Johnny Be Good

Election '04

In light of the keynote speeches that preceded John Kerry's, the Democratic nominee had big shoes to fill when he strode to the podium on Thursday night.

Bill Clinton gave a tremendous, albeit maddening, speech Monday. On Tuesday, Barack Obama convinced me that he'll be the first black president. John Edwards wasn't at his best on Wednesday, but he still turned in a solid effort that had some audience members swooning inside the Fleet Center. ("Oh, he's so cute! He's such a dreamboat!" one delighted Gen-Y woman squealed during Edwards' appearance.) With his patrician mien, stentorian cadences, and fondness for overly complex phrase-making, how could Kerry possibly look good in comparison?

But the Massachusetts senator – who's known to rise to the occasion when his back is against the wall – acquitted himself admirably. Kerry's address Thursday night – which, as everyone knows, was the Defining Moment of the Convention, the Most Important Speech of His Career, etc., etc. – wasn't flawless. Sometimes Kerry spoke too quickly, finishing an especially powerful sentence and then rushing into the next one before the crowd's applause could build. Sometimes he mispronounced words or phrases – for example, turning the upbeat "We're the can-do people!" into the mysterious "We're the Kendu people." And much of Kerry's conclusion, in which he promised to impart the ethos of his much-discussed Vietnam experience to the nation as a whole (see, we'd all be in the same boat), left the crowd worrisomely silent.

Really, though, that's just quibbling. Kerry's major accomplishment Thursday was presenting himself as energetic and accessible instead of aloof and self-absorbed. I saw Kerry speak in person a few times during the primaries, and whatever he happened to be talking about, I could never shake the image of a thought balloon appeared over his head reading, "I am John Kerry." Not last night. Instead, Kerry was genuinely excited and engaged with his message and his audience. His rapid pace may have muted the crowd's approval a few times, but it also showed he was more interested in sharing his vision than in delivering a technically perfect oratory. For Kerry, this was no mean feat.

That covers the style of Kerry's speech. The content, meanwhile, came as no surprise. All week long, the convention's speakers were remarkably synchronous in their efforts to define the Democratic Party's message; Kerry simply finished the job. Here's what Kerry, Edwards, and other Democrats of note want you to know about the 21st-Century incarnation of the party of Clinton, Kennedy and FDR. The Democrats are inclusive and optimistic; it's the Republicans who are pessimistic, because they practice the politics of division and don't think America can get better.

The Democrats are down with the Man Upstairs, but won't shy away from groundbreaking science like stem-cell research that makes more close-minded religious types uncomfortable. The Democrats don't want government to give people handouts – no, they just want government to create a level playing field. Finally, the Democrats are strong on defense. Honest. (Have you heard that Kerry served in Vietnam?) But they reject elective war, and know America will be stronger and safer if we build alliances and cultivate international support than if we go it alone.

The Democrats are right, of course: The seeming inability of Bush and his advisors to recognize that Iraqis (and others) might not want American-style democracy rammed down their collective throat is one of the Bush administration's most ominous attributes. And we absolutely, positively need the assistance of as many friends as possible in what promises to be a very long struggle against a very real terrorist threat. But by lamenting our squandering of international goodwill post-September 11, and emphasizing that we need the help of allies to keep us safe, the Democrats risk bumping up against two unpleasant aspects of the American character – namely, that conviction that we're in the right whatever we do, and the certainty that if someone messes with us, we can and will kick their ass.

This subtle tension probably won't trouble many Kerry backers. But if it creates even subliminal discomfort among coveted independent voters over the next three months, look out. Kerry looks better today – more engaged, more human – than he did a week ago.

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