Memo to George W. Bush and Al Gore:
Congratulations. Each of you in the next few weeks will give the single most important speech of your life. That, of course, will be when you accept the presidential nomination of your party. That last night of the convention, millions of Americans will listen to you for the first time, pay serious attention to you for the first time, and, in many cases, decide on the spot whether they could vote on Nov. 7 to put you in the Oval Office.
Your campaign wizards will use the conventions to tell us why you are such a strong and caring and funny son, spouse, brother, father, public servant, friend and leader who, as president, will "keep us prosperous" and "make us proud."
In short, by the time you speak, a lot of people will have already heard more good about you (or bad about your opponent) than they really wanted to or actually could believe.
Instead of telling us about the ouchless, painless paradise your election will create, begin by defining and listing the duties of American citizenship in the first election of the 21st Century. Tell us: What are the responsibilities we owe to our community, to our country and to each other?
What sacrifices -- for the common good, for the nation's well-being, even at our personal discomfort -- will you as president ask of all of us over the next four years? By what you publicly say about duty and sacrifice, you will be telling us more about yourself than all the campaign videos your Hollywood supporters can produce.
The leader who asks nothing of Americans is guilty of selling the nation he professes to love and the people he claims to admire very short indeed. Just as there is a lot more to life than striving and sweating to make money, so, too, is there a lot more to America than stocks or bonds or IPOs.
Patriotism is not to be confused with the waving of Old Glory. Imagine that marvelous preamble -- "to form a more perfect union, establish justice, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity" -- words which gave an infant nation its citizenship papers being written in today's era of self.
Would it read: "to form a more perfect individual, to establish and secure personal autonomy, promote privacy, and to secure the advantages of ever lower taxes and a zero capital gains tax?"
To put it bluntly, to listen to the rhetoric of this political year -- that is, of your campaigns -- is to conclude that to be an American in 2000 is all rights and no responsibilities. The sterile definition of citizenship according to the writer John Leo, who as usual put it best, goes like this: "You have no obligations except those you freely choose, no duties imposed from outside yourself."
Speeches do matter. As long as there is a United States, the nation's citizens will cherish the eloquence of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural, and its perfect line: "With malice toward none and with charity for all."
Great presidents -- Lincoln, Jefferson, both Roosevelts -- used eloquence as a weapon and a tool. As Clement Attlee once said of his political opponent Winston Churchill, "Words at great moments of history are deeds."
Obviously, neither of you is Churchill, and happily, the fate of the nation does not hang perilously in the balance. But each of you surely does want to be a great president. The convention acceptance speech is your last best chance to define your leadership by telling us what we can all do together to make ours a national community where the strong are just and the weak are secure.
Then tell us specifically what you will ask of each of us, and what you believe are the duties and obligations of every American citizen.