GOOD ENOUGH AND THEN SOME. Everyone seems to think that John Kerry is a lousy speaker. In fact, he's quite a good speaker when he has a decent speech to deliver and is in front of a big crowd, where his old-fashioned, stemwinder style doesn't seem too archaic. His speechifying is not terribly well-suited to television, which is an obvious problem in this, the sixth decade of the television age. That didn't matter so much last night, though, because he was speaking not to the television cameras directly but rather to the Democratic faithful, with TV simply capturing that.
Kerry got exactly what he needed. He got to introduce himself to that segment of the public that hasn't been paying attention up until now. He put himself forward as a more-than-plausible alternative to George W. Bush. And he managed to humanize himself somewhat, even though he praised his wife with exactly the same solemnity that you might imagine he would use to declare war.
The modern style is to talk, not orate, and to smile often. Kerry orates, and he almost never smiles as he's speaking. But he's learned to compensate for that by grinning broadly whenever he isn't speaking, a technique he used quite effectively in the primary debates last winter. The cameras capture him darkly glowering as he delivers his message, which isn't necessarily a bad thing when he's talking about serious issues. But then he comes off as relaxed and smiling during the pauses.
Last night in the FleetCenter, it seemed like Kerry was rushing his speech, stepping on applause lines, plunging ahead inaudibly as the crowd continued to whoop it up. But later, I watched maybe the first 10 minutes on the C-SPAN replay, and it came across differently. Kerry was miked so that the crowd wasn't nearly as loud. You could hear the cheers, but as background. So although I've heard several commentators say that Kerry was rushing, I'm not sure it came through that way to the viewers at home.
One thing that surprised me was the harsh tone of Kerry's speech. I think it may have been a smart move, but it was also a risky one. The rule of thumb in modern political campaigns is that the candidate takes the high ground while surrogates - the running mate, party officials, and the like - slash and smear. George W. Bush has been doing his share of Kerry-bashing, but he's left the heavy lifting to Dick Cheney and Republican Party chairman Ed Gillespie.
Last night, though, Kerry did some of his own dirty work. For instance:
I will be a commander-in-chief who will never mislead us into war. I will have a vice-president who will not conduct secret meetings with polluters to rewrite our environmental laws. I will have a secretary of defense who will listen to the best advice of our military leaders. And I will appoint an attorney general who actually upholds the Constitution of the United States.
The reference to John Ashcroft, in particular, elicited the loudest applause of the speech, matched only - and oddly, I thought - by Kerry's promise to boost stem-cell research. I didn't quite get that. Perhaps, to Democrats, the roadblocks Bush has erected to slow stem-cell research are emblematic of a world view based on his particular religion rather than science, and represent the arrogance of a man who places his personal beliefs above the good of the country. (But that would just be a guess!)
The heavy reliance on military symbolism and the strong emphasis on foreign policy were most un-Democratic. It's possible that it will backfire on Kerry, given the lack of specifics he offered in dealing with the war in Iraq. On the other hand, his handling of the war, should he become president, will be entirely dependent on his negotiations with other countries. We all know that the leaders of those countries would rather deal with Kerry than Bush; but Kerry obviously can't negotiate until he becomes president.
Late last night, I graded Kerry's speech as an A-minus for content and a B for delivery. Now that I've seen that he didn't appear to be rushing things on TV as much as it seemed in the arena, I'll upgrade the latter grade to a B-plus. Not bad. In fact, quite a bit better than not bad.
JULY SURPRISE. The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz reports that the White House waited to announce the arrest of a major Al Qaeda figure in Pakistan until yesterday at 3 p.m. Kurtz notes that the New Republic had outlined precisely this scenario a few weeks ago.
The only surprise is that this didn't get major coverage the night of Kerry's speech. Either the media were too geared up to change directions, or they're not falling for this garbage anymore. Maybe both. (Correction. It was not the White House that announced the arrest. My error, not Kurtz's.)