Every four years, the World Cup provides soccer fans with the chance to watch their team vie for the sport’s most coveted prize. Every four years, the Democratic and Republican conventions offer speechwriters something else just as precious: Validation that even in an age of sound bites, 24-hour news and wardrobe consultants, the spoken word may still matter most.
Even though the conventions are largely television events, no amount of stagecraft can make or break the occasion. And the two recent conventions provided production contrasts as great as the issues on which the parties disagree.
Who can deny that the visuals from Denver’s Pepsi Center — not to mention the unprecedented staging of Barack Obama’s speech at Invesco Field — trumped whatever the Republicans fashioned in St. Paul?
The DNC production was spot-on slick. The RNC countered with an enormous video screen behind its speakers, displaying pictures of Americana. While the 20,000 people in attendance were pleased, some of the nearly 40 million watching at home must have wondered whether they needed to adjust their sets.
In the end, both conventions’ major speeches were at very center stage, and observers would be wise to watch (and read) them carefully.
Bill and Hillary Clinton got rave reviews for their remarks, which may have had as much to do with tone as topic. While taking a few partisan swipes, Bill Clinton pointedly did not mention John McCain’s name a single time, even reassuring his audience that the Arizona senator “loves his country every bit as much as we do.”
Sen. Clinton mentioned McCain five times, going so far as to say, “John McCain is my colleague and my friend.”
Barack Obama took a different tack. Standing on the grandest stage in front of the biggest crowd and the largest (at that time) television audience, he delivered what his own staff described as a “workmanlike” speech — not a term usually attached to a major Obama address.
Remember that in a speech like this, every word has been carefully crafted, thoroughly vetted and likely debated.
While some will wonder why Obama mentioned “safer toys” among the things his administration would bring to a better America, more interesting is the fact that he chose to get very tough with McCain, by name and on a host of public policy issues.
This was surely in tune with a widespread feeling among Democrats that their standard-bearers have lacked the sort of ruggedness practiced by Republican opponents.
The GOP nominees’ convention speeches provided their own significant contrast.
Sarah Palin was seen by Republicans as an inspiring choice, and even some political opponents deemed her convention speech the proverbial home run. But the challenge only began there. Her team will need to determine if this was the novelty of seeing a little-known candidate handle the biggest political stage, or a temporary sense of good feeling among excitement-starved Republicans.
McCain’s speech was rumored to be staged according to his preferred town hall format, which necessitated a renovation of the convention platform used by every other speaker. Yet when McCain finished, Republicans were quick to point out that, while his remarks lacked any obvious style and flair, they reinforced the man first and any political plan second. Needless to say, this is not the way speeches are usually praised.
Spin perhaps, but it should give us pause. Can McCain’s speech — which seemed to lack obvious applause lines, rousing rhetoric or even an easy delivery — benefit him more than Obama’s, which had all three in abundance?
Jonathan Wilcox, adjunct faculty member in the USC Annenberg School for Communication, served as speechwriter for California Gov. Pete Wilson and as communications director for the 2003 California recall. He is an expert on crisis communications and California politics.