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The Conventions' Version Of Reality TV

They've been all over the political conventions this year — not just politicians, but "real people."

Both Republicans and Democrats have featured lots of average, non-office-seeking Americans who have offered up stories about how their children are serving in the U.S. military, or how they built up their own businesses through personal grit.

Politicians have long shared stories about individual Americans who have struggled and/or triumphed. Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts closed out his 1980 convention speech with tales he'd heard along the campaign trail from grandmothers and young workers and farm families.

"I have listened to Kenny Dubois, a glass blower in Charleston, W.Va., who has 10 children to support but has lost his job after 35 years, just three years short of qualifying for his pension," Kennedy said.

"But using live real people? That's new," says Robert Lehrman, a former chief speechwriter to Vice President Al Gore.

Using real people helps "validate" political claims, Lehrman says. And, thanks to YouTube and Twitter, stories from average people that are moving can have a resonance far away from the convention hall.

"If Ted Kennedy had all those tools, he would have brought Kenny Dubois onstage, too," says Lehrman, author of The Political Speechwriter's Companion.

Because speeches delivered by ordinary people tend to be about uplift, they're necessarily less negative than much of what passes out of the mouths of politicians, says Chriss Winston, who was a speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush.

"Certainly the most moving to me at the Republican convention were the two families who were members of Gov. [Mitt] Romney's church, who talked about his caring and concern and the time he spent with them," Winston says. "They countered the image the other side has tried to create, that he's an uncaring, job-destroying, greedy monster."

And yesterday in Charlotte, N.C., an Arizona woman named Stacey Lihn stood onstage with members of her family and told of how her daughter, who was born with a congenital heart defect, received treatment thanks to Obama's health care law.

Testimonials from satisfied customers are nothing new, adds Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California, Berkeley. He points to an ad, printed all the way back in 1710, quoting one Hannah Pawlyn rhapsodizing about how a certain elixir brought "immediate Relief" to her daughter, who had been suffering from "a Complication of Distempers, and such a Giddiness in her Head."

"What's different now," Nunberg says, "is partly the increasing importance of having a 'personal' sense of the candidates, a feeling that can't be adequately conveyed by a politician's speech."

Of course, politicians do strive mightily to convey an authentic sense of their own selves. Convention season, in particular, seems to bring out in politicians a need to pay tribute to the struggles of their parents and grandparents — that is, if they don't have any hard-luck stories of their own to draw on.

This tendency was skewered in a tweet Tuesday from James Pethokoukis, money and politics blogger for the American Enterprise Institute.

He wrote: "I have student loans, my mom cleaned floors, my grandparents were foreign born — do I get to be president now?"

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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