Keynote talks rally the troops
TEXAS Treasurer Ann Richards, who will give the Democratic National Convention's keynote address tonight, is a populist who thinks in terms of pragmatic solutions. When a poor connection left a recent telephone call from an Oklahoma reporter sounding distant and hollow, Ms. Richards didn't miss a beat.Skip to next paragraph
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``You sound like you're in a well,'' she told the reporter from her office near the Texas State Capitol. ``When we were kids and a frog got in the well, we'd pour in some Clorox. It didn't taste too good, but it got the frog out and the water was still potable. So if you have any frogs in that well with you, now you know what to do.''
The 12,000 Democratic Party delegates and spectators who hear Ms. Richards speak at the Omni Center in Atlanta and the millions more who watch her on television will likely hear a few other folksy tales from this self-described ``strong and gutsy'' Texas woman as she sets the tone for her party's nominating convention.
There may be a down-home accent to some of what she says, and she promises to throw in some humor. But that will only be the spice that flavors a speech that she wants to express what she considers the ``compassion and promise'' of her party: its interest in strong families.
Before the days of coast-to-coast primaries, television, and Madison Avenue political campaigns, convention keynote addresses served to stir up the fervor of delegates who had many large decisions still before them - most prominently, the selection of the party's standard-bearers.
But more recently, with the party's ticket already decided before the convention - no presidential nomination has gone beyond a first ballot since the Republican vote in 1952 - the keynote address has served less to rally the delegates in the hall than to attract the masses, through their TV screens, to the party's vision of the country.
Presidential scholars say most recent keynote speeches have been forgotten within days of their delivery. There have been exceptions: The speech by former Congresswoman Barbara Jordan of Texas before Democrats in 1976 is often mentioned. The big exception, though, is New York Gov. Mario Cuomo's 38-minute address opening the Democratic convention in San Francisco four years ago.
Yet political observers note that, while Mr. Cuomo's address left many Democrats wondering if they were nominating the wrong man, it did nothing for Democrats' prospects in the fall presidential race.
``Cuomo made himself a household figure with his speech, but that's about the extent of the impact,'' says Columbia University historian Henry Graff. ``The sense of the keynote being of some significant interest starts with Cuomo,'' adds Fred Greenstein, a political scientist at Princeton University. ``But post-Cuomo, it's still not something that holds the weight of a vice-presidential selection.''
A few past speeches have had identifiable impact. Dr. Graff notes that a rousing keynoter in 1948 by Kentucky Sen. Alben Barkley earned him the vice-presidential slot with Harry Truman. ``It was magnificent,'' Graff recalls. ``I can still hear [even] the periods.''
Bryan and Barry
(Dr. Greenstein adds that, though it was not a keynote address, William Jennings Bryan's four-hour ``Cross of Gold'' speech to the Democrats in 1896 won the nomination for the 36-year-old ``prairie populist.'' And Graff recalls that Lyndon Johnson, after Ronald Reagan's speech nominating Barry Goldwater at the GOP convention in 1964, reportedly quipped, ``They nominated the wrong fella.'')
Richards, a likely candidate for Texas governor in 1990, says her appearance for a half-hour on national prime time television might help her in that race. But she says her overriding interest is to inspire Americans about the democracy they live in.
``I want to say it's great to be a participant in the Democratic process,'' Richards said during a recent interview. ``I hope my speech will go beyond the political fray, that it will make [the audience] feel good about themselves, their country, and help them see the tremendous potential we have if we just have the leadership to help us and not hinder us.''