Part of being a writer is creating work no one will ever read. I've written columns that editors scrapped, sitcom scripts that never got shot and articles that ran in Playboy. But of all the stuff that no one reads, the one thing I've always longed to write is a party platform. Every four years, each political party presents its platform--a nonbinding list of the positions the party is taking on the most important issues--at the convention. If I wrote one, it would greatly diversify my rsum, which is a little heavy on columns full of penis jokes and light on historical documents.
For advice, I called Elaine Kamarck, a public-policy lecturer at Harvard who ran the initiative to reinvent government under President Clinton, was senior policy adviser to the Gore campaign, wrote the Democratic platform in 1980 and crafted much of the policy in the 1996 and 2000 platforms. Her first piece of advice was precisely what I was hoping she wouldn't say: Read one. So I read the 2008 Democratic platform, which was 57 pages long and took me 757 pages to read.
But the platform, I learned, is supposed to be boring. It's one of the few documents that people write hoping no one reads them. That's because the extreme wing of the party is likely to shove something in that the candidate won't want to say to normal Americans, like liberals' advocating beating up rich people and taking their money. To resolve this dilemma, the platform writer inserts a boring phrase like "Restore fairness to the tax code."
Even worse, Kamarck told me that no one person writes the platform. Instead, a subcommittee of 15 people picked by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) writes an initial draft. About 100 people meet in Detroit to work on it further, and then a full committee votes on each proposal. "The process junks up your beautiful writing," Kamarck said. "You'll have two paragraphs of beautiful prose and a very clunky sentence about Mexico trucking written by the Teamsters." I was excited to finally be able to blame my clunky writing on the Teamsters.
Kamarck was clear about the fact that the DNC wouldn't accept my platform, but we writers are used to discouragement. I just needed to write a really, really good one. I pressed Kamarck for some tips. "The platform is composed of three things," she said. "One is brag, brag, brag, brag, brag about all the great things the President has done. The second part is all the great things the President will do in his next term. The third part is oldies but goodies. 'Repeal Taft-Hartley' has been in many platforms since Taft-Hartley was enacted in 1947." I should also work in abortion rights and lots of prounion stuff. All of which, she said, should be written in a tone so ludicrously lofty, it could be used by Bob Costas during the Olympics.
I spent three hours writing the platform, which seemed like plenty since I spend only four on these columns. Then I sent my seven-page draft to Kamarck. "Mostly you have the tone right," she wrote me in an e-mail. "The actual document will probably be a bit drier." This was disappointing since I spent two of those three hours drying my prose.