NEW YORK — For 18 years of public life, Bill Clinton has relied on his mastery of words to energize his political career. Tonight, that reliance faces its ultimate test.
Clinton aides offer two metaphors to describe their boss' style as a speaker: the jazz musician and the freight train.
The jazz musician takes his bows when Clinton is on target. "His speeches are riffs and improvisations," said George Stephanopoulos, the campaign's communications director. "He knows the themes and the music, then he gets a feel of the hall and plays."
But when Clinton is not comfortable or not prepared for a speech, "he's like a freight train," another senior aide said. "He takes about 15 minutes to get up to speed and then he gets going and it's fine for a while, but it takes forever to get it to stop."
The classic, disastrous, example of that style was Clinton's 1988 convention speech formally nominating Michael S. Dukakis--a text that Dukakis aides had largely written for him ahead of time, constraining his usual extemporaneous style.
For Clinton, his staff and the millions who are expected to watch tonight's speech, the key question will be which of those two styles shows up.
Both styles stem from Clinton's own belief in his ability to persuade, and the Southern tradition of off-the-cuff political speaking.
In his heart, Clinton believes, as one close friend puts it, that "he can persuade anybody to join him if he can just talk to them long enough."
Aides admire Clinton's tenacity in trying to persuade people and his mastery of the details of policy. But they admit that in his zeal to talk he often goes too far.
Clinton, says his strategist James Carville, is "the sort of person that when you ask him what time it is he wants to tell you the history of the Swiss town his watch was made in."
While Carville and others often have tried to prod Clinton into speaking more briefly, he resists. And part of the reason for that resistance is that Clinton grew up politically in one of the last parts of the country where the stump speech--rather than the sound bite--remains a crucial weapon in the political armory.
Much of Arkansas politics consists of speaking before church groups, social clubs, campaign rallies and summer barbecues. And, as in other rural areas of the South, political speeches in Arkansas are intended as entertainment.
Last fall, during the early days of the campaign, Clinton and each of the other Democratic presidential hopefuls appeared in Manchester, N. H., for a roast of the state's lone Democratic congressman. Each candidate was supposed to deliver a short, humorous speech. Former California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., true to his angry man style, refused to tell jokes. Several of the other candidates got up and told a few jokes prepared in advance by their speech writers then launched into their standard stump remarks.
Clinton, who spoke last, got up and told a series of jokes about each of the jokes the other candidates had delivered. With the audience roaring in laughter, he then gracefully slid into his basic themes, winning wide admiration from an audience of political insiders who until then had known little about him.
Afterward, Clinton expressed some surprise that other candidates found that setting difficult. "In Arkansas, we do four of those a week," he said.
A major part of that Southern tradition involves churches and preaching. Clinton, unlike most contemporary politicians, sprinkles his speeches with frequent biblical allusions and seldom seems happier than when he stands at the pulpit of a largely black church on Sunday speaking to the congregation.
As a boy, he memorized Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I have a dream speech," reciting it aloud to friends. This week, as he has prepared for his speech, he has carried a videotape of that speech with him, watching it on a VCR in his suite along with tapes of convention speeches by John F. Kennedy, Hubert H. Humphrey, Jimmy Carter, Barbara Jordan, Mario M. Cuomo and Ronald Reagan.
Clinton also has carried with him texts of all the convention acceptance speeches in both parties going back to the 1930s bound together in a large notebook along with a memo from speech writer Paul Begala describing the flaws and strong points of each one. Begala and other Clinton aides consider President Bush's 1988 speech, which many analysts credit with setting him on the road to victory in the last election, to be one of the best.
And despite the hectic pace of the campaign, Clinton in recent weeks has read several books touching on political oratory, including a new biography of Harry S. Truman, a book of essays by Texas newspaper columnist Molly Ivins, who is known for her humorous commentaries on contemporary events, and Gary Wills' new book on Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.
Lincoln's second inaugural address is among his favorite speeches, Clinton told reporters recently. "He had a great ability to paint sweeping pictures with very few words."