In my discussion of John Edwards’ speech, I forgot to commend him for declining to mention the tragic death of his son some years back. This piece of good taste goes against the modern grain. We all remember Al Gore’s reference at the 1992 convention to his son’s near-fatal accident, and at the 1996 convention to his sister’s death from lung cancer. In the latter case, Gore claimed that he promised his dying sister to fight the tobacco interests. It was quickly revealed that, if he made such a promise, he failed to keep it. But it’s not just Gore. In 1992, Bill Clinton told conventioneers and the television audience about his abusive step-father. This struck me as even more inappropriate than Gore’s maudlin family tale.
It wasn’t always thus. Listen to John Kennedy’s acceptance speech and think of all the material he had to mine — a war hero brother, a handicapped sister, a loutish father (but one who was bankrolling the campaign). Not a word about any of this in his speech. And can anyone imagine Eisenhower or Truman pulling a Gore?
Nixon, Carter, and Reagan all indulged in biographical references, but Nixon and Reagan generally steered clear of discussing their families. When Carter tried to inject his daugther Amy into a 1980 debate with Reagan, the result was derision all around. But Clinton, Gore, and the Hollywood types who choreographed the 1992 convention figured out that they could profit from this sort of thing in the friendlier atmosphere of a convention. Especially in a party much of whose base believes that the personal is the political.
In this context, I doubt that Edwards’ speech will usher in a return to the more dignified approach of the past. But last night, hope did seem to be on its way.
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