The Speech

When Barack Obama launched into his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he was still an obscure state senator from Illinois. By the time he finished 17 minutes later, he had captured the nation’s attention and opened the way for a run at the presidency. A behind-the-scenes look at the politicking, plotting, and preparation that went into Obama’s breakthrough moment

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A star is born: Obama soaks up the cheers moments after finishing his keynote address. “His public image changed because of that speech,” says Illinois senator Dick Durbin.
 

On Saturday, June 26, 2004, Barack Obama sat in a recording studio in Chicago to give his party’s response to President Bush’s weekly radio address. The speech offered the new Democratic Senate candidate from Illinois one of his first big moments on the national stage. In his remarks-written entirely by his longtime media adviser, David Axelrod, and by his chief press aide, Robert Gibbs-Obama criticized Bush on a litany of economic issues, from rising health-care costs and unfair tax policies to job outsourcing. The eloquent and well-argued talk hit all the right Democratic buttons. And the radio waves showcased Obama’s trademark baritone-deep in pitch, authoritative and reassuring in tone.

But Obama thought the address came off flat. Something was missing. “It was good, but it was nothing awe inspiring,” recalls Gibbs. “It was kind of obvious that he was recording the words of somebody else.”

So it was not exactly a surprise when, one week later-after John Kerry’s campaign manager, Mary Beth Cahill, called Obama and told him that he had been picked to deliver the Democratic National Convention’s keynote address-Obama gave his aides a firm directive: he would write the speech himself. “One thing that he was very clear about telling us,” says Gibbs, “-and I think it was largely out of that experience of the weekly radio address-was he wanted to write this speech and write it in a way that was personal.”

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The keynote speech that Barack Obama delivered on Tuesday, July 27, 2004, galvanized the delegates who packed Boston’s FleetCenter and electrified a nationwide television audience. The 2,297 words uttered over 17 minutes changed Obama’s profile overnight and made him a household name. Before the speech, the idea of Obama running for president in 2008 would have been laughable; he was a lowly state senator from Chicago’s Hyde Park, and while he stood a good chance at winning his U.S. Senate race, he would enter that powerful body ranked 99th out of 100 in seniority. After the speech, observers from across the political world hailed the address as an instant classic, and Obama was drawing comparisons (deservedly or not) to Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy.

None of this happened by chance. Obama’s selection as keynote speaker was carefully plotted by all sides for maximum effect, and the speech itself was no outpouring of inspiration scribbled on the back of an envelope. Obama labored over it for weeks, harvesting lines that he had already tested on Illinois crowds. He is said to have been furious when one of his best remarks was cut by Kerry’s speechwriters. And even after all the preparation, the editing and vetting by aides to Obama and Kerry, and the three run-throughs at the convention, the speech almost didn’t take flight-on the dais, Obama was slow to hit his stride. But once he got going, the speech-and his career-took off: “Without that Boston speech, there’s a question whether Barack would be running [for president] today,” says his fellow senator from Illinois, Dick Durbin. “His public image changed because of that speech.” Valerie Jarrett, a veteran Chicago politico and one of Obama’s longtime friends, puts it more succinctly: “It changed his life.”

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Though getting picked to give a major speech at a national political convention offers up-and-coming politicians a glorious launching pad, it’s an opportunity with a mixed history of payoffs. Franklin D. Roosevelt enhanced his ambitions with his rousing speeches nominating Alfred E. Smith in 1924 and 1928. In 1948, Hubert Humphrey stepped into the national spotlight with an impassioned platform speech on civil rights. More recently U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan, the first black woman to deliver a keynote address, wowed the nation in 1976 with a stirring speech that many historians say is one of the best in convention history.

But a rousing speech is not a ticket to later electoral success. New York Gov. Mario Cuomo’s presidential aspirations flopped, despite his widely praised 1984 stem-winder “A Tale of Two Cities.” In 2000, four years before Obama’s speech, another promising African American Democrat, Rep. Harold Ford of Tennessee, gave a well-received keynote. He lost his race for the Senate last November. And, of course, even a convention speech that bombs doesn’t necessarily throw a candidate off track. Bill Clinton’s rambling, 32-minute introduction of Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1988 earned its loudest applause when he uttered “in conclusion.”

All of the above examples involve Democrats, and, for whatever reasons, Democrats over the years seem more likely to have delivered memorable (both good and bad) convention speeches. Indeed, when 137 leading communications scholars were asked in 1999 to name the top 100 speeches of the past century, their list included 13 convention speeches, 11 of which were delivered at Democratic conventions (www.news.wisc.edu/misc/speeches).

Obama’s people were no doubt pleased when Kerry invited their man to give the keynote, but the honor comes with the sort of baggage familiar to the Cubs: no Democratic keynoter of the past century has made it all the way to the presidency.

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