Something I’ll give Carter credit for is that he walks through the crowd rather than from behind the stage to get to the speaking platform which in my opinion emphasizes that “man of the people” air he fostered so well. To be fair, for the videos of other speeches that begin as the candidate starts speaking it’s hard to tell if Carter pioneered this approach or not. Unfortunately, it’s just about all downhill from there either way.
“My name is Jimmy Carter and I’m running for President” I guess this was kind of Carter’s way of accentuating his plain-spoken/non-politician status. It’s cute. But right away you’ll see the problem with Carter’s oration—he’s very quiet and plain-spoken. It’s very charming in something like a Farewell Speech as I’ve laid out, or a fireside chat like the “Crisis of Confidence” speech, where he was addressing us as himself, with humility. Unfortunately, for the Inaugural and Convention speeches, the format requires a lot more energy and gravitas to pull off effectively. Carter, unfortunately, just doesn’t possess those qualities. In fact, he began the string of three terrible orators becoming the standard bearers for the Democratic Party; compare Carter, Mondale and Dukakis to JFK through McGovern (minus Humphrey) on one side and Bill Clinton or Obama on the other. There’s an undeniable dip in quality, at least as far as speaking ability goes.
Similar to Humphrey’s speech, Carter goes through the list of Democratic nominees up through this point, beginning with the spiritual re-founder, FDR. He notably skips over Humphrey and McGovern, however. I guess it’s because they lost but it still strikes me as unnecessary–and Humphrey’s defeat was by one of the closest margins in history. Similar to Dukakis, notice the repetitious sentence structure here, how many sentences begin with “our party.”
While it may be honorable, I thought this one moment weakened his position: Carter goes into the Party’s recent shortcomings including the war for a few minutes. While it’s maybe the honest thing to do, I think it would have been more effective for him if he had instead played up the Party’s reactions towards the turbulent times. He might have done well to point out how, right after a candidate had stepped up the war in Vietnam, the party is so diverse that it immediately followed up with several anti-war candidates. Or mention the recent changes to the primary process to make the people more included in selecting the candidate they wanted. I realize that McGovern’s name (incidentally connected with both these innovations) was probably political poison at this time due to the catastrophic loss. But Carter could have just not said the name yet played these qualities up anyway. It would paint the party as resilient and willing to change, rather than flawed and somewhat incompetent as Carter chose to portray them instead. Also it would play better with the diversity of the party which he was just emphasizing earlier in the speech. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the pans across the audience around this time look pretty bored.
It’s interesting how Carter, unlike any nominee before him, speaks in terms of the haves and have-nots: what we might today call the 1% and the rest of us. No other Presidential nominee in the 20th Century has been so willfully divisive of class. It’s very refreshing to be sure—not even McGovern, the supposed ultra-liberal spoke in such a way. In fact, to my knowledge you wouldn’t see rhetoric like this again until Jesse Jackson, Ralph Nader and eventually Bernie Sanders. And, again, never from an actual nominee.
There’s a humorous little mistake which comes around 23:30~24 minutes in, where Carter says education twice in a row. It’s a harmless brain-fart that could happen to anybody but still pretty funny.
Once again, we’re promised a reform of the tax system which never seems to come. Carter even specifically points out how this is always mentioned but never actually comes to pass…and it didn’t come to pass under him either. Neither did the universal voter registration or healthcare system he promised. Then from there, we transition into a very long and tedious section where Carter goes from talking about the values of the President, the danger of nuclear weapons, and equality abroad. This is where, if I’m being honest, I start to zone out. The problem is, Carter doesn’t know how to accentuate an applause line. Instead of raising his voice, he trails off with his sentences. It undercuts the power the words might otherwise have carried. It keeps any sense of momentum or connection with the audience from building up to a proper climax. So this already very lengthy address, feels twice as long as it actually is.
This is the first time I’ve ever seen Bob Dylan, or indeed any rock/folk music star, quoted in a major speech. It’s kinda cool, especially because it’s played completely straight. Rather than use it to try to sound cool or hip with the trends (see: Hillary and Pokemon Go), Carter quotes Dylan as naturally as if he were quoting Washington. I appreciate this trend and would like to have seen more of it in the ensuing decades. Just because someone isn’t a president doesn’t mean they weren’t eloquent or important. With how disingenuous politicians can often be, sometimes the most honest and thoughtful quotes about the state of society come from outsiders.
Final note, this one ends with perhaps the most resigned and anti-climactic finish to a Convention speech I can recall, at least as far as the Democrats are concerned. It’s actually not terribly written, at least in most regards. If delivered by Bill Clinton, JFK, Obama or McGovern I could see these same words lighting the house on fire. Carter’s just a very quiet and unexciting orator. I will say in his defense, this was at least more visionary than Mondale or Dukakis ceding ground, sucking up to Republicans. And unlike Humphrey, at least Carter was actually saying something, rather than just spinning poetics and pretending to be the next Shakespeare.