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The Top 10 Lessons I Learned on the Kerry Campaign

Ever wonder what it's like to be a speechwriter in a presidential campaign? Our 24-year-old writer shares his take on it.
One day in early 2004, while staring at my computer screen for the latest updates from the presidential race, I decided to join the Kerry campaign. There was only one problem. I was in London attending graduate school. I was enriching my mind thousands of miles from where my heart wanted to be.

But I picked up the phone anyway and called some friends who were my bosses during my internship in President Clinton's speechwriting office. I had written speeches since that internship, and I consulted my friends before sending in an application. After taking their advice, I flew home for an interview, took a timed writing test, and heard nothing back for several weeks, and then months.

After several months of waiting, I did get that long-awaited phone call and was told to "report for duty" in four days. I quickly arranged to put my studies in London on hold and began one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

*****

It all began with a bad addiction. I need politics like some people need their weekly fix of Laguna Beach. I also have a lot of admiration for Senator Kerry. I was initially brought onto the Kerry campaign like a lot of people are -- for a trial run of a few months, before I was actually paid.

I was eventually hired to do speechwriting research. The purpose of my research was to identify local color -- or LOCO, as we referred to it. LOCO can help a candidate connect with an audience by mentioning something that usually, only locals would know about, like their high school baseball team or pizza place.

When John Kerry's schedule picked up in July, so did my workload. We brought three interns on board, and I oversaw them. I started doing more writing -- like speeches, talking points or Op-Ed's for John Kerry on everything form social security and the "senior squeeze" to health care and the war in Iraq.

Speechwriting is where policy, politics, and press all come together. The top speechwriter has the final say on a speech before it goes to the candidate and speechwriters often decide what to include and not to include. So it's not just a writing job -- a trusted speechwriter has lots of influence. The speechwriters on the Kerry campaign were a gifted group of poets, dreamers, jokers and schemers.

What did I learn from being a speechwriter? I developed a keen ear for a good line -- whether delivered by a Republican or Democrat. And I grew more skeptical of political promises. I developed a strong belief that, however influential, a speech is just a speech. What matters most is action.

My job was thrilling, frustrating, disappointing, and exhilarating at the same time -- and I'm grateful for every minute of it. In the year since this campaign ended, I've given a lot of thought to what the whole experience meant to me and I wanted to share the lessons I learned, even though they are drawn from my own experience, which was necessarily limited.

Here are the "Top Ten" lessons I learned on the campaign:

1. The world is run by 20-somethings.

You may not believe me, but it's true! Only 20-somethings have the energy, freedom, and tolerance for such a low-paying, exhausting, and demanding job. Sure, the top jobs are mostly held by more experienced political folks, but junior staffers do the bulk of the work and influence many of the decisions.

Why do young people go to Washington? After all, politics today is mostly uninspired and divisive and our political leaders are often intellectually dishonest or morally corrupt. Getting elected to something -- whether it's Student Government or the Presidency -- may put you in a leadership position, but it sure doesn't make you a leader.

So why should you get involved in public service? Well, partly, because it's a chance to "compete in the arena;" partly, because we all have a responsibility to do so; and partly, because it's just so important. The difference today between having good leaders and not having them is the difference between war and peace, life and death. It's the difference between a satisfying, rewarding life and a miserable one, the difference between good health and sickness, prosperity and poverty, enlightenment and ignorance. Ultimately, it's the difference between right and wrong.

2. Focus on the Big Picture.

There's a big difference between having a vision, and supporting a bunch of policies. When I was a senior in college, working on a thesis about the global AIDS pandemic, I met with a former Dean of the Yale School of Public Health. He asked me, "What's the goal of the fight against AIDS?" I said, "To increase condom distribution around the world." He said, "That's a tactic. What's the goal?" I tried again: "To increase our support for the Global AIDS Fund so countries can tackle their own epidemics." He said, "That's also a tactic." "The goal," he said, "is to stop the spread of AIDS and care for those who have it." That is the big picture, the vision that everyone is striving to achieve.

On the Kerry campaign, at some fundamental level, we didn't understand the difference between a goal and a tactic -- between a vision and a bunch of policies. When General Wes Clark came to campaign headquarters, he stood around talking with some of us and said something I'll never forget. He said, "It doesn't matter what the facts are, so long as you've got beliefs." The facts -- the policies, programs, 10-point plans -- are all secondary, if people trust your beliefs, your vision, about where the country should go. When you have a big idea, programs and policies flow from it. But we on the Kerry Campaign kept thinking that if you add up enough programs and policies, you'll get a big idea.

3. Being the "electable candidate" doesn't make you electable.

Back in the primaries, I was drawn to John Kerry for the same reason lots of other people were. I thought he was the electable candidate. He was a veteran, and that was important, I thought, during a wartime election. He was a moderate and that was important, I thought, for a centrist country. Howard Dean was true to his heart, and I admired him for it, but I still thought he just wasn't "electable." Well, the 2004 election proved that maybe I'm not as good at judging a candidate's electability as I thought I was.

In fact, if you go back a few years, some of our best presidents didn't seem all that electable when they were candidates. Not long before he became president, no one thought Bill Clinton was electable. When John F. Kennedy set out for the presidency, all the party leaders and influential democrats were against him. The lesson I learned is this: you should pay just as much attention to your heart as to your head when it comes to selecting a candidate.

4. There's a big difference between mudslinging and drawing a contrast.

Mudslinging has a long tradition in American politics -- even among presidents. John Quincy Adams called Andrew Jackson, "A barbarian who … can hardly spell his name." Franklin Pierce said that Abe Lincoln was, with "his limited ability and narrow intelligence, the willing instrument for all the woe which has … been brought upon the country." And Harry Truman once made this comment about Dwight Eisenhower, "The General doesn't know any more about politics than a pig knows about Sunday."

Despite this long tradition, I think it's worthwhile for us to try and move past it. But that doesn't mean we should stop drawing contrasts between candidates. And yet that's exactly what the Kerry campaign failed to do.

During the campaign, I was sent to Boston to be a speechwriter at the Democratic Convention, writing and reviewing speeches that were delivered from the podium. One of my jobs in that office was to remove the words "George W. Bush" from speeches to keep the convention upbeat. We had just gotten out of a bloody primary and we wanted to show the country that Kerry was a likeable guy who had a positive vision. But by removing references to Bush, the convention gave the appearance that Kerry was running for president without any opposition. It was as if Bush did not exist. But an election is a competition. A candidate does not deserve to win, if he doesn't make a strong case that he's better than his opponent. And when you don't even mention your opponent, that's a hard thing to do.

5. Socrates once said, "If a man doesn't know where he's sailing, there's no such thing as a favorable wind."

Toward the end of the campaign, there was a big story about weapons that had gone missing in Iraq, with some people claiming that the U.S. military had "lost" these weapons. The campaign did some polling to find out whether these stories were having an impact and whether we should continue to make a big deal about it. About 15 of us polled a few hundred people, who didn't have strong views about it one way or the other.

The results of our polling were then given to the campaign. During a conference call that night, a decision was made about whether to change the campaign strategy the following day. This illustrates a bigger problem with polling today. While polling is an invaluable instrument that has created highly sophisticated campaign techniques, it should be used to figure out how best to raise an issue, or where to raise it, not whether to raise it at all. If a politician needs a poll to know whether to raise an important issue, that politician has failed a central test of leadership.

6. Don't let politics drive decisions.

We live in a democracy, where politics is how we get things done. If one side accuses another of politicizing an issue, that's not really fair because politicizing an issue is simply democracy in action. What are politicians supposed to do, stay out of politics? That said, we can't let our elected officials compromise principles to get elected. It was morally wrong for the Bush Campaign to lie about Kerry's admirable war record. And yes, they did lie.

I believe one of the most irresponsible things that Bush has done as president has been putting political calculations ahead of people's lives on issue after issue. There are some things that politicians must never sacrifice to get elected. Politics should elevate standards in this country, not lower them.

When it comes to bipartisanship, I think that's important, so long as it's robust. The worst thing for our country is a false unity that is ineffective because it is rooted not in shared values and concerns, but in the absence of firm principles by one or both sides.

7. Be bold.

When I was in college, I went to a friend of mine for advice about an upcoming interview. He said, "Don't be timid -- be bold." But one of the most striking things about politics is how timid everyone is. To some extent, that's understandable, because the stakes are so high -- for the world, the country, and the careers of everyone involved. But timidity has also led to a decline in national leadership.

The ancient lawmaker Solon made it a crime for any citizen of Athens to shrink from controversy because he realized that strong debate makes for strong democracy. Democrats today seem scared to take a strong stand, fearful of how the Republican spin-machine will distort their position.

For most of the campaign, Kerry avoided the issue of Iraq as much as possible. But how could we avoid the central issue confronting our country and expect to win the election -- or deserve to win the election? It's like the short-lived Constitutional Union Party in the Civil War-era whose platform was notable for one thing -- it avoided the issue of slavery. Toward the end of the campaign, we began talking more and more about Iraq, but by then, it was too late.

8. The character and personality of your candidate matter.

Don't discount the importance of a candidate's personality -- it is a substantive and relevant question to ask whether he or she possesses the temperament that the presidency or any office demands. The candidate's style and record matter too.

In 2004, the Democratic Party had a tough time discussing Iraq largely because Kerry's own positions on Iraq were unclear to many people. One of Howard Dean's aids complained during the primaries that, "You can't run a campaign by issuing correction statements." There were times when Dean's personality seemed to get in the way of the Dean Campaign. If you want to join a campaign, don't just look for a candidate you respect as a politician, look for a candidate you admire as a human being.

9. Anger is not enough.

I joined the Kerry Campaign, because I was angry about the course of our country, and I thought Kerry could change it. But as I realized, a few months into the campaign, anger will not sustain you when you need energy in those early morning hours, toiling away on a speech.

Whenever I was feeling exhausted or beat, no matter how small or unimportant the issue I was working on, I'd think about all the people in this country who were depending on us. That's where I got my energy. You have to have a hunger to build -- to repair -- not just to tear down.

10. The election is all about people.

When I first got an offer to join the speechwriting team, I was bursting with excitement. I was happy to live out of a suitcase in my cousin's basement for the next six months. But at some point midway through the campaign, sitting at my computer in our D.C. headquarters, hammering out sound bites for Senator Kerry, I began to lose touch with what the campaign was really about.

It hit home on Election Day when I volunteered to go door-to-door outside Philadelphia. By chance that day, I was teamed up with another volunteer, a few years younger, dressed in baggy pants and a sideways baseball cap. Jason, I soon learned, was a soldier, just back from Iraq, spending time at home before being redeployed. He was not a U.S. citizen, so he could not vote. But that didn't stop him from persuading other people to vote. Jason reminded me that things change because people care and take action.

*****

I hope you will get involved -- and consider a summer job, if not a career -- in public service. If you were born with a sense of injustice, hold onto it. If you were born with a sense of entitlement, I hope you'll outgrow it. And if you were born with curiosity and an active mind, I hope it will lead you to a life in public service. In the words of President Kennedy, "With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own."
Adam Frankel, 24, lives in New York City. In addition to being a speechwriter, he worked in the state department and was an AIDS activist in Asia and Africa.
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