ATLANTA — Less than three weeks ago, Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis presented his old friend Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton with one of the most important roles at the Democratic convention--making his presidential nominating speech Wednesday night.
It quickly became clear that Clinton, 41, was faced with a multi-faceted task. The speech not only had to enter Dukakis' name, it had to refocus the attention of the convention on Dukakis after the Rev. Jesse Jackson's speech the night before, which turned out to be a spellbinder. And he had to do it alone. There would be no seconding speeches.
Clinton didn't exactly electrify the auditorium. Normally a free-swinging extemporaneous speaker, Clinton stuck carefully to a prepared text. His biggest applause line: "In closing . . . "
Not Emotionally Stirring
But in a way, he may have set the tone for the remainder of the convention. "I think Clinton presented some very fine reasons why people should vote for Dukakis," said Mississippi Dukakis delegate Randy Patterson. "It was not designed to stir the emotions. I think it effectively presented the argument for Dukakis."
Clinton praised Dukakis' character, his vision and his competence as a leader. He called Dukakis "an apostle of hope," who "believes America's best days lie ahead."
"Michael Dukakis has spent his entire public life in closing the gap between what is and what might have been. That is why he should be President of the United States," he said.
Clinton declared that "Michael Dukakis is a man with a vision, a shining vision for America--a country with good jobs at good wages; a country where all Americans can send their children to good public schools and can afford to send them to college; a country where working parents have access to good child care and health care for their kids; one where people can get decent long-term care without going to the poor house; a country with a clean environment and, yes, a clean government devoted once again to the rule of law."
He tried to deal frontally with Dukakis' lack of charisma and present it as an asset.
"The other day a friend of mine back home asked me if I were really excited about the prospect of Michael Dukakis becoming President. When I said I was, he said, 'Bill, I can understand why you think he should be President, but how can you get excited about a guy who's so clean he squeaks when he walks and who mows his yard with a hand-powered mower?' Well, I thought about it. And I decided that's one reason I was excited.
"He's old-fashioned all right: He's the kind of man who plays it straight, keeps his word and pays his bills. . . . His character is steadfast and consistent. He wakes up in the same world every day, a trait of no small importance in a President."
Clinton frequently refers to himself as "the wandering minstrel of the Democratic Party." He is known as a pragmatic Southern politician who can make an electrifying speech while talking about the nuts and bolts of government.
But Clinton conceded even before the speech that his task Wednesday night was going to be one of his most difficult.
'Doing This for Him'
"I wouldn't feel anything like this if I was just asked to say where we should go, give the keynote address," he said while taking a break after finishing the seventh draft of the speech Tuesday night.
"I'm doing this for him. He's worked awfully hard for this. I want to do a good job for him," Clinton said. "I have to make a case for him on character, vision, being the right candidate for these times."
John Lewis, Georgia congressman and former civil rights leader, said Clinton's speech was "great. It might have been a little long. He was very restrained. I was surprised he was so restrained," said Lewis, who has heard Clinton speak on a number of other occasions.
Several other people interviewed also said they thought the speech was too long. And numerous members of the California delegation, including Los Angeles Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, said they couldn't hear the speech because the sound system was poor.
Maine Sen. George J. Mitchell said, "It was a fine speech based on years of friendship and knowledge, given under difficult circumstances." Asked what that meant, Mitchell said, "the program was running late" before Clinton began and the fact that the audience was anxious to get on with the vote made Clinton's task more difficult.
'Classic, New Liberal'
Clinton was chosen for the nominating speech not only because of his reputation as an orator, but because of what the Arkansas governor represents. "Bill Clinton is a classic, new, paradigm liberal," said David Osborne, author of the recently published book "Laboratories of Democracy." The book praises Clinton's efforts at improving Arkansas' lowly public schools and stimulating the poor state's economic development.
"Clinton is a technocrat with glamour, an attractive young Southerner," said William Schneider, The Times' political consultant. "He's a problem solver. They're selling non-ideological politics at this convention and that's what Clinton represents, just like Dukakis," Schneider added.
And like Dukakis, he lays claim to wisdom gleaned from being defeated for reelection, and using that wisdom later to regain the governor's office. He was defeated in 1980, and reelected in 1982, 1984 and 1986.
Clinton said he hoped to show that there was a connection between Dukakis' heart and his head. "He's not a man without a sense of humor. I've seen that," he said.
On the other hand, Clinton said he had to be considerably less whimsical than normal in his approach to speech-making for Wednesday night's address.