The American Dream as Depicted in Robert J. Dole's 1996 Presidential Nomination Acceptance Speech

Article excerpt

On the night of August 15, 1996; as he accepted his party's nomination for President of the United States, Robert Dole took an expansive view of the impending election. "My friends," he said, "a presidential campaign is more than a contest of candidates. It is a measurement of who we are, where we come from, and where we are going."(1) By saying this, Dole tacitly assumed a burden every major party candidate for president has shouldered since television arrived to carry his words to a mass audience. Stated most succinctly, each nominee has been expected to articulate a captivating vision of the nation's past and destiny. Every Democratic and Republican candidate since 1960 has included in his acceptance speech an allusion to such a vision.(2)

The rhetorical challenge facing the newly nominated candidate is formidable; as the party's standard bearer, he must represent and, in conjunction with the recently adopted platform, define the latest manifestation of the party's ideology. Secondly, he must rally the party faithful--the delegates in the convention hall and the partisans watching at home--and enlist their support for the campaign ahead. Finally, and most urgently, the nominee is compelled to gain the support of independent voters and targeted groups, with a view toward building a winning coalition in November.(3) Given the daunting complexity of the task, it might appear that no single concept or image could suffice as a thematic basis for the vision to be proffered by the acceptance speaker. In fact, such a theme does exist, and practically every political rhetor has recourse to it at one time or another. This ubiquitous idea is the enduring myth of the American Dream.

The purpose of this article is to examine the latest expression of this potent and pervasive symbol of national identity. With Dole's Sail Diego speech as a focus, I shall attempt to discover the shape and character of the American Dream as it appears in the folklore of the modern Republican party. My goal is to shed light on the ideology of both major political parties in the United States, while charting the evolution of a significant rhetorical genre, the nomination acceptance address. As a working hypothesis to be tested by this study, I suggest that the mythology of the American Dream still retains its efficacy as a motivational force in the political dialogue of the nation.

The American Dream as a Force in National Consciousness

"America has been a land of dreams," writes Daniel J. Boorstin. "A land where the aspirations of people from countries cluttered with rich, cumbersome, aristocratic, ideological pasts can reach for what once seemed unattainable. Here they have tried to make dreams come true."(4) These aspirations spoken of by Boorstin converge on a national scale to form the simple conviction that it is possible, by working hard in America, for anyone to build a good life. The assumptions underlying this credo have been subjected to thorough analysis and exhaustive critique by political theorists, sociologists, journalists, interpreters of popular culture, and historians representing a wide range of specializations.(5) The function of this article does not entail a comprehensive review of these writings and their conclusions. It is sufficient to posit that the American Dream is not a propaganda device created by political persuaders; it has been, from the inception of the American republic, "the centerpiece of a national ideology about which Americans share a large degree of consensus."(6) Flowing from this consensus is the proposition that society will prosper to the degree that individual citizens are left free to pursue their own private dreams. The institutions of governance spawned by this ideology include provisions for freedom of speech, personal and civil rights, a free market economy, and the rule of law.(7)

Although simplistic interpretations of the American Dream have sometimes reduced it to an urge to make money and live a comfortable life, a larger vision has always been at work. …