Every convention acceptance speech is politically weighted, but few have been as burdened as John Kerry's. The earlier speeches setting the stage for him -- Bill Clinton's usual incomparable performance and Barack Obama's stellar debut -- only added to the momentousness of his task. On Thursday afternoon, the Democratic Party faithful, far-flung across Boston before crowding into the Fleet Center, were in a collective state of high anxiety. The test put on a single oration could not have been heavier. Kerry had to show himself to the electorate as nothing less than the next president, reveal that he understood the full dimensions of the campaign and at the same time establish his program as the centerpiece of debate.
In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt's speech promising a "New Deal" was that of a candidate who, amid the Great Depression, was bound to win in a landslide. In the close contest of 1960, where it was generally felt that there was little difference between the contenders, John F. Kennedy's call for a "New Frontier" gave his relative inexperience historical resonance. By the moment of Clinton's speech in 1992, in which he declared himself the "man from Hope," he had already vaulted ahead of George H.W. Bush. But Kerry's specific challenge was greater. He was locked in a dead heat with a self-proclaimed "war president" who has used war to advance a radical conservative agenda, sharply dividing the country. War and terrorism, economic stagnation and drift -- Kerry had to present himself as the most capable of mastering these crises. And he had to prove his credibility simply through his words. He had to create the event that would determine his future and in effect the nation's completely alone. "Never has there been a moment more urgent for Americans to step up and define ourselves," Kerry said in his speech.
And Kerry did more than that for himself, his candidacy, the Democrats and the campaign. Facing the action, as when he turned his Swift boat in the Mekong to attack the enemy, he seemed suddenly to course with adrenaline. His meandering sentences of the past were replaced by a crisp fluency. With withering disdain that never stooped to insult, he set himself against Bush and his works. The Democrats gasped and were held breathless at his daring in attacking the religious right and its intolerance, in directly addressing Bush by name and demanding that he cease desecrating the Constitution (well understood as nailing Bush for his support for an amendment against gay marriage), in defending science against Bush's cynical suppression, in holding Bush to account for his arrogant and incompetent conduct of the Iraq war, and in his forceful advocacy of economic equity and national health insurance as a right. Each phrase, delivered with self-confident force, succeeded in diminishing Bush and lending Kerry stature.
Time and again, Kerry represented himself as the future president. "As president, that is my first pledge to you tonight. As president, I will restore trust and credibility to the White House." But he was just warming up. "I will be a commander in chief who will never mislead us into war. I will have a vice president who will not conduct secret meetings with polluters to rewrite our environmental laws. I will have a secretary of defense who will listen to the best advice of the military leaders. And I will appoint an attorney general who will uphold the Constitution of the United States."
And there was more: "And as president, I will bring back this nation's time-honored tradition: The United States of America never goes to war because we want to; we only go to war because we have to. That is the standard of our nation." And more: "As president, I will wage this war with the lessons I learned in war. Before you go to battle, you have to be able to look a parent in the eye and truthfully say, 'I tried everything possible to avoid sending your son or daughter into harm's way, but we had no choice. We had to protect the American people, fundamental American values against a threat that was real and imminent.'" And more: "And on my first day in office, I will send a message to every man and woman in our armed forces: You will never be asked to fight a war without a plan to win the peace." And there was much more. Every argument he made built to an overwhelming assertion of true patriotism against false patriots. "And tonight, we have an important message for those who question the patriotism of Americans who offer a better direction for our country. Before wrapping themselves in the flag and shutting their eyes to the truth and their ears, they should remember what America is really all about. They should remember the great idea of freedom for which so many have given their lives. Our purpose now is to reclaim our democracy itself. We are here to affirm that when Americans stand up and speak their minds and say America can do better, that is not a challenge to patriotism; it is the heart and soul of patriotism."
The vague candidate of just hours before transformed himself into a formidable figure carrying the fate of his generation and "democracy itself." Kerry unabashedly portrayed himself as not only the leader of the "band of brothers" but the patriot who believed in the movements for civil rights and women's rights of the 1960s, who was a supporter of Clinton's changes of the 1990s and who, in claiming the Democratic nomination, is the legatee of those traditions for the future. "We believed we could change the world. And you know what? We did. But we're not finished. But we're not finished."