Building Bush's Big Speech

CBSNews.com producer Jarrett Murphy reports from the Republican National Convention

When President Bush steps to the podium on Thursday night to accept his party's nomination, he will take on a task performed five times in the past 32 years by sitting presidents who were elected in their own right.

He'll also be making the most important speech of the convention and, possibly, of his campaign. It will attempt to define Mr. Bush's presidency, draw contrasts with his opponent and detail an agenda for the second term he seeks.

A similar task faced Richard Nixon in 1972, President Carter in 1980, Ronald Reagan in 1984, the first President Bush in 1992 and President Clinton in 1996.

Where the speeches differ is on two key points: Whether to admit mistakes, and whether to lash out at the opponent. Those are key choices Mr. Bush and his speechwriters faced in crafting Thursday's address.

Other than that, building an acceptance speech is simple. Despite the weight attached to the incumbent's acceptance speech, most of the addresses sound very much the same. It can be assembled simply by mixing and matching some of the phrases heard in the past.

  • I Do
    The actual task of the acceptance speech is, yes, to accept the nomination. While boring, it's the one line sure to make it into television soundbites and garner a big cheer from the floor.

    Nixon did so "proudly." Mr. Carter accepted with "gratitude and with determination," Reagan "with a full heart and deep gratitude for your trust." The elder Mr. Bush was "proud" and "honored." And in familiar "aw, shucks" style, Mr. Clinton told delegates in 1996, "I don't know if I can find a fancy way to say this, but I accept."

  • When Last We Met
    Delegates are apt to remember that the president is the same fellow who made the big speech last time around, so presidents tend to refer to what they said back then. The phrase usually begins "Four years ago …" and it can end: " … I spoke about missions for my life and for our country," per the first Mr. Bush, or " … you and I set forth on a journey to bring our vision to our country," as Mr. Clinton put it.
  • The Choice
    The president almost always tries to paint the decision facing voters as very stark. Mark Dreiling, a Nebraska delegate, thinks this is an important task for Mr. Bush.

    "I think he needs to in very black and white terms lay out what struggle this country's currently facing," Dreiling said. "There's a lot of minutiae that gets thrown into the debate. This is a much larger struggle."

    According to Nixon, "The choice in this election is between change that works and change that won't work." For Carter, "This election is a stark choice between two men, two parties, two sharply different pictures of what America is and what the world is."

    "America is presented with the clearest political choice of half a century," Reagan said. Mr. Bush saw a "sharp choice … a choice between different agendas, different directions, and yes, a choice about the character of the man you want to lead this nation."

    Building off his opponent Bob Dole's signature line in the 1996 campaign, Mr. Clinton told Democrats, "The real choice is whether we will build a bridge to the future or a bridge to the past."

  • Blame The Blamers
    This is a tactic favored by Republican candidates: Painting the Democrats as too quick to criticize American policy and less patriotic than beloved Democrats of earlier years.

    "It has become fashionable in recent years to point up what is wrong with what is called the American system," Nixon said, adding: "I totally disagree. I believe in the American system."

    Dismissing critics of his Grenada invasion who, he said, had likened it to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Reagan asked: "Could you imagine Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, or Scoop Jackson making such a shocking comparison?"

    Mr. Bush said of Mr. Clinton's claim that America was being ridiculed, "Ridiculed? Tell that to the men and women of Desert Storm."

  • Look What I Did
    Presidents are expected to have something to show for almost four years in office, and acceptance speeches always contain a catalogue of accomplishments. For example, the elder Mr. Bush pointed to foreign policy developments from the former Soviet bloc to the nascent Middle East peace process. Mr. Clinton lauded the economy's progress.

    But some speeches put more emphasis on one sweeping change rather than a laundry list of statistics and policy moves — for example, Reagan's declaration that, "Since January 20th, 1981, not one inch of soil has fallen to the communists."

    Indiana delegate Brenda Goff thinks it's important that the current President Bush concentrate on "reminding the people of the last four years and the changes that have happened for the positive" like the No Child Left Behind law and the tax refund, "plus the important role that President Bush plays in the world."

  • For My Next Trick
    But reviewing what's happened in the first term is not enough. Presidents also must tell what they want to do if reelected. This involves articulating not only specific proposals but also a vision for what comes next — as Nixon put it, "a dynamic program for progress for America and for peace in the world."

    Reagan, for one, asked for reelection to "move us further forward on the road we presently travel, the road of common sense, of people in control of their own destiny."

    "Do I want to do more? You bet," said the elder Mr. Bush.

  • Mea Culpa?
    Last week, the current President Bush made headlines by admitting that there was a "miscalculation" in planning for reconstructing and securing Iraq after the military defeat of Saddam Hussein's forces. The remark was considered significant because Mr. Bush is seen as particularly reluctant to acknowledge mistakes.

    He is not alone. Neither Nixon nor Reagan nor Mr. Clinton said they were sorry during their re-nomination speeches. But with mounting casualties in Iraq, Mr. Bush faces unique circumstances, and on Thursday night he could allude to the "miscalculation" line.

    "I don't see any harm in mentioning that," said Louisiana delegate Steve Maher. "War is hell anyway you cut it."

    There are two models for Mr. Bush to follow if he decides to offer some admission of fault. In 1980, Mr. Carter admitted that, "I'm wiser tonight than I was four years ago."

    But the first President Bush, in explaining his breaking the "no new taxes" pledge, offered an acknowledgement that mainly blamed the Democrats, saying, "it was a mistake to go along with the Democratic tax increase, and I admit it."

  • Get Tough?
    After Wednesday night's rash of attacks on Sen. John Kerry, it's unlikely that President Bush will feel the need to pile on.

    That's not to say he won't draw contrasts — all the recent incumbents have done that, from Carter saying that the Republicans would unleash "a bizarre program of massive tax cuts for the rich" to Reagan saying the Democratic program "lives by promises, the bigger, the better."

    But in the hard fought campaign of 1992, the elder Mr. Bush seemed to go beyond drawing contrasts when he mocked Clinton's appearance in jogging shorts and statements on marijuana use.

    "Sounds to me like his policy can be summed up by a road sign he's probably seen on his bus tour, 'Slippery When Wet,'" Mr. Bush also said. Later he added, "He's been spotted in more places than Elvis Presley."

  • The Big Idea
    After the mundane work of accepting the nomination, running through one's accomplishments and setting out the agenda for the next term, presidents — like all nominees — strive to strike a unifying theme for their ideas, an inspiring charge to their supporters. It is usually among the last words they speak.

    If Mr. Bush follows recent tradition, he may well incorporate the metaphor of light.

    "In this springtime of hope, some lights seem eternal; America's is," Reagan said in '84. Eight years later, Mr. Bush saluted America as "the land where the sun is always peeking over the horizon."

    And four years after that, Mr. Clinton asked, "Let us, in short, do the work that is before us, so that when our time here is over, we will all watch the sun go down — as we all must — and say truly, we have prepared our children for the dawn."

    By Jarrett Murphy