Distilling the convention down to this: Kerry's keynote

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, or the first JFK, as he is sometimes called now, is still a draw here in the home of the Kennedy compound. People line up and pay $5 to walk through a building full of pictures of the man, while listening to his speeches over a PA system.

The pictures are nice, even if you feel you have seen them a million times, But it is the words that are striking. Love Kennedy or hate him, you can't question his ability to deliver a rhetorical flourish.

His "New Frontier" acceptance speech at the 1960 convention is considered an all-time great, framing the election as critical to the future of the nation and the world: "All mankind waits upon our decision. A whole world looks to see what we will do. We cannot fail their trust, we cannot fail to try."

This is the message of all political conventions, of course. If the fate of the free world isn't in the balance, why not just stay home and watch "Survivor"? But it is truer sometimes than others, and Kennedy's speech succeeded in raising the stakes in the 1960 election - in appearance at the very least.

And in the end that's what the Democrats need to focus on in Boston in the next few days. The rest of it will really amount to so much fluff.

There are a lot of silly justifications given for the great anachronisms known as the Democratic and Republican conventions these days. They still formalize the nominating process. They kick off the real campaign season. They are a major boon to the balloon and confetti industries.

The reason most often cited - conventions let the parties define themselves - is a canard. Are there really any doubts about where the Democratic and Republican parties stand in 2004 on any major issues? The big "defining" game is kabuki theater, and the coverage, which makes up much of the media efforts at the conventions, is worse. It is meta-meta-coverage about perception and image.

Anchor: "What are Democrats trying to do tonight, Jim?"

Reporter: "Well, the presence of Bono and Ron Reagan (the younger) together is meant to send a message of unity while simultaneously reminding everyone of the stem-cell issue."

Anchor: "Is it working?"

Reporter: "It's being seen as a high-risk move. Democrats hope viewers find Reagan sympathetic, but there is concern that it makes the party seem too opportunistic and some feel Bono's sunglasses make him seem aloof and might echo images of John Kerry snowboarding."

Anchor: "Never a good thing. Let's go to our focus group and see how the message is playing with them."

Does anyone really wonder why the networks are going to show only one hour of this a night? Conventions may have once been meaningful, but in 2004 they have devolved into four-day-long halftime shows without a game to anchor them or "wardrobe malfunctions" to spice them up.

It's not defining the party that's important for the Democrats in Boston. It's defining the race. Somehow, through all the hokeyness and faux pageantry, the Democrats need to make the campaign about more than Bush-bashing or Iraq. They need to give it heft. And that means the one big moment scheduled for Thursday night will have to be truly big. When the other JFK, John Forbes Kerry, will stride to the podium, he will give what will certainly be the most important speech of his political life.

Senator Kerry has two important missions in that speech. One is to make viewers comfortable with him. Polls show that voters are looking for a reason to vote for someone besides President Bush. Kerry needs to seem a viable alternative.

The other more important, more difficult, task is to eloquently define this campaign. To brand it and seize it. There's no doubt that the "war on terror" will be the main issue of this fall, but the candidates, the public, and the press have been dithering over what exactly the defining question of this campaign is.

No one who's heard John Kerry speak is likely to mistake him for John Kennedy, but in that speech Kerry must at least take a page from Kennedy's book. He must offer a real vision and contrast it with that of his opponent. He must lay out the stakes of the 2004 campaign as he sees them.

If he doesn't, the Democrats can run the smoothest, most appealing convention in the history of conventions, they can trot out every worshiped celebrity to stage-managed perfection, and it won't mean very much.

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