Inside The Kerry Rewrite Operation

Presidential nominee John Kerry rehearses the speech he will give later in the day to delegates at the Democratic National Convention in Boston on Thursday, July 29, 2004. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)
This column from The New Republic was written by Ryan Lizza.

Close to midnight on Monday, less than an hour after Bill Clinton made his effortless, passionate, mesmerizing case for John Kerry -- a feat that seems to flummox so many others -- Kerry's senior advisers sent out an urgent request for aides to dig up video of all of Clinton's convention speeches. Kerry had the tapes at his suite in Philadelphia, where he was campaigning, by Tuesday. His aides say this was just part of a general review of convention addresses, designed to help him get a better sense of pacing and timing. "It was all for staging, not for anything beyond that," said a senior aide. But other Democrats scratched their heads, wondering if Clinton's stellar performance had spooked the campaign and sent them scrambling to try to pick up some last-minute nuggets from the master's greatest hits.

But what's important about this story isn't whether the campaign's spin was true, but that the campaign doesn't want you to read about it. In Boston this week, if it doesn't have to do with the word "strength," the Kerry campaign won't talk about it. "No process stories," protested an aide when asked about the stealth Clinton tapes. "They don't want people to know about this," agreed a Democratic operative.

Like every campaign, Kerry-Edwards wants to stick to its message, not cater to the journalistic fetish for behind-the-scenes reports like those about the Clinton tapes -- process stories that dilute the favored story line. Political consultants call this "message discipline," and it has emerged as the yardstick by which to judge the health of a modern campaign. Political reporters, who supposedly recoil at scripted politics, nonetheless reward campaigns that are successful at staying on message (think about the admiring coverage of the almost robotically disciplined Edwards campaign) and disparage those that go "off message" (think about the disdainful coverage of Howard Dean as his candidacy imploded).

Message discipline reaches new extremes during a convention. And the Kerry campaign's efforts to control what comes out of every speaker's mouth or appears on every delegate's sign is, in many ways, the story of this one. "There's some silliness about all the reporting about the policing of the message," says Carter Eskew, one of the Democratic Party's most respected media gurus. There's nothing new about that. That's what a convention is."

Most of the message-management takes place in a cinderblock-walled bunker behind the main podium. In a poorly lit space known as the boiler room, roughly a dozen Democratic staffers sit at shaky folding tables amid a crisscross of duct-taped wires. Although they prefer to be called speechwriters, aides to the politicians whose text they review dub them "the scrubbers." Rather than stylists hired to inject a little Churchill into the convention, the team's first priority is to enforce Kerry's public plea that speakers refrain from attacking the president and not stray from the campaign's key points about Kerry. "We have to cut back the length of the speeches and tell them they can't launch harsh attacks," says a scrubber. Says another: "Sometimes, it's telling people who think they're speaking [for] five minutes that they're only speaking [for] three minutes. Other times, it's telling people who really want to stick it to Bush that they can't."

The convention speakers who come for review before the young scrubbers fall into a few categories. There are the good soldiers who understand the process and barely need to be vetted. Al Gore falls into that category. The first version of his speech was drafted by "West Wing" writer Eli Attie, but Gore and his aides, using a whiteboard and Magic Marker to outline ideas, stayed up until five o'clock Monday morning revising it, causing some initial nervousness among Kerry aides. "There was some anxiety and Kabuki about when we were going to show them the speech," says Eskew, one of Gore's writers. But, despite his withering attacks on President Bush over the last year, for the convention, Gore wrote a gracious, on-message speech, even pasting in Kerry campaign boilerplate -- "I firmly believe America needs new leadership that will make us stronger at home and respected in the world" -- without instructions from the scrubbers. Dean, another of the party's best Bush-bashers, was also praised by scrubbers as someone who worked hard at making sure his speech met the Kerry campaign's specifications.

But not everyone submitted such clean copy. According to boiler-room operatives, the two Democrats whose partisan attacks were most eyebrow-raising were, not surprisingly, Terry McAuliffe and Ted Kennedy. McAuliffe's job as party chairman, after all, is to attack Bush, and the scrubbers had to drastically tone down his speech. "They took all the red meat out," says one message cop. Both McAuliffe and Kennedy took the suggestions in stride.

The speaker universally described as the least willing to make changes was Jimmy Carter, who was determined to speak his mind about his belief that Bush has misled the country and isolated the United States from its allies. "What he delivered was a lot more positive than the early drafts," says a senior Kerry aide who reviewed Carter's handiwork. "We wanted him to talk about issues and be less negative." A scrubber adds, "He was extraordinarily unamenable. We couldn't change anything."

The message control extends to the delegates, too. Something as simple as a handwritten sign can set off alarm bells at a modern convention. Delegates are asked to wave only officially approved signs, which are disbursed with military precision on the convention floor by Democratic aides. For delegates and other surrogates who may get questions from the media, the Kerry campaign passes out two-sided laminated cards. On the front is the core message for each day of the convention (Monday: The Kerry-Edwards plan for America's future; Tuesday: A lifetime of strength and service; Wednesday: A stronger, more secure America; Thursday: Stronger at home, respected in the world). On the back are four paragraphs of campaign clichés. ("A strong team with the right plan for America. John Kerry is a dedicated combat veteran. ... John Edwards has spent his life standing up against powerful interests. ... Together, they will make health care affordable and accessible for all Americans, create and keep jobs in America, make us independent from Mideast oil, and restore America's respect in the world.")

For the press, the Kerry campaign organizes numerous opportunities to hear senior aides repeat these bullet points ad nauseam. At a breakfast for print reporters, campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill and senior adviser Tad Devine utter the word "strength" so many times that Devine finally cracks up at the absurdity of his own spin. "Strength is the word. I hope I made that clear," he laughs afterward.

All this effort to control the message has its costs. The tighter the Kerry campaign clamps down, the more desperate the press grows for off-message stories, a realization that forms the heart of the strategy of Republican operatives in Boston. Democratic staffers watch in horror as Michael Moore, trailed by a phalanx of news-starved reporters, roams the convention floor like a ticking time bomb on Monday morning. He offers Kerry speech advice, accosts a CNN anchorman, and drops a few f-bombs -- enough color to generate dozens of stories and send giddy RNC staffers racing to their keyboards to inject Moore into the convention subplot by spamming reporters with numerous "research briefings" that amount to a greatest hits of dumb things the filmmaker has said.

Surely the sledgehammer approach to delivering Kerry's message contributed to the wall-to-wall coverage (on Fox, in The New York Post, on CNN) of photos of Kerry donning a space suit at Cape Canaveral -- embarrassing shots in which the senator looked uncomfortable, reminding some of Michael Dukakis's infamous tank photo-op. The spacesuit shots, after all, were one of the only off-message stories of the week. "For every Kerry staffer that should get a raise for controlling what the speakers said, someone should get fired for that picture of Kerry in that space suit," says one of the convention's frustrated message strategists. But the Kerry campaign proved agile in responding. Democratic operatives spent the day digging up old footage of President Bush picking his nose, trying to show that Bush, too, could be caught looking odd on camera. They declared a small victory when CNN finally played the nose-picking tape. Not even the scrubbers objected to the retaliatory Bush-bashing.

Ryan Lizza is a senior editor at TNR.

By Ryan Lizza