McCain Speech Must Reach Beyond Base

Former Bush speechwriter, Michael Gerson, offers advice to Sen. John McCain: "If you do a mediocre convention speech, you may never get to give an inaugural speech." Gerson tells Liane Hanson that often the "inner group of people around the candidate …have sometimes conflicting views about what needs to be accomplished. Part of what you do as a speechwriter is be a diplomat."

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

John McCain will accept his party's nomination for president on Thursday. And throughout the month of August his longtime writer, Mark Salter, has been hard at work on McCain's acceptance speech, writing, re-writing, vetting, editing, likely getting input from advisers of all kinds. Michael Gerson has been there before. He was George W. Bush's chief speechwriter for five years, and he's in the studio. Welcome to the program.

Mr. MICHAEL GERSON (Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations; Former Bush Speechwriter and Policy Adviser): Great to be with you.

HANSEN: What's Mark Salter going through right now?

Mr. GERSON: Oh, pretty much hell. You know, this is the highest stakes speech in American politics. If you do a mediocre inaugural address, you know, you get criticized for it. If you do a mediocre convention speech, you may never get to write an inaugural address. So, the stakes are very, very high. And everybody is looking over your shoulder, everybody has input on the basic themes.

HANSEN: When you say everybody is looking over your shoulder, how many people actually do get involved in fine tuning a speech like this?

Mr. GERSON: When I meant everyone, it's really that inner group of people around the candidate who have a say in communication and policy. You know, in my case, for two conventions it was people like Karen Hughes and Karl Rove, and they have sometimes conflicting views of what needs to be accomplished. And so part of what you do as a speechwriter is to be a diplomat in the process and work things out and make sure the candidate is happy.

On the first convention speech that I worked for, I was told by someone who was with the president that day - I wasn't with him that day - that he was whistling when he was getting ready for the speech. And they were asking him why he felt so calm. And he said, because I know that giving this speech, Americans will judge me on exactly who I am, either pro or con. That's really what you want to do in a convention speech. You want the confidence that the candidate, you know, brings to that podium where he says, this is who I am.

HANSEN: What do you think are the themes that John McCain should emphasize in his speech?

Mr. GERSON: I think he needs to talk about his biography, which I think is exceptional in its valor. I think he has to raise questions about Obama's experience and his ability to be president in a comparative way. But I think he's going to have to do something more than giving a typical convention speech. He has to give some reason for Americans to view him as different than the normal Republican brand. This is not a particularly good year to be a normal Republican, a typical Republican, OK. And, you know, McCain hasn't been.

I would say that this speech is going to have to be predominantly geared towards that middle ground. Now, that's not always true in a convention. Sometimes you're whipping up the troops. And he needs to do some of that. And he's capable of doing it on taxes and a lot of other issues. But I don't believe that John McCain is going to win this election by firming up the Republican base. I think that he's going to have to prove that he has a kind of genuine outreach to the middle.

HANSEN: Do you have a favorite line that you've written in a speech?

Mr. GERSON: You know, I'm not a humor writer. One line I really liked from Bush's 2004 convention speech was when he said, you know, some people think that I kind of strut and that I'm cocky. In Texas, we call this walking. OK! And it makes a point which is some of the best lines in convention speeches are often self-deprecation, often deal with a weakness, because there was a weakness here in a certain way, the way the people viewed the president.

I think that McCain should do some of that in the speech about maybe in his age, maybe his, you know, reputation for being difficult, you know. And that's the way when you confront them and you humorously deal with them that you turn liabilities into advantages and that you start to create a vivid public character that people like.

HANSEN: Michael Gerson served as President Bush's main speechwriter from 2001 to 2006. He's now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. His book, "Heroic Conservatism," comes out next month in paperback. Thank you for coming in.

Mr. GERSON: Great to be with you.

HANSEN: And this program note, remember last week we promised you we'd have the author of a new book on the history of the doughnut live on our blog. He's there now. We have more details coming up. But check it out, npr.org/soapbox.

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