By David M. Shribman
Executive Editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
CLEVELAND - He is a candidate more comfortable with talking points than with a written text. He has more diagnoses than prescriptions. He wanders from topics to tropes, from parries to thrusts, from analyses to anecdotes. He is the master of the slogan -- and, his critics are swift to point out, the slippery fact.
Tonight Donald J. Trump accepts the Republican presidential nomination. That does not mean he accepts the Republican tradition, the Republican approach or the Republican outlook. And tonight he delivers the most important speech of his life. That does not mean he will do it within the accepted political tradition, utilizing the customary political approach or employing the customary political outlook.
He ran as Donald Trump and he will very likely speak like Donald Trump.
With far less at stake, Sen. John F. Kennedy used his acceptance speech in 1960 to introduce his "New Frontier," which shaped his presidency. With far less in the balance, Vice President George H.W. Bush spoke in 1988 of his "thousand points of light," one of the signature phrases of his administration.
No speech Trump has ever delivered had remotely as big an impact, or as large an audience, as the one he is laboring over today.
For a customary candidate, the expectations would be clear. The speech would have to be, in a phrase, not too much. Eloquent -- but not too much. Optimistic -- but not too much. Specific -- but not too much. Personal -- but not too much.
Trump does the personal well -- but perhaps too much. His story doesn't have the frontier ruggedness of Barry M. Goldwater's, nor the heroic strains of Dwight D. Eisenhower's, nor the Missouri authenticity of Harry S. Truman's. Born to comfort like the two Roosevelts and the two Bushes, he cannot take on the Herbert Hoover profile of the self-made man. Nor can he attempt to make a virtue of modesty, which worked for former Gov. Jimmy Carter of Georgia in 1976 but bombed for Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts in 1988.
That's what makes Trump's challenge tonight so fascinating -- and so daunting.
The first task: Decide whether the unvarnished genuineness and the blunt outspokenness that won him the nomination are appropriate for one of the few set-piece performances of an American presidential campaign. He didn't win his party's nomination by being a party regular, nor by delivering the kinds of speeches his predecessors gave, nor by respecting the traditions previous nominees built.
Next: Decide whether to offer a speech of broad themes or narrow specifics. The elder Bush tried to do both, profiting as a candidate only to be punished as a president. He vowed in his 1988 speech not to raise taxes, and he accompanied that pledge with his fateful "read my lips" vow. That seemed brilliant four years after former Vice President Walter F. Mondale lost 49 states following his San Francisco convention pledge to raise taxes, but it turned to dross after the president agreed to new taxes as part of a compromise budget agreement in 1990.
There were two results of that miscalculation, both damaging for Bush and for the long-ago political establishment he personified. One was the ascendency of Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, who went on to become a renegade GOP leader and then an insurrectionary speaker of the House. The other was a split in the Republican Party that led to Bush losing his re-election bid in 1992.
The Trump team has made no secret of its use of the Richard Nixon campaign of 1968 as a model for the 2016 campaign and for Trump's acceptance speech, and in truth the speech Nixon delivered in the Miami Beach Convention Center nearly a half-century ago offers a two-way mirror, a look at Nixon's outlook and Trump's:
"As we look at America, we see cities enveloped in smoke and flame. We hear sirens in the night. We see Americans dying on distant battlefields abroad. We see Americans hating each other, fighting each other, killing each other at home. And as we see and hear these things, millions of Americans cry out in anguish. Did we come all this way for this? Did American boys die in Normandy, and Korea and in Valley Forge for this?"
But Nixon also used his acceptance speech to pay homage to a party elder (Eisenhower) and to offer a gracious salute to the two party stalwarts he defeated for the nomination (Govs. Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York and George W. Romney of Michigan). He spoke of building "bridges to human dignity across that gulf that separates black America from white America" and, in a moving ending to his remarks, said, "I see a day when our nation is at peace and the world is at peace and everyone on Earth -- those who hope, those who aspire, those who crave liberty -- will look to America as the shining example of hopes realized and dreams achieved."
Nixon had superb speechwriters, including William Safire, Patrick J. Buchanan and Raymond K. Price. William F. Gavin helped sculpt those convention remarks. The result was one of the most unforgettable riffs in convention history, one that never fails to soften the historical view of the 37th president, and perhaps explain him in a context broader than the Watergate deceit. In that passage, he spoke of himself in the third person, and as a child:
"He hears the train go by at night and he dreams of faraway places where he'd like to go."
Perhaps Trump heard the trains, or the streetcar, or the passing traffic late at night, and perhaps he dreamed of faraway places where he'd like to go. There's been plenty of talk of plagiarism here this week, so he has to be careful. But a peek behind the bombast into the soul beneath the bluster might do the heir of Nixon well, and the country, too. Dukakis followed the Nixon lead, and so did Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, which is why we all remember that he came from a place called Hope.
One more thing about the Nixon remarks and the train going by at night and the dreams of faraway places he eventually went. The former vice president wrote that sentence himself. He wanted to sound like Richard Nixon.