For Better or Worse, Jim Leach Is No Zell Miller

The peak viewership 10:00 P.M. window opened with veteran Iowa Senator Tom Harkin addressing the convention in American Sign Language – a tribute to his late older brother Frank, whose deafness led to Tom Harkin’s emergence as one of Congress’ most outspoken champions of the disabled.

But Harkin’s main role was to introduce his fellow Iowan, former 15-term Republican Congressman Jim Leach, who lost his seat in perhaps the biggest upset of the ’06 cycle. Leach, who appeared without his customary sweater, was always one of the most liberal (or perhaps least conservative) congressional Republicans – he actually voted against the Iraq war in 2002 – and he endorsed Barack Obama earlier this year. 

The idea behind handing a primetime speaking slot to Leach makes perfect sense: Cross-party endorsements always carry more weight with swing voter. And certainly, he did no harm with his speech. But it didn’t help much either.

The problem has everything to do with Leach’s delivery, and nothing to do with his intelligence or intentions. By all measures, he is a politician of unusual thoughtfulness and conscientiousness. But these laudable attributes do not naturally lead to strong rhetorical skills. Instead, Leach held forth like a colorless college philosophy professor, speaking in a virtual monotone about The Rights of Man and the American progressive tradition. It is possible to make such high-minded themes accessible to the masses, but the learned Leach made no effort to connect. He didn’t have to worry about being interrupted by applause and he left the stage to polite applause, and nothing more. 

If Democrats hoped that Leach might be their own Zell Miller, they were sadly mistaken. Miller’s act at the 2004 G.OP. convention was the exact opposite of Leach’s – hot, fiery and naked in its appeal to raw emotion. Between the two, Leach easily delivered the more thoughtful and intelligent speech – but already it’s mostly been forgotten, while Miller’s still haunts the Democrats four years later.

Granted, Miller represents the extreme end of the spectrum when it comes to speech intensity. But Leach, as we just learned, represents the opposite extreme end. Maybe Obama and his team could have tried a little harder to convince Chuck Hagel to show up?

For Better or Worse, Jim Leach Is No Zell Miller