A Carter Speechwriter Offers Advice to Barack Obama

The Democratic nominee needs to make the connection between his values and his policies.

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FROM: GORDON STEWART If it is presumptuous to tell anyone what to say at any time, how would you describe doing just that to the the world's most acclaimed political speaker days before the crucial address of his career? Still, after some expletives, please read on. Once you've won the election, only your closest family will ever speak to you like this again. Right now, your success in Denver and November means too much to hundreds of millions for the deference your abilities and accomplishments deserve.

Experience forms us, and my urgency comes largely from our failure as speechwriters for President Jimmy Carter to forge emotional and cognitive connections between his great values and good policies. I don't feel alone in thinking that for all your intelligence, passion, and fluency, you have not achieved this either. If you had, you might be running ahead, even allowing for the historic variables we know grade your road more steeply than that of a white southerner.

As you know (and I'll bet President Carter has mentioned to you), apt analogies exist between the primary campaigns of 1976 and 2008—boldness, determination, organization, entitled opponents, success. You're also both well aware that in spite of a spent incumbency, public restiveness, and a mediocre opponent, Jimmy Carter barely held on to win.

For all the positive similarities, including the fact that you are both extraordinary men who offer intimidating examples of self-discipline to accomplish so much on behalf of so many, there seem to be shared disconnections between high ideals (Hope-Change-Together in your case) and the Obama policies drilling endlessly down your websites—just as position papers on everything rose skyward from our Carter desks but never quite seemed to touch his ideals of Honesty, Fairness, Rightness. Your critics are unfair when they complain that you don't have details. Your fine staff and advisers have created a forest of specifics. But too little unifies them except those laudable values whose force has weakened through repetition and, in today's media, satire.

Carter's 1976 acceptance speech was pretty good, but you face the expectations you created with your keynote hit last time, a far less forgiving media, and a vastly meaner opposition machine. Your speech has to do more than uplift us as a people—you'll do that the moment you reach the prow of the biggest, brightest ship you've ever sailed on and just stand there. Your words have to define the stakes and choice of this election, indelibly, for six weeks, and most importantly, for every individual voter.

Please note "individual" voter. We may wish Americans to feel more connected to each other. Your candidacy itself has fostered this. But we still go into the voting booth alone. OK, sometimes they let me take in my 9-year-old daughter. But in that booth, when the curtain is closed, she and my family will be foremost when I choose whom I think best for our future.

"One Nation" is a great theme for the Democratic Party. It will be even greater if you can make it America's song as our president. I just don't know any people with real lives who believe that their heaviest burdens will be lifted next year if only we Americans start acting more like "One Nation." It may be Lincoln-like, but it's static. It doesn't move us forward, which is what we want someone to do. It echoes old Democratic Party rhetoric from all those conventions I used to love attending (before those exclusive skybox levels turned the Floor into the farthest bleachers) as a joyous prelude to getting slaughtered in November.

Sadly, you and I know that lots of Americans not only don't care about the dream of One Nation, they actively, if secretly, dislike it. You have walked the same South Side streets where I grew up. 62nd and Dorchester. Building torn down for "urban renewal." Saul Alinsky shaping politics as Paul Sills was making Second City. First political job age 10 as a poll watcher in the anti-Daley Fifth Ward. I didn't see many ordinary folks coming in to vote for "One Chicago." My concern was simply that they be only one voter. I wish more was different today than I'm afraid it is. I believe you will change that—if you can make a speech effective enough to get elected.