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."