Nixon's the one: Why conventions are now about personalities, not policy

Jeff Greenfield
Yahoo! News

TAMPA, Fla. – It’s one of the most memorable moments in convention history: Franklin D. Roosevelt telling a rapturous Democratic convention in 1932, “Eleven years ago, I lost the use of my legs; for many days and nights, I questioned whether life was worth living. But, with the love and support of Eleanor, I learned to stand and walk again; and I believe with all my heart that America, now paralyzed by Depression and privation, will stand and walk again.”

You don’t remember that? Of course you don’t. FDR never would have put such a note in an acceptance speech. It wasn’t until Richard Nixon introduced the “politics is personal” trope that the self-revealing anecdotes took hold. Now, try to find a convention acceptance speech without one.

Back in the day, the only personal touch in FDR’s 1932 address was when he acknowledged that he had broken with tradition by flying to Chicago to accept the nomination in person. He then went on to propose “a New Deal for the American people.” (That’s the line everyone does remember.)

Nor did Dwight Eisenhower bring the 1952 GOP convention to a hushed silence by recalling the agonizing wait to learn if the D-Day invasion had succeeded, as he thought back to his childhood in Kansas and the values his parents taught him.

And you can read through John Kennedy’s 1960 acceptance speech without finding a single reference to his heroics in the Solomon Islands during World War II. However much his political career was aided by the story of his attempts to save his surviving crew in the sinking of the Patrol Torpedo boat PT-109, JFK had other goals in mind for this speech: Namely, to proclaim, “We stand at the edge of a New Frontier.”

What’s so striking about these speeches is how anachronistic the absence of emotionally powerful narratives seems. In the modern acceptance speech, the personal is indeed the political; it has become as significant a part of the address as any statement of philosophy or policy. That’s why it’s a near-certainty that Gov. Mitt Romney’s speech Thursday night—or at the very least his wife Ann’s speech Tuesday evening—will include a story about Romney’s childhood, or a challenge involving friends or family, designed to reveal a living, breathing human being with life experiences, hardships and even sorrows much like those voters face. Just as likely, the candidate will cite by name a farmer or factory worker or struggling working mom, to prove that he’s been touched by the people he’s met.

Fittingly, Richard Nixon began this practice with his 1952 “Checkers” speech, which was the first to recognize the power of television to present (or misrepresent) a politician as an everyman.

And in his ’68 acceptance speech, Nixon went even further, making biography the climax of his oration, evoking the memory of a child:

"He hears the train go by at night and he dreams of faraway places where he'd like to go…He’s helped on his journey through life [by] a father who had to go to work before he finished the sixth grade, sacrificed everything he had so that his sons could go to college. A gentle, Quaker mother, with a passionate concern for peace, quietly wept when he went to war but she understood why he had to go. … And tonight he stands before you…nominated for President of the United States."

It was the first of many such evocations, all to say, “I know what your life is like because it’s not that far from my own.”

George H.W. Bush, looking to erase the image of a blue-blood aristocrat, looked back during his 1988 speech to his younger days:

"We lived in a little shotgun house, one room for the three of us. Worked in the oil business, then started my own…. Moved from the shotgun, to a duplex apartment, to a house. And lived the dream—high school football on Friday night, Little League, neighborhood barbecue."

And then Bill Clinton struck a far more dramatic chord at the beginning of his 1992 address:

"I never met my father. He was killed in a car wreck on a rainy road three months before I was born, driving from Chicago to Arkansas to see my mother. After that, my mother had to support us. I can still see her clearly tonight through the eyes of a 3-year-old, kneeling at the railroad station and weeping as she put me back on the train to Arkansas with my grandmother."

But no one had a more wrenching, riveting personal story than John McCain, whose speech in 2008 concluded with his story of imprisonment and torture in North Vietnam after he refused early release:

"After I turned down their offer, they worked me over harder than they ever had before, for a long time, and they broke me. … I didn’t know how I could face my fellow prisoners. The good man in the cell next door to me, my friend, Bob Craner, saved me. Through taps on a wall, he told me I had fought as hard as I could. No man can always stand alone."

There is something discordant about a team of speechwriters and political operatives hammering away to create an image of the “real, inner” candidate. And, to be blunt, there is no necessary connection between a moving life experience and the skills necessary for leadership. (Check out FDR’s track record as a parent.)

Still, there’s no getting around the reality: Our would-be leaders and their aides are convinced that without that personal, moving narrative they cannot forge that bond with voters. It would be refreshing if Romney were to say in his speech: “I have lived a privileged life, one of wealth and comfort. But I know how to fix this broken economy—and that is what matters.” And Romney has, in fact, hinted that he may avoid the personal tales in favor of policy during his address.

It would be encouraging to believe that that train has not left the station. I know, because as a young boy, I heard that train whistle in the night, and …