Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Poor Grandma

Monkeydarts editors have been up since about 4:30AM EDT and there are two main topics in America this morning: 1)Obama's speech 2)The market rally.
There's no need to get into the BXO speech in detail. Yesterday I wrote that he needed to remain politically viable while not dumping too much on Jeremiah Wright. He seemed to accomplish that much although he threw his dear, elderly, white grandmother under the proverbial bus to do it. Ugly stuff that.
But the interesting thing to me today is all of the yakking about how great the speech was and how it ranks in the history of great political speeches on big, weighty topics.
The speech is from a subset of political speech making that can be called "Damage Control/ Save The Candidacy." This genre doesn't come around too often but we have seen it earlier in this campaign season. When Mitt Romney couldn't shake press questions about his Mormon faith he finally gave a daytime speech at the Bush Presidential Library. It was the best speech Mitt Romney ever gave. Frankly, it was far better than the "have-it-both-ways" one delivered by BXO Tuesday. It, predictably, got very little positive press attention and Mitt is a memory.
An earlier speech of this genre was the JFK / Roman Catholic speech in Houston, TX. His religion was a topic of political conversation that he had to address. He did so competently and was able to win the electoral vote in 1960 with a statistical tie in the popular vote. It wouldn't be out of bounds to think that JFK might have lost had he not allayed fears with that speech.
But the most effective speech of the genre that Obama dipped into yesterday was delivered on September 23, 1952. Senator Richard Nixon was being charged by opponents with having converted $18,000 in campaign contributions to his private use and Eisenhower was under pressure to dump his VP pick from the ticket. Nixon went on radio and the young medium of TV and denied the charges and then employed his daughter's pet cocker spaniel as an emotion- generating device to make the attackers seem petty and small. The one clip from the speech that's often shown is:
"One other thing I probably should tell you because if we don't they'll probably be saying this about me too, we did get something-a gift-after the election. A man down in Texas heard Pat on the radio mention the fact that our two youngsters would like to have a dog. And, believe it or not, the day before we left on this campaign trip we got a message from Union Station in Baltimore saying they had a package for us. We went down to get it. You know what it was.
It was a little cocker spaniel dog in a crate that he'd sent all the way from Texas. Black and white spotted. And our little girl-Tricia, the 6-year old-named it Checkers. And you know, the kids, like all kids, love the dog and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we're gonna keep it."
What's lost though is the totality of Dick Nixon's very effective speech. He goes through his family finances in detail that is unimaginable today. He basically proves his contention that Senator Nixon and family are of very modest means. But he goes on to point out that their opponent, Adlai Stevenson, isn't just extremely wealthy but that his "fortune" was inherited from his father. There's a lot more to the "Checkers" speech than a cocker spaniel, Pat's Republican cloth coat, and a denial of wrong-doing.
Was it effective? Hugely. Ike kept Nixon on the ticket as polling showed a wide support for his populist message and a belief that the attacks were unfair. The Ike/Nixon team went on to win two terms together. Of course, Nixon went on to win two terms of his own after losing narrowly to JFK in 1960. Dick Nixon was on a national ticket a remarkable five times. He won four of those contests and the one he lost was a dead heat in the popular vote.
Will Barack Obama be as successful? At his age he certainly has time to be. The real test of the Tuesday speech isn't whether Chris Matthews got a tingle up his leg when he heard it. The real test will come at the voting booths of the United States.