At a convention where the “No Bush Bashing” memo went out early and remained in circulation through three nights of frequently tepid speechifying, John Kerry ended things with an appropriately aggressive pummeling of the president.

Kerry did not engage in the empty bipartisanship that has too frequently been the dodge of Democratic politicians in the post-September 11th era. He delivered a speech that was as tough and partisan as it needed to be. And he did everything in his power to suggest that his would be a dramatically different administration from that of the White House’s current occupant.

At times, Kerry was painfully blunt about the failings of the current and former Presidents Bush, and their corruptions of the public trust. “I want an America that relies on its own ingenuity and innovation — not the Saudi royal family,” he said, in pointed reference to the Bush family’s dark and continual compromises of American security and values with the dictators of the Middle East.

In a litany of sincere complaint, Kerry contrasted his own candidacy’s promise with the broken promises of the Bush presidency. Addressing the administration’s trouble with truth, he turned a line from Bush’s 2000 campaign on the president, declaring that, “I will restore trust and credibility to the White House.”

Then he explained exactly what he meant:

“I will be a commander in chief who will never mislead us into war,” Kerry shouted. “I will have a Vice President who will not conduct secret meetings with polluters to rewrite our environmental laws. I will have a Secretary of Defense who will listen to the best advice of our military leaders. And I will appoint an Attorney General who actually upholds the Constitution of the United States.”

Kerry was, as always, better at condemning Bush’s management of the occupation of Iraq than he was at presenting a strategy for exiting the quagmire. But the candidate did have his Michael Moore moment, when he recalled the day of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, saying, “I am proud that after September 11th all our people rallied to President Bush’s call for unity to meet the danger. There were no Democrats. There were no Republicans. There were only Americans. How we wish it had stayed that way.

“Now I know there are those who criticize me for seeing complexities — and I do — because the issues just aren’t all that simple. Saying there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq doesn’t make it so. Saying we can fight a war on the cheap doesn’t make it so. And proclaiming mission accomplished certainly doesn’t make it so.

“As president, I will ask hard questions and demand hard evidence. I will immediately reform the intelligence system — so policy is guided by facts, and fact are never distorted by politics. And as president, I will bring this nation’s time-honored tradition; the United States of America never goes to war because we want to, we only go to war because we have to.”

There is a running joke that says Kerry’s campaign might well succeed with a two-word slogan: “Not Bush.” And much of the candidate’s acceptance speech seemed to adopt that theme.

Of course, the newly-minted Democratic nominee’s address offered a good deal more than Bush bashing. Kerry had his elegant moments, especially toward the close of the speech, when he announced that, “It is time to reach for the next dream. It is time to look to the next horizon. For America, the hope is here. The sun is rising. Our best days are still to come.”

But even as he flashed his poetic license, Kerry distinguished himself with Bush: “For four years, we’ve heard a lot of talk about values. But values spoken without actions taken are just slogans,” he declared. “Values are not just words. They’re what we live by. They’re about the causes we champion and the people we fight for. And it is time for those who talk about family values to start valuing families.”

It was on the subject of family values — or, at least, on the president’s warped proposals for protecting them — that Kerry subtlety referenced a subject that was rarely discussed from the podium of the convention: the president’s drive to amend the Constitution to bar same-sex marriages.

“I want to address these next words directly to President George W. Bush: In the weeks ahead, let’s be optimists, not just opponents. Let’s built unity in the American family, not angry division. Let’s honor the nation’s diversity; let’s respect one another; and let’s never misuse for political purposes the most precious document in American history, the Constitution of the United States.”

That was a subtle jab, to be sure — less Howard Dean than Jimmy Carter. But it was a jab all the same. And, like the other hits Kerry landed on Bush last night, it signaled that the nominee has decided to wage the combative campaign that Dean’s run for the nomination taught the party could be run and that Carter’s Monday night speech to the convention effectively called upon the party to wage.