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. It’s a trend 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, an English professor at Washington University in St. Louis, who has studied these speeches.
Until recently, 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 address four years later was heavily autobiographical. 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 seeking to 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. In unleashing this torrent four years later, Bush told the nation, “Now, you must see me for what I am.”
Looking back, “autobiography as argument really began with that speech,” Fields said.
Others followed. “Who am I that stands before you tonight?” asked Bob Dole in 1996. Then in 2000, 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 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, a speech heavily focused on policy, platforms, and promise. And the speeches 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,” Fields said. 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’s in 1948, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s in 1932 and 1936, and Bush’s in 1988.
On the negative side, it is hard to top the damage done in 1964 by Republican nominee Barry Goldwater’s declaration “that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” and “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Then there was Democrat George 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.
The final lesson for Romney is to be careful when trying to coin a name for a program. Roosevelt and John Kennedy scored when they used their speeches to promise the New Deal and the New Frontier.
Others who fell short include Democrat Adlai Stevenson with “new America,” Gore with “new chapter,” and Nixon and Ronald Reagan, 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. Although he wanted a “new America,” he used the same speech to argue that “it is time for America to be herself again.”