by David Folkenflik
(NPR) If only they had the capacity for humility, political pundits on TV would pay close heed to a single 24-hour period in late July of 2004. The Democratic presidential candidate accepted the nomination by coming out to the crowd and saluting as he said, “I’m John Kerry, and I’m reporting for duty.”
It’s now seen as one of the most painful moments of the last campaign. But many of the instant assessments by media pundits were buoyant.
Cue up the proverbial Boys on the Bus:
“I think he won the night from the very first moment,” gushed Howard Fineman of Newsweek and MSNBC that night.
“As a performance, its top-notch stuff,” wrote Jonathan V. Last of the conservative Weekly Standard.
“If you’re a Republican operative, a close adviser to President Bush, you’re hoping that last night John Kerry lays an egg,” said ABC News’ Charles Gibson the next morning. “Boy, he did not.”
Well, as Barack Obama might put it, Yes, He Did. Kerry, a serious man, is now widely seen as having flopped in his big moment. But don’t blame Gibson, Last or Fineman, who are sharp observers of the political scene, for saying otherwise. Blame the game. There’s just no sure way to know that night or even the next morning the lasting consequences of an acceptance speech.
When Obama stepped onto the podium in Denver Thursday night, the expectations were Mile High, too. He carried the weight of history – and many commentators articulated that. Fox News’ Shepard Smith said his very candidacy showed that the barriers invoked by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech 45 years ago to the day were starting to fall:
“Think about that for a moment. African-American families across America – mothers and fathers and sons and daughters – watching their television screens – as for the first time in our union’s history, a black man will stand onstage and accept that nomination – and all those mothers and fathers can say to their children, ‘Look, you can do that some day too.’ … So put aside politics for a moment, and consider no matter who wins this election, no matter where your allegiances lie, Barack Obama is about to take a step forward – not only for African-Americans, but for all Americans.”
Smith struck exactly the right note. But he had an advantage: He was speaking about the atmospherics surrounding the speech before it began.
Afterward, CNN’s David Gergen (former counselor to Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and, yes, Clinton) called it a “masterpiece.”
Fred Barnes of Fox News and The Weekly Standard was diffident, saying it was a mishmash of policy.
But then, William Kristol, another conservative commentator for Fox News and The Weekly Standard, considered Obama’s speech formidable. (Kristol is also a regular columnist for The New York Times. You can’t stop Bill Kristol. You can only hope to contain him.)
“I think it was a lost opportunity,” said Nina Easton of Fox News and Fortune magazine. “I was looking at him talking about the economy – how many times have I heard this same speech from liberal Democrats over 20 years, not just at this convention?”
So it must be settled. Or is it? Chris Matthews, who holds forth on MSNBC, waxed ebulliently:
“I’ve been reading speeches all my life – but nothing like this – and let me tell you what was great about it – what it is, is a military practice and it’s called attacking from a defensive position,” said Matthews, a former aide to two Democrats: President Carter and the late Tip O’Neill.
“It’s how Henry won at Agincourt – it’s how Alexander won – it’s how Reagan kicked Carter’s butt – and what you do is this – you take your opponent ‘s best shot and you throw it back on him.”
So, to summarize, it was a masterpiece of a mishmash in which the liberal Democrat Henry V kicked Jimmy Carter’s butt.
Bloomberg’s Al Hunt said it was “amazing” but added, “I don’t know how it played on television.”
And that’s where I come in.
At the risk of falling into the trapdoor through which Gibson, Fineman and Last descended so readily, it’s worth sharing my own impressions from watching on television.
The first registered as Obama walked out onstage. The fascinating contradiction about Barack Obama is that he radiates such certitude and confidence when he speaks publicly – and yet this speech of his has inspired so much anxiety among establishment Democrats who have lost so many times.
Two minutes later, he became the first black man to address the nation as a major party nominee for the presidency of the United States. And all the chatter subsided about whether it was presumptuous to hold the address in a stadium holding a crowd promised at 70,000, then 80,000, and finally 85,000 people.
And all that punditry about the columns on the podium proving Obama’s imperial ambitions fell by the wayside – for the simple reason that they really were only fleetingly visible on television.
On television, you had heard a stream of pundits and Clinton Democrats saying Obama had to become more concrete and less lyrical; he assuredly did that. With the sound off he looked resolute, intent, in control. Sound on, he seemed combative – there was a long “bring it on” passage against McCain, not quite in keeping with the promise to avoid partisan attacks.
I noted allusions or hat tips to Presidents Roosevelt, Kennedy, Reagan and Clinton, and I’m sure the political pros discerned others as well. The speech often felt weighted with policy specifics, surely aimed at skeptical Hillary Clinton supporters. But there were elegant passages where he sought to knit together quite disparate elements of the country into a single rhetorical community. He knocked down the idea that his current celebrity meant he had a lifelong seat at a table of privilege. And at the end, he really started to soar, when he both invoked King and once again adopted a hint of his cadences in promising an America moving forward in common purpose.
Did he split the baby in half or deftly appeal both to hard-core liberal Democrats and to change-minded independents hungry for hope?
Heck, I don’t know. Gotta wait at least a few days to let sink in.
As I said, it’s presumptuous to render a historical verdict in the moment – no matter what technology allows us to do in a single keystroke.
But I thought I’d take the risk. After all, I’m the Media Circus Guy, and I’m reporting for duty.