: Bill Kristol, a successful convention for the Democrats?
WILLIAM KRISTOL: I think maybe a successful convention, a reasonably successful convention for Bill Clinton, not so much so for the Democrats. It really was Clinton's convention, and there was very little an attempt to rally voters for a Democratic Congress. There was real walking away from the traditions of the Democratic Party, no indication of Roosevelt virtually none of Roosevelt, none at all, so far as I can tell of Truman or Humphrey, uh, the Kennedys barely mentioned. So I think Clinton may have done what he had to do. If he thinks he can play it safe and run out his lead over the next couple of months, I didn't--you don't get the sense of this is a party with a vision and a mandate and an agenda that they're going to out to fight for. To be fair, you know, maybe Bill Clinton feels that he can work on this second term, and he's got to get himself reelected for now. Surely that's what this convention was about.
JIM LEHRER: Haynes.
HAYNES JOHNSON: I think they buried the ghost of the old Chicago in this convention this week with the terror and the tumult visited here 28 years ago when the Democrats met exactly this time. They are unified. I think politically it was successful. I disagree with Bill to the extent that there were differences spelled out in the last two days. Gore did it last night. I think Mario Cuomo did it. I think Jesse Jackson did it. Clinton did it tonight and in some ways not as effectively, in my view. But I think from the standpoint of the party, they do come out of here feeling they can win, and they're going to win. But I don't think you have a sort of vision for the next term, which is what really you have to set the stage. There is the sense of a generational shift, and I think that's--that's what they've been able to accomplish, that they are the party in that sense of the future, even if it's a murky future.
JIM LEHRER: Michael Beschloss.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think we saw a pretty flat week in general, Jim. There were some moments, the speeches by Jesse Jackson, Al Gore, and also Ted Kennedy tonight, I think, was very strong and in a way a window on past conventions and in a way, the period when Democratic traditions were a bit more vigorous. But one thing about this week, and I think that it was touched on a little bit earlier, and that is that this was a convention that was very much alienated from the history of the Democratic Party and it was a Bill Clinton pageant. It's very hard to carry four days with that. You don't make terribly many mistakes, but it was very much like that speech tonight. Not terribly risky, very much focused on Bill Clinton, and I think the longer-term result could very well be that Bill Clinton may get reelected, but this convention has not really helped him to create a movement of Democrats in Congress, whether they're in the minority or the majority, who feel loyal to him, bound to him, and may help him, especially in year five and six, when he could encounter some pretty rough sledding on Capitol Hill.
JIM LEHRER: Doris, the convention.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think in burying Clinton, they also buried passion and conviction and the fight of the old days. There seemed to be still too much emphasis and it was true in part at the Republican convention on personal stories. I think they made a decision that somehow people don't like politicians anymore, and they can connect to real people who tell ordinary stories, and they can connect emotionally. And even the politicians who spoke, spoke in personal terms much more than they ever did. You never would have heard FDR talking about his mother or his father or his brother or his sister. Even that video that was presented tonight before Bill Clinton's speech was almost like the portrait of a marriage, rather than the portrait of a presidency. And I think it's a mistake to give up on the possibility that the American people can still be moved by large ideas, can still be moved to collective action. It's almost as if they've decided you have to define politics in small terms, and as brilliant as Bill Clinton may be in small politics, one-to-one, I'm still not sure in the definition of politics, as timing, how you move the nation to large goals, that he's got that kind of brilliance.
JIM LEHRER: And yet, finally, Mark Shields, President Clinton clearly is going to leave this convention still ahead in the polls. He'll probably, according to Andy Kohut earlier, there's just a natural bounce that goes from this thing, particularly with no mistakes being made. So--
MR. SHIELDS: That's right. I mean, who am I to--you know, if you're so smart, Shields, why aren't you 17 points ahead? I think, Jim, maybe the most important thing that happened this week, uh, was the economic news today of 4.8 percent growth in the second quarter. I mean, that--what is basically needed, I think, for Bob Dole to get back into this ball game is a sense that the economy is slowing down, in trouble, or whatever. That is going to make Dole's task that much tougher and Clinton's lead that much more difficult to overcome.
JIM LEHRER: David Gergen, the convention.
MR. GERGEN: Jim, the Republicans had an excellent convention. They energized their base. They left with a sense of momentum, a sense of unity. I don't think I would call this excellent, but I do believe, contrary to some of my colleagues here, this was a good convention for the Democrats. The first two nights were flat. The convention was marred by the disappearance of Dick Morris and the flap over that. But I think this emphasis upon children and upon the future is a very effective one for the Democrats. There are an awful lot of people in this country who are worried about the next generation. I think to set goals like trying to make sure that everybody has not just 12 years of education but, in fact, 14 years of education, is a significant goal for the country. This new emphasis upon children and education I believe will, in fact, bring people, a lot of people to Bill Clinton's banner, and it's smart, it's smart policy for the country.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Well, we're going to leave it there. I want to thank Doris and, gentlemen, all of you on our team. And thank you, Theodore Sorenson, for being with us tonight. Mark and Paul, thank you for sitting here all these four nights, and also to Haynes, and to Michael and Doris, and Bill, Bill Kristol, and of course, David Gergen. And that does conclude our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here in Chicago, but the rest is, in fact, yet to come, and that's the campaign. And it now starts. And it will end on November 5th until on November 5th, election day. We thank our friends at NBC News, once again, for their partnership, and most particularly tonight our own editorial and production team. We will see you tomorrow night with our regular NewsHour broadcast. Until then, I'm Jim Lehrer. Thank you and good night.