CHARLOTTE, N.C. Let’s start with a simple question: What does America need to hear from President Obama during his Thursday night convention speech?
For answers, we’ve turned to a great political orator, a political maverick, one of the country’s best-known nuns, a former Washington speech writer, and a guy who played one on TV.
In 1984, the Democrats nominated Walter Mondale, who suffered one of the worst electoral defeats in the history of the American presidency.
But they also had the wisdom to ask New York Gov. Mario Cuomo to give their convention’s keynote address. That speech is still considered one of the finest of modern politics. We caught up with him Wednesday at his New York office. Here’s what he had to say about Obama’s address.
“First off, tell me more about bringing our people home from the wars. ...Tell us about foreign policy, because Romney doesn’t know anything about it. Obama doesn’t talk much about it either, except for his gutsy decision to go after Bin Laden, so he goes home with the chips on that.”
On political gridlock with Republicans, Cuomo draws parallels with President Bill Clinton’s first term and his subsequent ability to collaborate with House Speaker New Gingrich.
If he were the current president, here’s what he’d say Thursday night: “That I, as President Obama, can promise you that I will make every effort to collaborate, as (Bill ) Clinton did,” Cuomo said. “The difference here is that the Republicans refused to do business, a selfish and stupid thing to do. They swore to do everything they could to keep me from being president for a second term, including doing nothing that would allow us to create jobs and everything else we need to do. They admitted that from the floor of the Senate.”
Does Obama need to make the case that he can be a transformational president? “He made it. Read your history books. How many presidents promised health reform? How many presidents did it? One. Who? Obama.”
The S.C. Democratic Party chair says a lot of things that rub people the wrong way. (This week he compared his state’s governor, Nikki Haley, to Hitler’s mistress Eva Braun). But he strikes at least one bipartisan note in advising the president on what he needs to say.
“Michelle started it with her speech, that Barack Obama has started the process of change, and he needs to say it doesn’t happen overnight, and it ain’t easy. ‘We are now heading toward choices that none of us like. Give me and the other side the opportunity to come together and resolve this.’ ”
As with Cuomo, Harpootlian doesn’t expect real change to begin unless Obama is elected. “That will be the real game-changer. Maybe the adults in the Republican Party will come forth and work with the president and move the country ahead.”
Can Obama take any cues from Bill Clinton’s speech Wednesday night?
“Look, can the Beatles learn from the Rolling Stones? They’re both great. Different styles, but they both get the job done. Barack? He’s Frank Sinatra, the coolest dude ever.”
And the choice he should frame? “Chicken salad or chicken bleep.”
The Charlottean is a former Republican speech writer and former second-in-command of President George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative for helping the poor.
He says Obama starts with a disadvantage: He’s not even the best speaker in his marriage, and Michelle Obama got in the first word Tuesday night.
Kuo called the first lady’s remarks “simply the best speech I’ve ever heard, perfectly written, perfectly delivered.” Obama now must approach her level of authenticity, Kuo says, while delivering an unpleasant but necessary message:
“That the work of government is fundamentally boring stuff. That the work of politics is sexy and exciting. But it’s the boring stuff we need. We have to have a debate or discussion on which policies are likely to work. As long as politics is all about personalities, then policy gets pushed aside.”
Kuo goes on: “The worst thing that happened to Barack Obama in 2008 was that bumper sticker that said ‘Hope.’ That’s too great an expectation for a man who is the head of government. He’s not the head of our country. He’s not the head of our culture. ... To saddle him with word like ‘hope’ is a grave injustice.
“This country never lost hope. What we don’t need in the next four years is more inspiration. We need more hard work. The last four years have been nothing but tediously hard work.”
Schiff’s advice sounds a like what he might have given as Toby Ziegler, the speech writer and presidential aide in TV’s long-running “West Wing.” Last season, Schiff played a greedy and unethical head of a consulting firm in Showtime’s “House of Lies.” Now he’s in Charlotte to watch the convention and promote his new role in an upcoming political drama, “Chasing the Hill.”
We reached him Wednesday afternoon at Morton’s. His advice to Obama: Enough talk. It’s time to lead.
“What we want to hear and what we need to hear is the president taking off the gloves, rolling up his sleeves and getting ready to fight – not the other side necessarily, but to fight for every job, for every person about to lose their home, for every person who could lose their health care if we lose this election.”
“He needs to be willing to get dirty. If this obstructionist scenario doesn’t change, then let’s roll over them. He can say, ‘Come work with us. But if you’re not patriotic enough to put ideology aside for the sake of unity, then get out of the way.”
Sister Simone Campbell
Campbell, the head of Network, a social-action lobby in Washington, D.C., called back a couple of hours before she delivered her Wednesday night speech to the convention. Over the summer, she was one of the leaders of “Nuns on the Bus,” a group of sisters who toured battleground states criticizing the impact of the proposed Republican budget on the poor (and the basis for her convention speech).
In our conversations, what she described as one of the core messages from the GOP convention – “that we’re only responsible for ourselves,” is dangerous and wrong. “In our complex society, clearly we have to take care of each other.”
She hopes the president will pick up on that theme: “That we’re not alone. That together, we make things better, and that you are the man to lead us there.”
She also think the nation and its leaders need to talk to each other. Is that still possible? “For our democracy to survive,” she said, “it better be.”