Deconstructing Zell Miller (and Reconstructing Kerry)

Jay Michaelson

Zell Miller's fiery speech at the Republican National Convention stood in sharp contrast to the banal milquetoast of the Democrats' watery odes to patriotism and John Kerry. What made Miller's speech so gripping and the Democrats' so boring? In large part, it was the success of Karl Rove's "Angry Liberals" meme. Rove and his nationwide minions (not least the amen corner at Fox News) claimed, in advance of the Democratic convention, that the Republicans would win by painting their opposition to be a bunch of angry, raving fanatics - linking John Kerry to that anarchist kid with the grungy hair and radical poster. The Democrats, cowed, refrained from attacking Bush at their convention, and instead produced a bounce-less, inspiration-less Mr. Rogers episode.

Rove won. Dirty, attack politics work - who could have imagined that 30% of Americans would doubt the military service of John Kerry, a decorated war hero, but not that of George W. Bush, an AWOL draft-dodger? Rove's preemptive strike managed to mute the Democrats' most effective voices, precisely when they could have scored the most points against a weak incumbent candidate. Now, Kerry's campaign, having recently recruited some Clinton veterans, is back on the offensive, hammering home negative messages on the economy, Iraq, and Bush's character. Only time will tell if it's too little, too late. But the semiotics of attack politics are more essential now than ever. How is a good attack speech crafted? What groundwork must be laid for an attack to be successful?

I have spent some time working with the Miller speech. It is a brilliant work of rhetoric, and rings with the authenticity and American rootedness that, on the left, only Bill Clinton and Barack Obama seem capable of generating. That is what is needed in a good attack: a firm foundation, a connection to deep, American values. As I have written before in Zeek, this is an election largely about fear, and fear craves boundaries, values, and bedrock.

Below is a two-part investigation into 2004's campaign rhetoric. I begin with a detailed analysis of the Miller speech, focusing on its major themes and subthemes, and then move on to apply some of that analysis to hypothetical speeches by candidate Kerry. There are simple reasons why Miller's speech worked, and simple ways to apply those lessons - if we dare.

One personal note: As I have been volunteering my time in the political arena these past few months, writing the Jewish Critique of Bushism column on Jewsweek, working with Lawyers for Kerry, and appearing on talk shows and panels, I have become thoroughly degraded by this political discourse. As Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi likes to say, the brain is like tofu; it takes on the flavor of what it marinates in. And marinating in attack politics, skillful crafting of messages for uninformed voters, and the mire of competing value structures - it's tiring. Now, I can take care of myself. But what I worry about are the politicians who live this way all the time. Campaigning is always ugly, and I'm not one of those who thinks 2004 is any dirtier than, say, 1884, in which "Ma, ma, where's my pa?" was a leading Republican slogan/canard used against Grover Cleveland. (That campaign was an early antecedent of today's "family values" rhetoric; the Republicans ran on a platform of "Home Protection" against the philandering Cleveland. Of course, the Democrats were no more virtuous; their 1864 attack slogan was the creative "Grant the Drunkard.") Yet as we are increasingly unmoored from value systems which either promote compassion, or, failing that, curb venality and greed, one wonders about the long-term costs of this kind of rhetoric. In the meantime, though, there's an election to win.

1. Text of speech by Democratic Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia as prepared for delivery at the Republican National Convention:

Since I last stood in this spot, a whole new generation of the Miller Family has been born: Four great grandchildren. Along with all the other members of our close-knit family, they are my and Shirley's most precious possessions. And I know that's how you feel about your family also. Like you, I think of their future, the promises and the perils they will face. Like you, I believe that the next four years will determine what kind of world they will grow up in. And like you, I ask which leader is it today that has the vision, the willpower and, yes, the backbone to best protect my family?

Right from the beginning, the core themes are clear: I am real America. John Kerry is a cosmopolitan, elite, flip-flopping, double-talking, liberal from Massachusetts. He has spent so long in elite schools he's forgotten what real values are. But I am real: I have four great-grandchildren. Notice the construction of "real" - this is not the family situation of the majority of Americans, but it is our norm, reinforced by media and political rhetoric.

And, immediately, Miller begins to weave the second great theme of the speech: fear. My family is in danger ("protect my family"). As Michael Moore recently told a friend of mine, "Bush's message is clear: you'll die if you vote for the other guy. What is Kerry's message?"

And notice that without saying a negative word, Miller has already put the main themes in motion, which are extremely negative themes. Yet they are so artfully developed that one does not even notice them at first.

The great Republican strategy is to craft lies so large that they cannot be attacked. Relentlessly campaign about fear while speaking about hope. Relentlessly paint the other side as elitist, while showering benefits on the richest elite. These are sound-bite-proof strategies; the only way to see them is to analyze and parse. Hardly what most Americans have time for - especially those who, as this brilliant and disturbing Seymour Hersh article discusses in great detail, choose their presidents based on style and appearance. From the very first paragraph, the binary opposition that will color the rest of the speech is clear. We are about family, rootedness, and security. They are about weird, liberal airy stuff that isn't American and is aligned with insecurity, deviance, homosexuality, and 'cosmopolitanism.' More on that below.

The clear answer to that question has placed me in this hall with you tonight. For my family is more important than my party. There is but one man to whom I am willing to entrust their future and that man's name is George Bush.

In the summer of 1940, I was an 8-year-old boy living in a remote little Appalachian valley. Our country was not yet at war, but even we children knew that there were some crazy men across the ocean who would kill us if they could.

The first major sub-theme now emerges: security over politics. Having set out the basic premise - your family is in danger, and we need a real man to lead us - Miller now begins to develop its specificity. What Miller does so brilliantly in this speech (obviously, I assume it was written by a speechwriter, not by Miller himself) is to elide all questions regarding the war in Iraq, and without ever saying so overtly, assume that any opposition to that war is symptomatic of blindness ("even we children knew...").

This is a common Republican theme: Democrats are just blind, or naive. I receive a lot of hatemail in response to my "Jewish Critique of Bushism." article, a large proportion of which accuses me of naivete. Don't I see, these writers ask, that there is evil in the world and we have to fight it?

This is the same move Miller makes in his speech: there is evil, and we have to fight it. But notice that this move only works because of the initial foundation, which is reminding us how terrified we are. When I am scared, I can be convinced that a spider or a mouse is evil and threatening; how much more so in the case of real fear, real death, and real enemies? Of course, Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 or Al Qaeda. Of course, spending billions of dollars and thousands of lives in Iraq strengthens our true enemies, because it diverts our resources and attention. But none of these points matter when the audience is terrified of anthrax in the mail.

In fact, to dicker about little points, such as "Saddam is not Osama" is itself part of the namby-pamby, East coast liberalism that John Kerry is supposed to represent. "You're busy counting angels on pinheads, but my child is in danger!" In Miller's (and Bush's) discourse, discussion itself is part of the problem. Who better to lead this country than a man of little words and lots of action?

Even a child knows that.

Actually, only a child knows that. Adults should know better.

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Image: Zell Miller with Billy Graham, 1995 (from

October 2004

Empowering Jewish Progressives
Leah Koenig

Deconstructing Zell Miller (and Reconstructing Kerry)
Jay Michaelson

A Demonstration in Words
Hila Ratzabi

Where Left and Right Collide
a debate
moderated by
Dan Friedman

Art at War
Bara Sapir

Jews and Bush
An Online Resource Guide

Belly of the Beast
Cullen Goldblatt

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From previous issues:

Mourning in America
Samuel Hayim Brody

The Red-Green Alliance
Dave Hyde

Some things have changed, some have stayed the same
Jay Michaelson