Romney’s Lame Speech Might Have Gone Better Had He Learned From Bush 1 and Al Gore

Romney’s no orator, but neither were Bush 1 and Al Gore, both of whom, Robert Shrum writes, triumphed at their conventions.

Jewel Samad, AFP / Getty Images

The verdicts were mediocre. One called him “a comfortable and accessible figure, if hardly electric.” I think Mitt fizzled.

His speech was the climax of a festival of lies. Typical was the self-proclaimed Catholic true believer Paul Ryan. He gloried in the blatant falsehood that the president cut more than $700 billion from Medicare for our “parents and grandparents.” He brazenly blamed the loss of a GM plant in his hometown of Janesville, Wis., on Barack Obama; the plant was actually shuttered in December 2008, when George W. Bush, a pariah at his own party’s convention, was still in the White House. We know Ryan has forgotten the social-justice teachings of his church. Evidently he also believes in the nine commandments, discarding the one that says “Thou shalt not bear false witness.”

Ryan was the warmup act for Romney, and he did enliven a crowd that was left listless the night before—after Ann Romney’s earnest but wan testimonial to Mitt the man and Chris “Bully” Christie’s keynote in which he seemed to be announcing his own future candidacy rather than advancing the case for the 2012 GOP candidate. Despite the preorchestrated cheering, Romney’s speech accepted the nomination but plainly didn’t claim his party’s heart; outside the hall, it may have narrowed, but I’m convinced it did not close, his likability gap.

Romney trafficked in lies too; still, marketing himself, not his policies, was his central purpose—and his imperative. He and the convention planners featured a subject he once religiously avoided: his religion. As he testified to his faith and we heard about his good works, he finally publicly became a Mormon. It may be the most human thing about him. But will it, and the other personal anecdotes, prove to be transformative for the least-liked nominee of either party in modern history?

That nominee had three challenges as he took the rostrum in Tampa. Whether he met them can be measured by looking to the acceptance speeches of two other charisma-impaired candidates who before their conventions didn’t seem able to connect, communicate, or control their own images—George H.W. Bush in 1988 and Al Gore in 2000.

First, the capacity to connect, to show empathy, to convey that you comprehend and care about the hopes and difficulties of ordinary people.

Like Romney, Bush 41 and Gore were both perceived as rich, distant, out of touch—although Gore, now fabulously wealthy, in fact was anything but in 2000. Both were sons of a senator—one of whom, Albert Gore Sr., had himself aspired to the presidency and prepared his namesake to seek it almost from childhood.

It wouldn’t have done any good for Gore to plead that his net worth was modest—or for either Bush or Gore to insist that they weren’t privileged. For them, and for Romney, that tactic would have come across as unconvincing—because it was and is utterly untrue.

So Bush confessed, “Yes, my parents were prosperous, and their children sure were lucky.” Then he carved out some common ground with ordinary people. He’d fought in World War II; afterward he and Barbara had moved out West, to Texas, and lived in “a little shotgun house” with “one room for three people.” They also lived the life of a Middle-American town: “high school football on Friday night, Little League, neighborhood barbecue.”

Gore, the supposed stiff, began with the famous kiss—which as a strategist in that campaign, I can testify was anything but planned, at least by anyone except the candidate. I think it was as genuine—a product of the emotion of the moment—as it was surprising. Gore acknowledged his background, but with a twist. “I grew up in a wonderful family,” he said, “and I have a lot to be thankful for.” But was it money or position? No: the “greatest gift my parents gave me was love.” He had his doubts about the Vietnam War, but enlisted “because I knew that if I didn’t go, someone else in the small town of Carthage, Tenn., would have to go in my place.” He was modest about his service; he was “an Army reporter” who “didn’t do the most or run the gravest danger, but I was proud to wear my country’s uniform.”

He talked about his mother, who had worked her way through college as a waitress—and connected simply and credibly: “Sometimes when I see a waitress working hard or thanking someone for a tip, I see the face of my mother.”

This year Romney invoked his father, but clearly couldn’t say that he himself had served in war; during Vietnam he had a clergy exemption as a Mormon missionary in France. And how about the shotgun house? Did Romney ever live in anything like that? His wife mentioned a basement apartment. Was it a nice garden apartment, say, in Boston’s literally ritzy Back Bay, close by the Ritz Hotel? Nor could Mitt find a parallel to Al’s experience working nights as “a police reporter” in Nashville.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

Instead the newly minted nominee and his witnesses told stories—about his role as a bishop during a congregant’s tragedy, about Romney talking with a teenager dying of cancer, about not taking a salary as governor of Massachusetts—good deeds from on high that evoked a sense of noblesse oblige rather than shared experience.

Still, Mitt did echo Gore, a diluted imitation: “My mom and dad gave their kids the greatest gift of all—unconditional love.” And there was a pale carbon copy of Bush, in which Romney elided the difference between those who “moved” to town and those who “joined our church”: “We prayed together, our kids played together, and we always stood ready to help each other out.” It was abstract and derivative—and it never rang true.

Boldly the candidate dipped into and danced around Bain. He cited the successes and never explained the windfalls that resulted from destroying jobs—or sending them and his own money offshore. There was an investment in Bright Horizons—a child-care company, he noted, “rightly praised by ... Michelle Obama”—which hardly makes up for the children whose families lost health coverage in Bain’s financial manipulations.

He had another disadvantage. What Gore said about his personal life aligned with what he said about his driving purpose in the public arena—the fight “for the people, not the powerful.” Romney, on the other hand, carries the indelible burden of a tax proposal that would let him pay less than 1 percent on an income of $21 million—while raising taxes on middle-class families by an average of $2,000 a year.

Nor could Romney channel Bush, who cited John Kennedy—he “discovered poverty in West Virginia”—to make the point that what counts is not where you come from, but where you stand. Bush promptly proved that point about himself by pledging “a kinder, gentler nation ... a greater tolerance.” He defended “the place of government” in a “nation of communities.” He was specific, too—for example, promising as president “to do whatever it takes to make sure the disabled are included in the mainstream.” Imagine the reaction if Romney had said any of this or anything like it. He might have been booed off his own well-designed stage.

The most he could venture was “half of my cabinet [in Massachusetts] were women”—and his mother was, too; “for too many Americans ... good days are harder to come by”; “we deserve better”; “we will care for the poor and the sick”—did he mean the church will, or government? It was a congeries of clichéd, timid, and Tea Party–safe avowals of concern that didn’t have much punch or persuasive potential.

Second, communication: delivery matters; the way you speak the speech enhances or diminishes the words you say.

In Gore’s case, we made a breakthrough—almost accidental—that changed his characteristic pace and tone, which tended to be studiously slow and could sound like lecturing condescension to an audience that, well, wasn’t all that bright. It was a habit of years, for whatever reason, a legacy of his start in Southern politics. As we neared the convention, we had two versions of the acceptance speech—one composed entirely by the candidate. We evaluated the alternative by filming Gore as he plowed through all 12,000 words of the combined text—which was then cut into short snippets and subjected to dial tests in focus groups around the country. He sped through the filming—who wouldn’t with that many pages on the prompter?—and it was apparent that suddenly the measured cadence that could make him look phony just disappeared.

As he rehearsed the speech in the two weeks leading up to the convention, Gore was advised that the right pace was one that felt too fast for him. He learned to surf the applause; as soon as it started to fade, he would speak over it. Some reporters in the convention hall criticized his speed. With 120 interruptions, and repeated chants of “Go, Al, go,” he finished the nearly 5,700 words of what he would call “the speech of his life” in just 51 minutes. What tens of millions watching on televisions saw and heard was energy and authenticity.

Obviously I don’t know as much about how the awkward, often jerky-sounding Bush was converted into smooth-flowing, natural, even eloquent leader as he claimed his 1988 nomination. But I marveled as I listened in. Part of the reason was practice; the essence was that Peggy Noonan, who had penned some of Ronald Reagan’s most memorable phrases, sculpted lines that perfectly fit Bush’s timbre and rhythms.

Romney not only practiced, but at times it was painfully obvious that he had. He was better than his usual self, less animatronic but nonetheless constrained by the seemingly inescapable bonds of labored self-consciousness and a buttoned-down corporate meme. The smile was fixed; the humor forced. The speech seemed tedious—and eventually boring. He was no Paul Ryan—and he certainly wasn’t the 1988 Bush or the 2000 Gore.

Third, take control of image; turn assumed liabilities into strengths.

Bush, who was undeniably eloquent on that convention night, allowed that he wasn’t, and added, “I am a quiet man, but I hear the quiet people others don’t. The ones who raise the family, pay the taxes, and meet the mortgage. And I hear them, and I am moved, and their concerns are mine.” The message and the advantage here are subtle, but they cut through: he wasn’t a showman; he was that rare Republican from the Reagan years who could claim in effect “I’m on your side.” He leavened the claim with a wit no one thought he possessed: “I’ll try to hold my charisma in check.” He came across as commanding, self-deprecating, and refreshingly honest.

So did Gore when his time came. “I know my own imperfections,” he said. “I know that sometimes people say that I am too serious, that I talk too much substance and policy. Maybe I’ve done that tonight”—because, as he continued—“there are big choices ahead and our future is at stake.” Who could think this was a drawback? It was a classic case of admitting a shortcoming and making it a strength.

What was striking about Romney’s speech was that he was as unwilling to address and redeem his faults as the second George Bush was reluctant to name a single mistake he’d made during his first term as president.

Why couldn’t Romney bring himself to say something like this: “I’ve been criticized for being stiff and too earnest”—and then turn it—“but our problems are big, and I’m in earnest about solving them; I am unbending in my resolve to do the job of freeing our economy to create millions of new jobs.”

Or this: “Tonight I’ve tried to tell you a little about who I am and what makes me tick, but I am a private man, and I don’t like to spend a lot of time talking about myself. Perhaps there’s good in that, too. As president, I will focus on what’s happening to you, not me.”

Or: “I won’t be flashy, but I will have a guiding star—to work my heart out each and every day to end the heartache of unemployment and put America back to work.” Message bonus: Romney does have a heart.

Instead the 2012 Republican standard bearer borrowed the most discredited promise of 1988. Under his administration, we would see “jobs, lots of jobs”—12 million of them—in the next four years. Bush had committed himself to “30 in eight” and then led the nation into recession.

Unfortunately, Mitt also had the unguided missile otherwise known as Clint Eastwood, an addled actor who made Obama’s day as he careened from vulgar insults to the president toward a refusal to depart the stage as the managers tried to give him the hook. The mystery guest, as someone said, should have been a hologram of Ronald Reagan. Penultimately, there was the national debut of Florida’s Sen. Marco Rubio, who came straight out of Boys’ State. He also pushed a big chunk of Romney’s speech out of primetime. This was stagecraft from Monty Python.

Mitt’s advisers and speechwriters had read and watched the Bush and Gore performances. They feinted a mimic—like Gore, Romney strode to the podium across the convention floor. But the road map ended there—and I doubt Mitt will have the impact of George the First or Al, who each delivered a master class in acceptance speeches for the noncharismatic nominee. Afterward, they went different directions. Bush reverted to his usual awkward form. The post-campaign Gore, as he evolved from politician to prophet, became a compelling if divisive presence—yes, a charismatic one. But from their hours on the convention stage—in 1988 and 2000—they each harvested stunning gains.

In The New York Times/CBS poll, Bush was running 17 points behind Dukakis at the start of August. Less than three weeks later, right after his convention, Bush was 6 points ahead. Similarly, Gore’s speech not only scored better with voters than Bill Clinton’s emotional swan song three nights earlier—a result no one expected—but drew even with Bush. In the CBS data, Gore moved from a 16-point deficit on Aug. 6 to a 1-point lead two weeks later after the country had seen him unmediated—as his “own man”—as he asserted his leadership of the party.

The Obama-Romney race was already tight as this year’s conventions gathered. The bounce can’t compare to what occurred in 1988 and 2000. But in 2012, it’s also true that Romney only half-met his moment; maybe that was the best that was in him. Or maybe I’m wrong—but I do know this isn’t about Republicans and Democrats. It’s about a truth revealed by both a Bush and a Gore. Even for a candidate who has been regarded, fairly or unfairly, as a hobbled communicator, words and the way they’re said can have power.

Where was Peggy Noonan when Mitt Romney needed her?