Stu Bykofsky: Romney meets low expectations in GOP Convention finale

GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney greets supporters as he enters to deliver his nomination-acceptance speech Thursday night at the Republican National Convention in Tampa.
GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney greets supporters as he enters to deliver his nomination-acceptance speech Thursday night at the Republican National Convention in Tampa. (MARK WILSON / GETTY IMAGES)
Posted: August 31, 2012

YOU EVER HEAR of the Judson Welliver Society? It's one of the most exclusive social clubs in the world, composed exclusively of former presidential speechwriters.

It's named after Judson C. Welliver, President Warren Harding's "literary clerk," credited with being the first presidential speechwriter.

Thursday night was GOP Republican nominee Mitt Romney's last, best chance to introduce (or reintroduce) himself to the American people, whom he is asking for a job. He won't get an audience that large again until he debates President Obama. For Romney, this was D-Day, his all-in moment, to sell himself to America.

That's what candidates' acceptance speeches are supposed to do. That was Romney's goal. Did he achieve it?

But first - who wrote the speech?

Official Word from the campaign is that Mitt writes his own speeches. That's what all candidates say, but Lindsay Hayes was appointed director of speechwriting by Romney in April. Across the aisle, Jon Favreau - not the actor/director - is President Obama's chief speechwriter.

Nothing new here. John F. Kennedy's lofty eloquence (and humor) came mainly from the pen of Ted Sorensen, while Ronald Reagan had Peggy Noonan fashioning the inspirational imagery of his morning in America. Presidents and presidential candidates have not just one, but a staff of speechwriters.

Political mavens scour the speech for its political purpose and promises. I examine it here as theater, as a work of art, aside from politics. A speech can be an effective instrument of communication even if you disagree with every word of it.

The purpose of this kind of speech is to inform and inspire and motivate you to think well of, and vote for, the man delivering it. The goal is to make the acceptance speech the most memorable event of the convention, according to Craig Smith, professor of communication studies at California State University at Long Beach. Smith was a main speechwriter for George H.W. Bush and was on Reagan's speechwriting team.

To be successful, Smith told me before the speech, Romney has to define himself, rise above expectations (which are lower for him than for the verbally adroit Obama), present a polished (but not overscripted) image, and unite the audience before him in the hall.

Smith ticked off four tactics to achieve this goal: Establish credibility, show that he has the audience's interests at heart, demonstrate character and convey wisdom. I'll add a fifth - warmth.

How did Romney do?

In fewer than 40 minutes, he served vanilla pudding, weak on soaring rhetoric but long on folksy, family charm. The main credibility he established was that of a family man, which appeals to his base, along with his repeated references to family, faith and an America that enjoys a "kinship with the future."

He was rarely animated, occasionally making small gestures with his hands.

His character was revealed more by a GOP "documentary" and by testimonials than by his own words.

As the speech unspooled, it got chuckles in the right places and more than polite applause, sometimes loud but rarely unrestrained. The roof remained firmly on the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

He said he had a plan to create 12 million new jobs, but offered no specifics. The five points he offered were old shoes, each of which - such as killing Obamacare and not raising taxes - had been previously aired.

The fresh insight of wisdom was absent.

Expectations for him as an orator were pitched low. He met them.


Contact Stu Bykofsky at stubyko@phillynews.com or 215-854-5977. Join Stu on Facebook. For recent columns, go to philly.com/Byko.

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