John Forbes Kerry, Orator?!

John Kerry salutes convention
This Against the Grain commentary was written by's Dick Meyer.

Much of what appealed to voters about John Kerry in the primaries was invisible to us civic voyeurs until he won Iowa and New Hampshire. And then we knew it along.

I have a sneaking suspicion that will happen with Kerry's acceptance speech.

The man we pegged as patrician, wooden and aloof made a skilled, smart, elegant and powerful speech. It was serious, but not pompous. He took positions and didn't pander. He did not reach for rhetorical heights he couldn't hit. I heard few false notes.

The careful man took risks. The heart of this speech was dead simple: I will be a better commander-in-chief than George W. Bush, who is not trustworthy.

Why is that a risk? Because Americans have no history of firing a president during war, even unconventional ones. And because we've become used to thinking Republicans are tougher. And because Kerry's record on this war is convoluted.

He took a risk by starting with a theatrical gesture. "I'm John Kerry and I'm reporting for duty," he said, snapping off a crisp salute and an easy smile. It worked.

He took a risk, like Bill Clinton in most of his speeches, by daring to be dull for some long stretches. He sketched in adequate measures his platform and priorities; that's a tricky balance because people say they want specifics but they don't.

Was it a risk to strongly attack the president? I guess many Democrats thought so, because most of the conventioneers were handcuffed.

But Kerry did the job with a gentlemanly pitch and a well-honed Boston Brahmin dagger:

"We have it in our power to change the world again. But only if we're true to our ideals - and that starts by telling the truth to the American people. That is my first pledge to you tonight. As President, I will restore trust and credibility to the White House…

"I will be a commander-in-chief who will never mislead us into war. I will have a Vice President who will not conduct secret meetings with polluters to rewrite our environmental laws. I will have a Secretary of Defense who will listen to the best advice of our military leaders. And I will appoint an Attorney General who actually upholds the Constitution of the United States…

"Saying there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq doesn't make it so. Saying we can fight a war on the cheap doesn't make it so. And proclaiming 'Mission accomplished' certainly doesn't make it so."

And then, using a Clintonesque trick - a cheap one - he called for a race on the high road. "I want to address these next words directly to President George W. Bush: In the weeks ahead, let's be optimists, not just opponents. Let's build unity in the American family, not angry division."

One demerit.

Kerry built the case for his own trustworthiness as commander on biography and emotion, not cold logic and position papers. And repeatedly, he went to Vietnam to do it:

"Our band of brothers doesn't march together because of who we are as veterans, but because of what we learned as soldiers. We fought for this nation because we loved it and we came back with the deep belief that every day is extra. We may be a little older now, we may be a little grayer, but we still know how to fight for our country…

"I know what kids go through when they are carrying an M-16 in a dangerous place and they can't tell friend from foe. I know what they go through when they're out on patrol at night and they don't know what's coming around the next bend. I know what it's like to write letters home telling your family that everything's all right when you're not sure that's true. As President, I will wage this war with the lessons I learned in war…

"I defended this country as a young man and I will defend it as President. Let there be no mistake: I will never hesitate to use force when it is required. Any attack will be met with a swift and certain response. I will never give any nation or international institution a veto over our national security. And I will build a stronger American military…

"I learned a lot about these values on that gunboat patrolling the Mekong Delta with young Americans who came from places as different as Iowa and Oregon, Arkansas, Florida and California. No one cared where we went to school. No one cared about our race or our backgrounds. We were literally all in the same boat. We looked out, one for the other - and we still do. That is the kind of America I will lead as President - an America where we are all in the same boat."

Kerry will take a lot of grief for this on talk radio. I thought it built an effective speech.

History suggests that long service in the Senate disqualifies Kerry. The English language has prevented every candidate but one - the first JFK - from going straight from Capitol Hill to Pennsylvania Avenue in this century. They speak Senatese and it has been a fatal curse. Kerry slew that dragon on his big night in Boston, but one night doesn't make a campaign.

Unlike John Edwards' address, Kerry's did not rely on subliminal code words. (Well, not a lot: "We can do better and we will. We're the optimists... We're the 'can do' people." Can we declare the rest of the campaign an optimism-free zone?).

He stayed away from maudlin set pieces and stupid prop tricks.

But he did continue Edwards' awful "hope is on the way" stunt with a chorus of "help is on the way." That was embarrassing.

Then again, conventions have gotten pretty embarrassing. I'm going to pluck a silver lining out of this one: it created a stage and a drama where a big speech was possible. And Kerry gave a big speech.

And we knew he could do it all along. Yeah, right.

Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editorial Director of, based in Washington.

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By Dick Meyer