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Jewish World Review July 30, 2004 / 13 Menachem-Av, 5764

Michael Barone

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Edwards Night: A Tale of Two Hotels

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At the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, vice presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen and presidential nominee Michael Dukakis both delivered their acceptance speeches on Thursday night, after the then-obligatory night given to the celebration of the family of Jesse Jackson. Bentsen went first, and I remember reading the serviceable Bentsen text, which seemed likely to evoke some vigorous cheers from the audience. But, as he spoke, the audience reaction, much to my surprise, was muted. The Dukakis campaign operatives, connected to every delegation leader by telephone, had sent out orders that the response was to be, er, restrained. The vice presidential nominee must not outdazzle the leader of the ticket.


Of course that made perfect sense. Bentsen was not going to carry Texas, not with George Bush 41 on the top of the other ticket (even though Bentsen had beaten him in the 1970 Senate race); Bentsen was there to add some gravitas, some moderation, some gray-haired maturity to the ticket, as he indeed did. And a similar calculation may explain why John Edwards's acceptance speech, on the Wednesday night of this 44th Democratic National Convention, did not entirely sweep all before it, as many of the reporters who had followed Edwards on the primary trail expected.


Edwards, for one thing, was hoarse and hurried. Hoarse, as he has been all week; I felt like offering some eucalyptus cough drops, except that I had none in my pocket. And hurried: he spoke a lot faster than he had in his caucus and primary speeches in Iowa and New Hampshire; how could that be possible in a convention when the managers calibrate everything down to the minute, with a view to ending the big speech of the evening precisely at 11pm Eastern, so as to prevent the broadcast and cable network spinners to have the last word on the evening's proceedings? Then it came to me as I listened to Edwards. When he came to the parts of his speech where he was obliged to speak as a personal injury lawyer speaks to a jury, when he had to recount the plight of an ordinary citizen caught up in a tragedy or injustice, he started to speak. . .very. . .slowly. On the plight of those injured in Iraq: "Men and women who used to take care of themselves, they now count on others to see them through the day." And "a mother sits at the kitchen table. . . . Her husband was called up in the Guard and he's been serving in Iraq for more than a year [actually, the rotations call for less than that]. She thought he'd be home last month, but now he's got to stay longer."


These were affecting moments, and the delegates in the hall — 95 percent of whom, according to the Boston Globe survey, thought Americans should not have been sent to Iraq at all — went almost silent. Edwards, hoarse or not, was quite capable of slowing up when he wanted to; he wasn't spooked by speaking, for the first time in his life, from the podium of a Democratic National Convention as a nominee of the Democratic party. He could have bargained for a longer time frame. The hurriedness was on purpose. He was not to outdazzle the speaker for tomorrow night whose praises had been on everyone's lips tonight and the night before and the night before that. He was standing in Boston, on Wednesday night, on the same turf that Lloyd Bentsen, possessed of as moderate a record and of a more nuanced and cynical understanding of American politics, was standing in Atlanta 16 years before.


Having said that, one must acknowledge that Edwards's speech was well cobbled. His primary speech about the existence of "two Americas" — delivered so robotically word-for-word that his staff never paid one whit of attention to it — had to be cobbled into the Kerry campaign's trope (relayed effectively by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama) that there is only "one America." Edwards did this nicely: the two Americas (he did not emphasize, as he did in the primaries, that only a privileged few were in the one and that the overwhelming majority were in the other) would be nicely conflated into one, once the apparently unamibitious policies of the Kerry platform were put into place. Divisiveness was neatly morphed into unity.


The other thing that Edwards did was to argue that a Kerry-Edwards administration would pursue the war against real terrorists as relentlessly as Edwards, as a senator and presidential candidate, had argued they should. Stephen Hayes, in weeklystandard.com, has usefully documented how Senator and candidate Edwards had declared that Saddam Hussein was a genuine threat to America, a threat that must be removed. On Wednesday Edwards carefully avoided saying — as some of the other convention speakers (Edward Kennedy, for one) said — that that was wrong. He cannot be accused, as John Kerry can be from the 11-minute video Republicans have reconstructed from his public statements on Iraq, of having shifted his positions in response to political convenience. "We will always use our military might to keep the American people safe," Edwards said, in line with Kerry campaign discipline. "And we will have one clear unmistakable message for al Qaeda and the rest of these terrorists. You cannot run. Your cannot hide. We will destroy you."


This was greeted with minimal applause, if not with stony silence from the delegates and the people they represent, who like to hear that the only threats to the United States in the world come from the hamhanded stubbornness and chauvinism of George W. Bush. But it was also greeted, by Fox New Channel contributor William Kristol and blogger Andrew Sullivan, as evidence that the Kerry-Edwards ticket is seriously determined to combat Islamist terrorist threats to the American people. For the "Bush lied" crowd, this was heresy. From at least a partisan Republican perspective, the Democratic National Convention delegates could be described as a cauldron of hate — hate for George W. Bush and all that he is believed to stand for — a cauldron which the Kerry campaign wisely wishes to conceal from the rest of the nation (and in which project they have cooperative allies in Old Media), but which through occasional vents through the surface evidences itself in sulphuric outpourings of negative feeling. Edwards was calling for the vents to be closed, and a lot of Democrats in the hall and out there in America don't like that very much; and the Democratic ticket stands in danger of losing if not their votes their enthusiasm. The Edwards speech in this sense was an attempt to win votes in the center at the risk of losing them on the left: probably, but not certainly, a winning calculation.


But let us return to Edwards's trademark theme of the two Americas — and my theme tonight of the two hotels. Edwards: "We still live in two different Americas: one for the people who have lived the American Dream [capitals in text supplied to press] and don't have to worry, and another for most Americans who work hard and still struggle to make ends meet." In the primaries Edwards argued that only a miniscule percentage of Americans live in the first America, and that entry into it was very restricted (though he, of handsome hair and golden tongue, made it in); the implication was that the great majority of Americans could only be rescued by an administration unusually responsive to their cause and resolutely benevolent in their intention. But no percentages were assigned Wednesday night. And the solution offered was seemingly simple: install the Kerry-Edwards administration, and everything would be all right.


But there is no part of America so conveniently arrayed into two Americas as the Democrats at their national conventions. Just hang around the lobbies of the hotels. On the one hand there is the Democratic party of the ordinary Democrats.


Hang for a while in the Sheraton Boston, the official hotel of the Democratic National Convention, and the headquarters hotel of the delegations from the battleground states of Ohio and Michigan. Here you will find the Democratic party demotic. Delegates with beer bellies, with unmatching sports clothes, from black and working class white neighborhoods. For many people — and for me — this is one of the glories of the Democratic party, that it represents and is represented by people from such a widely different parts of American society. All of America — well, all right, all of America if that is measured by people who are on public employee union payrolls — is here.


Then there is the Democratic party you can see if you go to the lobbies of the Four Seasons, on Boylston Street facing the Public Garden. This is the world of the rich Democratic contributors. In daytime the people you see here are imperially slim, well exercised and dressed in impeccable designer sports clothes. The women may go around the corner and shop in the designer shops; the men may go over a block to Louis Boston and look at the Kiton suits at $5,350 per. (Cautionary note to Washington readers: Louis Boston's fall collection consists of heavy fabrics you're unlikely to be able to wear more than six weeks out of the year; better to scout the sales at Neiman Marcus Beverly Hills.) Signs near the entrance read: "DNC Finance: Transportation," with lines of Town Cars waiting outside to take you wherever you might want to go. All that and, as one New York Democratic moneyraiser said to me, "Water for you to walk on."


The Democrats in convention assembled take great joy in denouncing the Republicans' desire to aid the well-positioned rich. But very large numbers of the well-positioned rich take great joy in aiding the Democrats. Most of the small number of Americans who identify themselves as "upper class" preferred Al Gore to George W. Bush in 2000; Gore got about 70 percent of the vote on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and in Beverly Hills. As best as I can tell, a majority of the Forbes 400 (the richest people in America) favor Kerry over Bush today, or at least a very large minority. What do these people think about when John Edwards slows down his pace and talks, movingly, about the plight of ordinary people caught up in tragedy? Compassion, perhaps; sympathy, I should think; but also, I guess, that this is the source of where we can get enough votes for our culturally liberal values to prevail. If the Republicans are, as the Democrats believe, cynical about harvesting votes from economically needy cultural conservatives, the Democrats are also cynical about harvesting votes from the same people.


It is hard to accuse John Edwards of cynicism here, and even harder to similarly accuse his wife Elizabeth, whose introduction of her husband at the convention was genuinely moving. The Edwards campaign succeeded as much as it did — succeeded particularly in dazzling the press — because the two Edwardses seem to be genuinly nice and uncynical people, and because their optimism and niceness was replicated by their campaign operatives. I have never encountered a campaign as chipper and pleasant and helpful as Edwards's and, as my former boss Peter Hart used to say, the campaign always reflects the candidate.


But how much does that niceness and optimism reflect the Democratic party? Or John Kerry's campaign? Economically, the Democratic party is the alliance of trial lawyers, labor unions and rich liberals determined to uphold cultural values which are at odds with at least a large minority, if not a significant majority, of the American people. The trial lawyers pillage the private sector as the Vikings of the 10th century pillaged the farmers of the Seine valley, while the dwindling private sector unions hugely inflate health care costs and the public sector unions increase the drag on the private sector economy while resisting competition and accountability in the provision of public services. The private sector liberals are happy to go along for the endorsement they get of their cultural values and the offices they get when their side prevails as it did in 1992 and 1996. John and Elizabeth Edwards, genuinely nice and charming as they are, fit into this equation neatly. John Kerry, determined to run for president from the 1950s, seems to too. How he will finesse the division between the Democrats who believe, as most delegates (but not the Senate Intelligence Committee nor the 9/11 Commission nor Lord Butler's report) that "Bush lied," and the Democrats, including the Kerry campaign handlers and John Edwards, that they didn't but that they messed things up, is not clear: Thursday night will tell us more. But Wednesday night teaches us that while the Democrats tell us that they are the champions of one of the two Americas, they are also the creatures of one of the two hotels.

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JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report His latest book is "Hard America, Soft America : Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation's Future". (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.) Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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©2004, Michael Barone