Kerry's on-again address

May 28, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - The air certainly went out fast from that trial balloon sent up by Sen. John Kerry's campaign suggesting he might not formally accept the Democratic nomination at the party's convention in Boston in late July.

Pressure from his hometown, home state and convention planners quickly caused Mr. Kerry to find new virtues in making his nomination speech as tradition demands in the convention hall. "Boston," as he put it, "is the place where America's freedom began, and it's where I want the journey to the Democratic nomination to be completed."

Pardon me for laughing at the whole business. Conventions, after all, have not really selected their nominees for more than half a century. The last time either party took more than one round of voting to choose its presidential standard-bearer was 52 years ago. Then, the Democrats took three ballots to give the job to Adlai E. Stevenson. For the Republicans, it was 56 years ago, when they nominated New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey on the third ballot.

In a few of the last 12 election cycles there were some tactical convention floor fights over this or that issue, but none prevented a first-ballot choice.

The Kerry campaign's rationale for holding off his formal acceptance was that it would have extended the period prior to his nomination during which federal campaign finance law permits raising and spending money. The law says that once a major-party candidate is nominated, it must stop and he must rely on the funds, about $75 million this year, Uncle Sam provides for the general election.

Because the Republican convention is not scheduled until five weeks after the Democratic event begins, that gap gives the Bush campaign the considerable additional period to raise more dough while the Kerry campaign is frozen. Hence the creative Democratic tinkering, now abandoned, to close the gap.

In fact, there are other, indirect ways to pump funds into the Kerry campaign, and delaying the acceptance speech would hardly have upset a pristine process, because the Kerry and Bush campaigns have already maneuvered around the campaign finance law in a major way.

Last winter, first President Bush and then Mr. Kerry turned down the federal subsidy for the pre-convention period, available to candidates who accept a lid on campaign spending, in favor of engaging in an unlimited competition for dollars.

Mr. Kerry did it to keep up with challenger Howard Dean, who thought he would be the Democratic nominee and by rejecting the subsidy could try to compete with Mr. Bush's fund raising. As a result, the whole concept of partial public financing to limit the influence of money was undermined, possibly forever.

The presidential nomination acceptance speech in the conventional hall may be a staple now, but it wasn't before the advent of the television age. For many years, before Franklin D. Roosevelt flew to Chicago in 1932 and pledged "a new deal for the American people," nominees customarily waited at home for a committee to go there and tell them of their selection.

If the Democrats really wanted to have an even playing field with the Bush campaign in terms of fund raising, they should have scheduled their national convention at the same time as the Republican event. But that would have required sharing the television spotlight with the other party, and that would not have done at all.

With Mr. Kerry backing off his threat of withholding his acceptance speech, life will be easier for Ted Koppel, the ABC Nightline impresario who in 1996 packed up his crew and quit the Republican convention in San Diego because he deemed it a no-news bore. This time around, Tom Brokaw of NBC threatened to skip the Boston show.

Mr. Kerry, in the meantime, has in his power the means to breathe a little more life into the Democratic convention. He can abandon his announced plan to name his running mate before the convention opens, a break in tradition that if followed would rob it of the one bit of real news left to announce in Boston.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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