BOSTON — One thing we all think we know about national politicians is that they have outsized egos. We assume that they stand in front of the mirror each morning, imagining "Hail to the Chief" playing somewhere in the distance. This is especially true for those few who have actually heard that tune played in their honor.
It stands to reason that those who go far in public life have a strong sense of self. The rigors of running for high office demand no less. And we expect such people to do their best work on their own behalf.
That's one reason it was stunning to hear the opening night speeches here by Al Gore, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. We were not prepared to hear three men who won the popular vote for president deliver such tone-perfect pitches for someone other than themselves.
But all three seemed liberated to achieve something special precisely because they were doing it for someone else.
Al Gore in 2000 wrestled with the problem of self-presentation from the early primaries to the final days of the fall campaign. He went through a well-publicized wardrobe change (remember "earth tones"?) and adopted a new style for each of his debates with George W. Bush (none of them successful). Whether lecturing or roaring, he never seemed comfortable in his own skin.
But Monday night, Gore was not only sure of himself, he was (dare we say it?) smooth. He gently poked fun at himself, derived a serious lesson from the vote count fiasco of 2000 and moved on to his portion of the evening-long paean to the nominee, John Kerry. And when he was finished, you could see people all over the hall turning to their neighbors as if to ask: Who was that? Where was he in 2000?
It was equally remarkable to see Carter, a man who has known the heights and depths of public esteem like few others, take up the cudgels as the evening's designated hitter. As Christopher Caldwell of The Weekly Standard noted on NPR's convention show, former presidents are rarely assigned the basher's role at these events. Did Carter the Nobel Peace laureate really want to be the designated shivver, slicing the sitting president for his puny military record? Or did he humble himself to play his part in the evening's orchestration?
But the finale came with the bravura performance of Clinton, who showed he could not only give a smashing speech but actually end it at a point of maximum impact.
Since he first addressed the national convention in 1988, becoming famous for an introduction that lasted most of an hour, Clinton has been notorious for over-speaking. His convention appearances as the nominee or sitting president were akin to State of the Union speeches, endless and packed with what sounded like committee reports.
But not on Monday night. This time, Clinton hit it and quit it. He neatly turned every issue the Republicans run on — tax cuts, national security, terrorism, even family values — to the advantage of the Democrats. More specifically, he turned those tables to the advantage of John Kerry and running mate John Edwards. When the crowd roared approval, Clinton did not bask and beam. He plowed on. And, most important of all, after thumping the tub for 30 minutes, Clinton cut himself off while the force of his speech was still full.
The room was rocking, the critics were raving. But Bill just waved and walked off, just a minute past the networks' 11 p.m. curfew. It was a model of discipline and control, two words not always associated with this man.
People are talking about this as a different Democratic convention, and not just because it is on time and well lit. The real difference is focus. Literally every aspect of the program has been bent to the benefit of the Kerry-Edwards ticket, including the egos of the party's biggest superstars. Doing so made them all better Monday night. And it's making for a better convention show overall.
Next question: Will it all pay off when Kerry rises to speak for himself?