Speech Lesson

Bill Clinton brought down the house with his Monday night speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. Even the right-leaning pundits on the Fox Network (with the exception of Ann Coulter, perhaps the looniest person ever to be taken seriously on network television) acknowledged that the former president had made a formidable case for his party. Former Clinton adviser, now official Fox Hillary-basher, Dick Morris, called the speech a "masterpiece."

Clinton's principal political gift has always been his ability to humanize and personalize grand-scale issues, to illustrate them in such a way that they resonate with average Americans. That gift was much in evidence Monday night, as Clinton contrasted the actions of President Bush and Vice President Cheney -- and his own actions -- during the Vietnam conflict with those of John Kerry.

"During the Vietnam War," Clinton said, "many young men, including the current president, the vice president, and me, could have gone to Vietnam but didn't." Clinton wangled a student deferment. Bush used family connections to get into the Texas National Guard. And Cheney asked for and got five student deferments before he turned 26 and became ineligible for the draft. His explanation: "I had other priorities."

John Kerry, Clinton went on to point out, also came from a privileged background, also was a student, and could have also easily avoided going to Vietnam. But, instead, he asked to go. The point was obvious: America, if you're looking for a patriot, look no further. If you're looking for someone who's literally battle-tested, here he is.

Clinton also self-deprecatingly noted that for the first time in his life, he was wealthy enough to be a beneficiary of President Bush's tax cuts. He went on to point out in a very concrete manner how the $5,000 tax cut granted to him and other millionaires forced budget cuts that led to a reduction in the number of cops on the street. I'd rather have more cops on the street, he said, than give millionaires a $5,000 tax cut. It would be hard to imagine many Americans disagreeing with him.

The 24-minute address was interrupted numerous times by ovations and shouts from the faithful, a testament to Clinton's sustained popularity. Amazingly, despite the lingering residue from his impeachment and the Lewinsky affair, Clinton's approval ratings with the American public are higher than those of Bush or Kerry.

Presidential polls show Kerry and Bush neck-and-neck in both the popular vote and in the electoral polls. But in the next 100 days so much could happen, so many events (some possibly horrific) could alter the course of this election, that current polls could bear very little resemblance to November's cold reality.Democratic strategists believe Bush's best chance at winning re-election is convincing voters that the Democratic ticket would be soft on terrorism. John Kerry will get his first real chance to dispel that notion before a national television audience this week. He needs to connect on a human level, not just as an intelligent wonk. It's a lesson Al Gore never learned. He, too, could have done far worse than to take a cue -- or three -- from the man from Arkansas.

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