In His Speech, McCain Needs to Reassemble the Nixon-Reagan Conservative Coalition

The Arizonan must speak to the forgotten Americans, silent majority, and Reagan Democrats.


U.S. News asked speechwriters from past Republican administrations to weigh in with their thoughts on John McCain's acceptance speech. Curt Smith wrote speeches for George H. W. Bush.

A maxim says, "Dance with the one that brung you." Democrats waltz with leftist pressure groups, bowing and bartering. By contrast, the Republican card features Americanism vs. tribalism, general vs. special interest, and melting pot vs. manic pluralism. John McCain's acceptance speech must twirl this coalition of the winning.

For 40 years, the GOP has danced with the forgotten American, siring Richard Nixon's silent majority, the Reagan Democrat, and the emerging Republican majority. It thrived until George W. Bush's reverse Midas touch, which is McCain's acceptance problem: Whatever W touches, he destroys.

The speech is the Arizonan's last best hope to lure Main Street "and specifically," a writer said, "the people reviled in Main Street": middle-brow and -class, unhip and unboutique. As Ronald Reagan said, their "community of values" includes God, work, family, and reverence for everything American. McCain must apply a populist laying on of hands.

In 2004, for example, more evangelicals voted than all blacks and union members. Moreover—this is crucial—their view of secularism, multiculturalism, and border insecurity tracks millions of working-class Catholic, Orthodox Jewish, and Protestant non-"born-agains." Most believe, as Robert Hughes wrote, that "America is a construction of mind," eclipsing race, sex, or creed.

This belief helped Nixon and Reagan win 49 states. Nominees ignoring it lose: Gerald Ford, Robert Dole, 1992's George H. W. Bush. An ex-Navy man, McCain will show this week if he is out to sea about his nation's core. "To my opponent, America is clients whose support he must buy," he should say. "To me, America is individuals whose support I must earn."

Working on JFK's inaugural, Theodore Sorensen reread the Gettysburg Address. McCain ghost Mark Salter should absorb past Republican acceptances. In 1980, Reagan closed with silent prayer. In 1988, Bush etched "a thousand points of light." Above all, McCain should read Nixon's brilliantly written and delivered 1968 confessional: each a centrist conservative, trying to explain and bond.

Nixon's 1960 acceptance "rang every bell," the New Republic said. Nineteen sixty-eight's rerang them, swelling his Gallup lead over Hubert Humphrey from 2 to 16 points. To Lou Harris, it "swayed more votes than any [prior] polled acceptance." GOP-ers re-aired it on prime-time TV. In other ads, Milhous voiced passages over a montage of still photos. In Kennedy and Nixon, Chris Matthews hailed "a masterful address": the linchpin of a campaign.

Like McCain, Nixon sought to reveal "the whole man." His dance was cultural, twirling those who loathed the 1960s: "The great majority of Americans, the forgotten Americans." Ecumenical, quoting Lincoln: "The great God which helped him [George Washington] must also help me." It reassured, auguring détente: "We extend the hand of all the people of the world." Prose trumped "Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran."

To be lyrical, a speech should be personal. Nixon drew an indigent child. "He is black. He is white. He is Mexican, Italian, Polish. None of that matters. What does matter is that he is an American child." He then saw another child who "hears the train go by at night and dreams of faraway places where he'd like to go. It seems like an impossible dream." A great teacher, "a remarkable football coach, an inspirational minister encouraged him on his way." Finally, voice changing, breaking: "Tonight, he stands before you, nominated for president of the United States."

Earth to Straight Talk: The Republican majority began that night. Like Nixon, McCain can seem cold, even dour. Worse, he is, Michael Goodwin wrote, "a wooden speaker at best." McCain chants, not explains, tone weak and thin. He must learn the teleprompter; be scrappy, as in Rick Warren's recent faith-a-thon; and grasp that the candidate in sync with the middle class wins. McCain must speak for them, seeming one of them. It won't be easy, since he's not.