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Commentary | PERSPECTIVES ON THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION

Expect About a Dozen Points of Adequacy

Neither Bush nor Gore is likely to measure up to their predecessors' oratory.

August 03, 2000|DOUG GAMBLE | Doug Gamble has written humor and speech material for Republicans, including Presidents Reagan and Bush

Those tuning in to the competing speeches of Al Gore and George W. Bush at their parties' national conventions should not expect a battle of the titans.

With both candidates oratorically challenged, the duel will be relatively even, unlike the mismatch resulting from the convention speeches of Bill Clinton and his Republican opponent, Bob Dole, four years ago. To paraphrase an old Bob Hope line, if it had been a fight they would have stopped it.

But despite Clinton's good speech in 1996 in Chicago and his great one in 1992 in New York, the last convention address by a presidential nominee to feature any memorable lines was that of then-Vice President Bush in 1988 in New Orleans. "Read my lips, no new taxes" came back to haunt him when he broke the pledge two years later, however. And "a thousand points of light," used to describe the spirit of volunteerism, was imagery never fully understood by Bush himself even as he invoked it.

"Read my lips" almost didn't make it into the speech because a campaign aide insisted that lips are an organ and mention of a human organ had no place in a presidential nominee's acceptance speech. Bush probably wishes that aide's objections had been heeded.

The elder Bush, who went into the '88 convention stuck with what Newsweek magazine called "the wimp factor," accomplished what Gore must strive for in his vital presentation, namely, to paint a never-before-seen appealing portrait of himself that can be sustained at least until election day. But Bush had an advantage, a genuineness about him that only needed to be drawn out and put on display. While Bush recognized the time was right to reveal his inner self, the current vice president seems not to know which Gore to reveal.

The elder Bush scored big with a speech combining toughness, tenderness and self-deprecating humor. He met head-on the rap that he was uninspiring, saying, "I'll try to be fair to the other side. I'll try to hold my charisma in check." And, in a more poetic vein, "I may not be the most eloquent, but I learned early that eloquence won't draw oil from the ground." He then did what Gore also must do, provided a rationale for his election. Bush used the words, "When you have to change horses in midstream, doesn't it make sense to switch to the one who's going the same way?"

Gore should deal directly with his dullness as well, but he should give the "stiffness" jokes a rest because over-use has made them unfunny. A more meaningful approach, perhaps a line such as, "I know I'm not the most exciting guy in America or even in this hall, but this election is not about my personality, it's about your prosperity" might work.

He should drop the sob story approach, used at the 1992 convention to recount his son's car accident and in 1996 to tell of his sister's lung cancer death. Both seemed contrived. He might touch on the 1998 death of his father with a simple, "I only wish my father had lived to see this night, but I believe that somehow he knows about it and he's proud."

He also might reveal a side of himself not previously seen, as Richard M. Nixon did in accepting the GOP nomination in 1968. Nixon told of a lonely boy lying in bed at night, listening to the whistles of passing trains and wondering about their distant destinations. He then disclosed that he had been that boy.

As the front-runner, there is less pressure on George W. Bush, a poor speaker, and his speech is likely to be similar to his campaign so far: just good enough to get the job done. Most of his speeches look better on paper than they sound when delivered. If Ronald Reagan could make the phone book sound interesting, George W. Bush could read a Reagan speech and make it sound ordinary. His monotone delivery lacks nuance and rhythm, and he seems uncomfortable with words meant to convey imagery.

During this year's campaign, Bush often has adopted a mock-serious expression, as if such a demeanor transmits a sense of depth that may not be there. Instead, he should try to develop the same easy informality at the podium that he has with people one on one, a la Clinton and Reagan. Some self-deprecating humor would soften the tinge of arrogance that continues to dog him.

And, if he's truly a compassionate conservative, he'll keep the speech short.

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