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The University of Texas at Austin

Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs


Stekler: Candidates' speeches from '04 define the '08 race

Austin American-Statesman - Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The party conventions that begin this week have long been disparaged as having devolved into four-day stage-managed advertisements for the nominees. With the nomination long decided and the running mate announced before the first gavel, there's virtually no drama.

Even in the midst of the political choreography, though, there are important things to be learned. If one was watching the conventions closely four summers ago, two speeches, one by John McCain, the other a keynote by Barack Obama, provide a remarkably consistent roadmap for their presidential campaigns.

On the morning of July 27, 2004, Barack Obama was not a national figure. The surprising winner of the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, party insiders saw him as a talented fresh face, one in a new generation of post-civil rights African American politicians. Largely unknown to the national delegates in Boston, Obama's autobiography, "Dreams from My Father," was long out of print, with a publishing house thinking of a modest reissue sometime before the November elections.

Obama began his keynote by saying "my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely," presenting himself, the son of a Kenyan father and a white mother born in Kansas, as a fulfillment of the American dream.

He said, "I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story ... that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible." In this American ideal of "E pluribus unun," the country was not sliced permanently into red and blue. "We worship an awesome God in blue states and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states."

Obama finished by repeatedly invoking the politics of hope.

For a dispirited party, desperate for leadership, eager to feel good about being Democrats, it was love at first sight. David Axelrod, his chief strategist, overwhelmed by the sight of crying delegates, remembered thinking that Obama's life "would never be the same."

Using biography as an embodiment of hope and the possibility of reaching across racial, partisan and ideological lines, Obama had introduced a national audience to the themes that remain the core of his campaign message today.

McCain's speech at the Republican convention four weeks later marked the return of a well-known national figure into the GOP establishment fold.

Relations between McCain and President Bush after their 2000 primary contest were "icy," recalls his then chief strategist John Weaver. "I mean, Siberia doesn't have that much ice."

Opposing Bush's tax cuts and passing a campaign finance bill over the President's objections gained McCain more popularity. By 2004, though, he had begun to think about another run for president and realized that running as an independent maverick guaranteed another defeat. He needed Bush and the president, down in the polls, needed McCain.

McCain's speech in New York focused on the war in Iraq. The fight, he said, "is between right and wrong, good and evil."

There was "no avoiding this war. We tried that, and our reluctance cost us dearly.

"Whether or not Saddam possessed the terrible weapons he once had," freed from "the threat of military action, he would have acquired them again."

To the cheers of an audience eager for a powerful and clear defense of the president, McCain ended his speech stating "we're Americans and we'll never surrender. They will."

As a young Navy liaison to the Senate, after his release a POW, McCain's closest friends in the chamber, Sens. Gary Hart and Bill Cohen, remember his belief that we gave up in Vietnam and should have stayed until we won.

In his 2004 speech, McCain speaks as a defender of both national security and national honor. Winning in a dangerous world, he says, is our only option. It resonates in every speech he gives today.

While conventions provide a continuing contrast between McCain and Obama, their biographies played out as campaign hagiography, be on the lookout for the supporting cast on your television. You might be getting an early look at the presidential election of 2012, 2016, or beyond.

Stekler, a documentary filmmaker and radio-television-film professor, is co-writing Frontline's 'The Choice,' which is scheduled to air on PBS on Oct. 14.

Copyright 2008 Austin American-Statesman

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