When Mitt Romney takes to the podium in Tampa to formally accept the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, he will be surrounded by images of American flags and red, white, and blue. But, unless he breaks with a bipartisan tradition that seems unstoppable, there will be another banner waving energetically above him. It will be the personal pronoun “I.”
The modern acceptance address has become, more than anything else, an exercise in autobiography, a trend that is unlikely to be broken by a Republican brain trust that wants to use this convention to “tell the Romney story” and soften the new nominee’s personal image. “I” flies boldly above all recent acceptance speeches “like a battle flag,” said Wayne Fields, a professor of English American literature and American Culture Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, who has studied these speeches.
Until recent years, it was unheard of for any nominee to use the speech to talk about his own feelings, failings, faults, or family. Dwight Eisenhower made only passing mention of his World War II leadership when he accepted the Republican nomination in 1952. There were small signs of a shift in Richard Nixon’s address in 1968 and then in Walter Mondale’s remarks in 1984. But the dam broke on the personal with George H.W. Bush’s speech in 1988 and there was no going back after Bill Clinton’s heavily autobiographical address four years later. When Romney takes the stage, nothing remains off limits. His Mormon beliefs, his wife’s illness, his personal vulnerabilities — all are fair game for the speechwriters if they can nudge his personal favorability scores a notch higher in the polls.
“You may have heard of me, but you may not really know me,” lamented Mondale in his remarks. Four years later when he loosed this torrent, Bush told the nation, “Now, you must see me for what I am.” Looking back, “Autobiography as argument really began with that speech,” Fields told National Journal. Others followed. “Who am I that stands before you tonight?” asked Republican Bob Dole in 1996. Then in 2000, Democrat Al Gore proclaimed, “I stand here tonight as my own man, and I want you to know me for who I truly am.” But no one more fully drew the nation into his personal story than Bill Clinton in 1992, who wove a tale of his father’s death before his son’s birth, his tears as a 3-year-old as he was dispatched to live with his grandparents, and his mother’s breast cancer.
After Clinton’s performance there was no going back to what had been the standard acceptance address, heavily focused on policy, platforms, and promise. And they became longer and longer with each passing year — almost making one nostalgic for Abraham Lincoln’s three-sentence letter of acceptance in 1860. The trick to the successful speech is not to think of the address as anything more than a document for the moment. “These aren’t poetry,” said Fields. They are meant to persuade voters to do something now. While some have transcended the moment and still speak to us today, that isn’t the goal.
The truth is that most of these speeches are eminently forgettable and that more have done damage to the nominee than have helped him. Four stand out as the best ever —Harry Truman in 1948, Franklin D. Roosevelt in both 1932 and 1936, and Bush in 1988. And five are remembered as failures for the damage they inflicted — Barry Goldwater in 1964, Walter Mondale in 1984, George McGovern in 1972, Herbert Hoover in 1932, and Richard Nixon in 1960.
Truman’s was a brilliant speech, which ordered Republicans to return to Washington for a special session of Congress and challenged them to adopt the GOP platform. It successfully took him out of Roosevelt’s long shadow and put Republicans on the defensive. It totally recast Truman’s image in the country. Similarly, Bush’s 1988 speech established him as his own man, taking him out of Ronald Reagan’s shadow. It was the best-written acceptance speech of the last 70 years, even if his “Read my lips: no new taxes” pledge did prove problematic later.
The best written, possibly ever, were Roosevelt’s first two. In 1932, he spoke for a nation dispirited by the Great Depression and promised a New Deal. Four years later, he made possibly the best-ever appeal for a second term while talking of the nation’s “rendezvous with destiny.”
On the negative side, it is hard to top the damage done in 1964 by Goldwater’s declaration “that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” and “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” In second place, there is Mondale’s “let’s tell the truth” moment: “Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.” Big mistake.
Then there was McGovern’s 1972 speech, and not just because it was delivered so late that almost nobody saw it. Those who did heard a speech badly out of sync with the nation’s mood. “It was a Woody Guthrie speech, and America was not in a Woody Guthrie mood at the time,” said Fields. Similarly out of sync was Nixon in 1960. Though he was only 47, he surrendered the youth argument to John F. Kennedy, oddly using his speech to talk about his personal ties to all the old leaders of the World War II era. And Hoover’s failure in 1932 should speak to President Obama today. Like Obama, he had the challenge of seeking a second term amid economic woe. But Hoover used his speech to whine and blame, claiming that his policies were working before the European economy tanked.
The final lesson for Romney is to be careful what you try to call your program. Roosevelt and Kennedy scored when they used their speeches to promise the New Deal and the New Frontier. Others who fell short included Adlai Stevenson’s “new America,” Gore’s “new chapter,” and Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, who both pledged a “new beginning.” Stevenson, who gave two of the oddest of these speeches in 1952 and 1956, even seemed to be arguing with himself. While he wanted a “new America,” he used the same speech to argue that “it is time for America to be herself again.”