Convention Wisdom

By Jim Hoagland

The Washington Post

Sunday, August 1, 2004; Page B07

The Democrats were ruthlessly uplifting as they sent up a flinty Massachusetts liberal war hero and a smooth Southern populist to run against brash George W. Bush and dour Dick Cheney on Nov. 2. In exalting form over substance and subordinating issues to biography, Boston provided the nation's first perfectly postmodern convention.

Disciplined unity and tight scripting did not initially thrill many in the Fourth Estate racket, especially those on television. They waxed nostalgic for the spectacle of Democrats going at each other's throats on war and peace. The conventional deconstruction of the Boston script found the Democratic leadership guilty of papering over and ultimately betraying the smoldering anti-Bush bitterness and anger of the rank and file.

Then the TV commentariat turned on a dime and in unison to rejoice: John Kerry's acceptance speech (fair to middling, in fact) had saved their week.

Both stampedes seemed to miss much of what has really happened to a party that has had to depend on Southerners to capture the White House during the past three decades. That somewhat parochial thought occurred to me as I listened to John Edwards's stirring address to a crowd of national delegates who actually seemed to be listening and responding at a gut level to a Southern messenger -- and message -- on Wednesday night.

Political promises and speeches bind only those who believe them. But promises and speeches at conventions do reveal how the people at the top of the political profession see the aspirations, fears and expectations of those they would lead. A nation's music is at times a matter of words.

The ruthlessly uplifting spirit and rhetoric of Boston '04 was powered by proud patriotism, a reverential respect for America's military and an almost evangelical faith in the desire and ability of Americans to overcome racial and other divides and be "One America."

It was not only Edwards's accent that was Southern. So were his themes: Look at where I came from, he was saying, and what we accomplished in climbing out of poverty and racism. You have to be optimistic about human nature and the future, his stories about his family, neighbors and region declared.

There is more than irony at work in the fact that two of the week's oratorical gems in Boston came from Edwards, who was born in South Carolina (not far from where I grew up) before he moved to North Carolina, and that irrepressible Arkansan, Bill Clinton.

Forty years ago last month, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and accurately predicted that the Democrats would lose the South for a generation. But the South has made major strides in changing itself and influencing the party's agenda and rhetoric in that time, even as it has turned its back on most national Democratic candidates and many of their issues.

The elections of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton made that point. By picking Edwards, John Kerry has shown that he understands the centrist zeitgeist Edwards represents, even if he does not bring Kerry North Carolina's electoral votes. Edwards's signature characteristic is optimism -- of a particularly Southern kind -- in which form and ideas merge with the fluidity of the texts of a John Barth or Thomas Pynchon.

Edwards also comes across as more rooted and much more disciplined than Clinton (okay, not exactly Mission Impossible). He may not possess Clinton's sheer intellectual and political brilliance, but neither does Edwards carry that crippling load of self-centeredness.

You may gather, correctly, that I liked what I heard from Edwards. What troubled me was what I did not hear from him or from Kerry on Iraq.

Edwards spoke only hours after at least 70 Iraqis had been killed by a car bomb, a particularly gruesome new atrocity against a population liberated from dictatorship by American troops. Yet Edwards, in a speech replete with tributes to U.S. losses and sacrifices, did not mention that tragedy and referred only in glancing terms to the price that Iraqis are paying in what must be seen as a joint struggle.

Kerry -- who in his unspoken subtext accused Bush of being a liar, a coward and a subverter of the Constitution -- spoke authoritatively on national security, if in general terms. But he and the Democratic platform also largely neglected the fate of the people of Iraq, who are being progressively lost in the shuffle of electoral politics -- as are Britain, Poland, Italy, Japan and the other nations that are helping in what the Democrats insist on calling the "go-it-alone" U.S. presence in Iraq. Kerry's stinging shot at the Saudi royal family will also not ease his self-described task of bringing allies to America's side if he wins.

In New York, when the Republicans gather in a month's time, the Iraqis and the coalition partners are not likely to be ignored. The danger there will be that they will be used as props and symbols for the wisdom and resoluteness of the president. That kind of attention would be as bad as neglect. Neither party should leave the people of Iraq behind in fighting this election.

jimhoagland@washpost.com