A Strong Close to an Uneven Act

With the Dems hell-bent on unity and avoiding Bush-bashing, the convention roller-coastered to its finale: Kerry's stirring speech

By Ciro Scotti

As the Democrats scurry out of Boston, what have they accomplished besides making cabbies in this confusing, drizzly, wonderful town happy and restaurant owners along its denizen-deserted streets furious? (The local trade, spooked by talk of terror, stayed away. And Dem delegates, not surprisingly considering their safety-net stances, are partial to free food.)

Did the convention excite and/or inspire? Did it present an alternative point of view that will stand up to the Republican "vision thing" in late August? More important, did the John-John ticket of Kerry and Edwards emerge as anything more than an option that is not Bush-Cheney?

The view from the press bleachers -- plus a smattering of sentiment from observers around the country who fit within the broad parameters of the middle class -- is this: Early on, the fiery passion of this convention to end the Bush Dynasty was largely unreflected in the face that was presented to America. In its zeal to appear united and reasonable, the Democratic Party for much of the week missed an opportunity to be bold, thrilling, and irreverent -- to skewer the eminently vulnerable Bush Administration.


  "Despite the Big Smile from North Carolina," a New York investment adviser says, "there seems to be no life to this 'media event,' which I feel is a precursor to the flavor of a Kerry Administration. You get the feeling that Al Gore is running again."

Just by being his silky self, Bill Clinton reminded the country what it was like to have a President, cool and cunning, who had mastered his chosen profession. But Clinton, too, held back. As a Los Angeles small businessman and former Special Forces combatant in Vietnam observes: "I'm very surprised that he didn't come out swinging at Bush."

Inside the FleetCenter, the tag team of Bill and Hill did rouse the faithful to a frenzy on Monday night. And Tuesday night's national debut of Barack Obama, a candidate for the U.S. Senate from Illinois, crackled with the intensity of a star being formed in the political cosmos as he told a mesmerized crowd:

"The pundits like to slice and dice our country into Red States and Blue States.... But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States and don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported it. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the Stars and Stripes, all of us defending the United States of America."

Still, not everyone was impressed. Says the New York investment adviser, who was watching from his home in Westchester County: "Obama gave a forceful talk on One America...but the reality is that this country is very divided. This was a good speech for the 1960s, but I think the country is more concerned about the survival of this democracy."


  He also complains that the Democrats will skirt social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, and because of that are conducting a dishonest convention. And, in fact, Kerry said zero on the subject. His position on gun control was limited to an obtuse reference by one of his daughters to the fact that he used to wear an orange hunting cap to their games when she played team sports.

But Kerry did bring up a risky social issue that disturbs Americans on both sides of the aisle who believe in strict separation of church and state: the increasing encroachment of religion into the political life of the nation.

"I think of what Ron Reagan said of his father a few weeks ago, and I want to say to you tonight, I don't wear my own faith on my sleeve," Kerry said. "...I don't want to claim that God is on our side. As Abraham Lincoln told us, I want to pray humbly that we are on God's side."


  On arguably the most important night of John Kerry's political career thus far, the 44th Democratic National Convention put on an uneven show that roller-coastered from the dismally mundane speeches of former Veep candidate Joe Lieberman, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to strong words from Senator Joe Biden of Delaware ("Our country stands at the hinge of history") and powerful oratory from former Kerry rival General Wesley Clark ("Anyone who tells you that one party has a monopoly on the defense of the nation is committing a fraud on the American people).

Praise the Lord for Willie Nelson and Carole King, although it was observed that the combination of 30-year-old music acts and Vietnam vets at every turn gave the night a pretty retro feel.

That feeling began to fade away with gracious speeches by Vanessa and Alexandra, Kerry's two daughters, who clearly adore their Dad. "When he loves you," Allie said, "there is no sacrifice too great...and there is no surer hand." Even the vastly overdone Band of Brothers routine seemed fresh and moving as former Georgia Senator Max Cleland, backed by Kerry compatriots from Vietnam, talked about Boston's Old North Church where the signal for Paul Revere's ride was given. He introduced Kerry as "another son of liberty, a brother in arms...and a man called to destiny."


  After that, it was all up to John Forbes Kerry, and he didn't disappoint. With a studied but strong delivery, he sent a tough -- but mostly not divisive -- message to the American people and his GOP opponents that he'll be a formidable candidate. Republicans waiting for him to stumble or bore could take no satisfaction in his performance, and Democrats could pack up feeling hopeful.

The former Special Ops guy from L.A. said he'll have a hard time forgiving "Kerry for what he did after he came back to the States." But he mostly applauded Kerry's performance and added: "Any reasonable man who has seen what's gone on with Bush in the past couple of years has to believe there's got to be a change."

The New York investment adviser, a Republican-leaning independent, said before the speech: "I will vote for the best man, and Kerry has yet to prove he can lead this country."

Two coasts, two conflicted views, two minds waiting to be won.

Scotti, senior editor for government and sports business, offers his views every week in A Not-So-Neutral Corner, only for BusinessWeek Online

For more on the Democratic National Convention, see BusinessWeek Online's continuing coverage at www.businessweek.com/election2004.htm

Edited by Paula Dwyer

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