Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Dream

Speech By: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King
Date: August 28, 1963
Location: Lincoln Memorial
Occasion: March on Washington

For those who can remember the excitement this speech wrought, it hardly seems fifty years. But measured across the changes it brought, it might better be measured in light years.

In a sense, it turned our nation in the direction of becoming the people we had always professed to be. But America was already headed in the direction the March on Washington wanted it to go anyway.

For all of the very real horror and terror and dehumanizing abuse African Americans had suffered, since signing of the Emancipation Proclamation a century earlier, change was coming. And the speech itself made that clear. The demand for equal rights was a process gaining steam. It was a demand made – not only by those who were denied that equality, but by those who were not denied but stood shoulder to shoulder with them – the crowd at the March on Washington was biracial.

What this speech did was accelerate the process. How? Like every great speech - by finding an audience beyond that of the people to whom it was first delivered.

Using as a backdrop, the carved marble visage of the man who had signed the Proclamation which began that achingly slow process, King stood before a crowd estimated at 250,000. Few speakers ever get to address such crowds.

After a brief introductory sentence, King begins with an homage to the most famous speech of the man in whose stone shadow he stood – “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

He then goes on, while giving credit to the founders and the system of promise they created, but at the same time labels it a promise unfulfilled. Slavery may have been abolished a century earlier, but segregation is the new slavery: “One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.

And, while he warns those who would perpetuate this modern slavery that their time for being called to account is at hand, he issues equal warning to those who would engage in excess in response: “In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.

That philosophy, along with the philosophy of nonviolence, is key to the success of the man who preached them, and the ultimate success of his movement.

About halfway through the speech, King issues his call to action: “Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

This is unusual – normally, the call to action is one of the last elements of a speech, or even the final passage of it. There is a reason. He is about to take a decent speech, and by ad-libbing, make it historic.

I have a dream” – is not in the text of the speech originally distributed to reporters covering the event. King added it as he stood there. And he employed that phrase in one of the classic oratorical devices – repetition. He uses it eight times.
But the classic lines are these: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

The speech would immediately become known by this bit of improvisation.

Could he have dreamed that less than half a century later, the Oval Office would be occupied by a man of his own race? Or that President Obama would render this verdict on the movement that King led? “Because they marched, America became more fair. America changed for you and me, and the entire world grew strength from that example.

We can only dream he did.

Length (words): 1652

From The Bully Pulpit – Tom

Friday, August 31, 2012

I Accept This Nomination

Speech By: Mitt Romney
Date: August 30, 2012
Location: Tampa, Florida
Occasion: Republican National Convention
Most people who will vote in the upcoming election know who Mitt Romney is by now, but it’s likely they have only seen him speak in the sound bites that make it on the evening news, or, if they followed the primary debates. This is likely the first time most Americans have had a chance to see him speak at length, by himself.

This was Romney’s first opportunity to show Americans if he had that quality which is best described as “looking Presidential.” Can we, as a people, imagine this man speaking from behind that desk in the Oval office, or before a joint session of Congress? Whether you agree with his policies or share his view of the future is not the question – can you imagine him addressing the nation or the world from the seat of power, is.

In that task, he did not disappoint.

The other task he faced was to use this platform to propel his campaign forward to victory. Polls all summer have shown the same thing. President Obama consistently gets between 46 and 47%, while Romney is a point or two down. That is very dangerous territory for a President seeking re-election.

For those unskilled in the art of reading political polls, this does not mean Obama is in the lead. The public knows him, and more than half do not particularly like how he has handled his time in office. They simply have not decided if they should give the office to a man they do not yet know – Romney.

Romney’s goal, in this speech, and the rest of the campaign, is to convince those undecided about his candidacy, to place their trust in him. Whether he succeeds or not won’t be known until Election Day. But he made no missteps in this speech.

Every challenger is less well-known than the incumbent. Romney’s task in this, his first major national appearance, was to introduce himself. This was even more important than tackling the issues. We all know what the issues are – they are why Obama can’t get to 50% in the polls. But Obama has a likability factor that Romney does not. Romney’s most important task in this speech was to make himself likable.

That’s why he spent more of his speech talking about family than about issues.

He spoke first about American optimism. It’s a good way to establish that vital shared identity which is essential to a good speech. It’s also a thinly-veiled reference to one of the criticisms of Obama’s world view – that he does not recognize American exceptionalism.

Then Romney spoke about what the poor economy means to American families. It’s another good way to create shared identity. It’s also a way to dismiss the Obama campaign’s attempts to define him as being so wealthy he’s out of touch with the American public.

From there, he transitions to talking about his own family. This is where he is going to let the country know who he is, what his values are. And he does that by talking about where his values come from – Mom and Dad.

A particularly poignant moment was this:Mom and Dad were married 64 years. And if you wondered what their secret was, you could have asked the local florist – because every day Dad gave Mom a rose, which he put on her bedside table. That's how she found out what happened on the day my father died – she went looking for him because that morning, there was no rose.” At this moment, audible sighs can be heard from the audience – and they come almost entirely from women. He has touched their hearts.

For a candidate who polls say has trouble reaching women, this is the speechmaking equivalent of a Grand-slam Home Run!

He does get on to issues later in the speech – once we have learned who this man is and how he and Ann raised their own five boys.

He gets to the issues portion with this: But tonight I'd ask a simple question: If you felt that excitement when you voted for Barack Obama, shouldn't you feel that way now that he's President Obama? You know there's something wrong with the kind of job he's done as president when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him.”

It’s a twist on Ronald Reagan’s famous phrase regarding Jimmy Carter’s Presidency – “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Notably, Reagan was in a similar situation to Romney at the time – people knew they weren’t happy with the incumbent, but they had serious doubts about the challenger.

And Romney also dispenses with some of the President’s campaign tactics against him: “And yet the centerpiece of the President's entire re-election campaign is attacking success. Is it any wonder that someone who attacks success has led the worst economic recovery since the Great Depression?”

Expect to hear more of that during the campaign.

While a speech like this is really targeted at the audience outside the arena, he still does a good job of involving the people in the room.

He uses the old rhetorical device of asking questions – to which they enthusiastically respond:
“Does the America we want borrow a trillion dollars from China? No.
Does it fail to find the jobs that are needed for 23 million people and for half the kids graduating from college? No.
Are its schools lagging behind the rest of the developed world? No.
And does the America we want succumb to resentment and division?” Ironically, in the prepared transcript given to the press, the last answer was supposed to be: “We know the answer.” He never got to say that last part, because the audience had already shouted an enthusiastic “No!”

With the audience involvement building, he ends with a pledge – and a call to action:
“If I am elected President of these United States, I will work with all my energy and soul to restore that America, to lift our eyes to a better future. That future is our destiny. That future is out there. It is waiting for us. Our children deserve it, our nation depends upon it, the peace and freedom of the world require it. And with your help we will deliver it. Let us begin that future together tonight.”

This speech didn’t win the election, but it’s an important stepping stone on the path to a victory.

Length (words): 4,096
Text Posted: NPR
Video Posted: CNN

From The Bully Pulpit - Tom

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Speech By: Marion Roach Smith
Date: 2002
Occasion: Commencement
Let’s begin with full disclosure – Marion Roach Smith is a friend, and writing instructor. She teaches an excellent writing class here in the capitol region, and, whether you are looking to develop, or just hone your writing skills, I highly recommend it.

That said – let’s take a look at 15 Rules for Us Girls to Live By.

One of the difficult tasks in delivering a commencement address is the opening. While it is the speaker’s assigned mission to offer insight and words of wisdom to the audience, from the speaker’s own perspective, “I” is a terrible way to start a speech. Yet people are there to listen to what “You” have to say.

Marion handles this dilemma quite nicely. “Why would I be asked to speak at a school commencement, my daughter wanted to know?” It’s a great start, because it’s a little self-deprecating, it’s a question asked by someone else, and, it’s even a great way to let the audience know she has a daughter. That last point means she has created instant identification with the two main elements of the audience – the parents, who are obviously also the parents of daughters, and those daughters themselves.

Then she proceeds to focus attention directly on the new graduates by offering her 15 rules.

First is: “Never be without at least one pair of red shoes. There are few situations in life that cannot be improved by them.” All right, I have to confess – I’m not really a “red shoes” kind of guy. Although I do have a pair of white bucks, which, worn with the blue seersucker suit on a bright summer day, makes people notice. In a good way. So I kind of get this.

Next is: “Don’t read the Cliff Notes. Read the book.” Face it, this is not a rule for “Us Girls,” it’s a rule for everybody. I already knew what evolution was, and how it worked, when I read Darwin’s Origin of Species. But reading the book, and understanding how he arrived at his conclusions, made Darwin’s theory available in a new way. I hope by now, eight years later, those in Marion’s audience are able to cite their own examples.

Next we get to: “Wear lipstick. All right, we have now reached a point in the speech that far exceeds by limited ability to fathom. I don’t get lipstick. I don’t just mean on me – I don’t even get why women wear it! So, to make it a “rule to live by,” simply is beyond my comprehension.

Marion goes on to explain: “It feels great, and it’s fun, and all too often we depend on other people to make us feel good and show us a good time. Get yourself some lipstick, and every time you apply it, remember that this is one of your rules of life: to show yourself a good time, in your shade, on your terms.


In case you hadn’t figured it out yet, I’m a real guy, and particularly fond of the girl-next-door look to boot. This explanation still hasn’t helped much.

The nearest I can figure is that wearing lipstick for a woman is like throwing a ball for a man. There’s nothing like picking up a ball at a picnic or on a playground, and throwing a nice tight spiral. It’s even better if you can snap off a throw with zip, maybe enough to get that nasty little hum which warns the guy about to catch it that his hands are going to burn when he does. Then the guy at the receiving end picks it back up and tries to throw it back exactly the same way. Perhaps it’s like that.

I don’t know.

So why am I focusing so much attention on one out of fifteen rules, particularly one I admittedly don’t understand? Here’s the thing – I don’t need to know. It’s not intended for me, or anyone like me. It was meant to be heard, and understood, by the girls of the Albany Academy. Marion has not only connected with those girls in a way they can personally identify – but in a way that even has the power to exclude some of those listeners for whom the speech is not intended! What wonderful shared identification!

There are a dozen more rules, many of which apply to everyone, some of which – not so much. But I bet Marion had their attention for every one of them!

From The Bully Pulpit - Tom

Monday, February 7, 2011

Tear Down This Wall - Back Story

How does a Presidential speech get written? As I’ve mentioned here, or here, a Presidential speech is almost never a case of one writer, no matter how talented, sitting down at a desk and whipping up some stirring rhetoric. It almost always involves input from various departments of a very large government.

Each of those has specific, and to their mind at least, quite convincing arguments about why the President should say what they want the President to say. Most often, they get their way.

In fact, it’s a wonder a President ever has anything to say that’s even worth listening to.

Today I ran across a fascinating blog post by Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, who was one of President Reagan’s speech writers for his “Tear Down This Wall” speech.

He describes the strategy the President’s speech writers employed to get the speech past powerful figures like Secretary of State George Schultz, and General Colin Powell. Rohrabacher and his colleagues knew that the phrase “Tear down this wall,” would be problematic for the senior advisors who normally have enough influence to get things taken from a speech.

By getting their draft into the President’s hands before it could be watered down by his advisors, the speech writers managed to create something powerful, and memorable.

Today, the line they had to fight so hard to preserve, is what is most memorable about that speech.
Just imagine if Reagan had gone to Berlin and merely said “we think this wall is a really bad idea,” rather than hurl his unmistakable challenge to Gorbachev, with the whole world watching.

Bonn might still be the Capitol of a nation known as West Germany!

From The Bully Pulpit - Tom

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Tear Down This Wall

Speech By: President Ronald Reagan
Date: June 12, 1987
Location: Brandenburg Gate
Occasion: Speech to West Berlin
This marks the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth. In honor of that occasion, we look to one of his greatest speeches – to the people of West Berlin, in front of the Berlin Wall.

It is likely a difficult thing to imagine, for those of us who truly remember what the Berlin Wall represented – but there are people old enough to walk into a bar and buy a drink today, who had not yet been born while that wall still stood. Today, there is no such thing as an East or West Berlin. It is one city.

President Reagan’s policies largely brought that about, and this speech is emblematic of those policies.

The wall was a stark gulf between the ideals of freedom, and the forces which sought to impose “the will of a totalitarian state.

He begins by recognizing that President Kennedy and two other Presidents since, have come to this divided city to speak, and that this is his second trip. It is repeating to Berlin, and the world, the old American adage – partisanship ends at the water’s edge.

There is also some danger in this – President Kennedy’s speech, featuring the famous line “Ich bin ein Berliner,” was one of the most famous foreign policy speeches in American history. The danger for Reagan was that his own speech, at a moment of great import, would pale by comparison. He proves equal to the task.

We come to Berlin, we American presidents, because it's our duty to speak, in this place, of freedom.” More than just the states are united in the U.S.! He ends this paragraph with a phrase in German: “You see, like so many presidents before me, I come here today because wherever I go, whatever I do: Ich hab noch einen Koffer in Berlin. [I still have a suitcase in Berlin.]

It may be a take off on Kennedy’s Berlin speech, using a German phrase, but it is also a perfect way to establish that all important audience identification. We stand in common, it says to the crowd. He uses the same technique in the very next paragraph: “I join you, as I join your fellow countrymen in the West, in this firm, this unalterable belief: Es gibt nur ein Berlin. [There is only one Berlin.]” He will do it once again a little later.

Next he talks about the wall itself, and the network of barriers that divide Germany: “those barriers cut across Germany in a gash of barbed wire, concrete, dog runs, and guard towers.” What wonderfully stark imagery this is! A “gash,” an open wound, composed not of torn flesh, but of “barbed wire, concrete, dog runs, and guard towers.” We can not help but consider that blood has flowed across these barriers just the same.

Then he brings that image to the place where he stands at that very moment: “Standing before the Brandenburg Gate, every man is a German, separated from his fellow men. Every man is a Berliner, forced to look upon a scar.

After this stark reminder, he turns to hope for the future: “Yet I do not come here to lament. For I find in Berlin a message of hope, even in the shadow of this wall, a message of triumph.

He refers to the reforms that have been taking place, in a Soviet Union which is beginning to realize it can no longer sustain this conflict with the West: “And now the Soviets themselves may, in a limited way, be coming to understand the importance of freedom.

Then, just about half way into the speech, he comes to the galvanizing line that etches it into the mind: “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

Tear down this wall!” It is a challenge to action like few others that have ever been issued. It is the most powerful man in the world, telling the man who wields power almost its equal, “This is what you must do!” If your policy of Glasnost really means anything, you must close this gash in the earth, heal this wound. It is the way a President says: “Put up, or shut up.” Show us you mean it.

Much is said after this line, but it really doesn’t matter. The call to action has been hurled, the challenge issued.

He sums up with this assurance: “Yes, across Europe, this wall will fall. For it cannot withstand faith; it cannot withstand truth. The wall cannot withstand freedom.

Then he closes – not with a challenge, or call to action, that’s already been done – but with a wonderful little zinger, aimed at those who protested his appearance in Berlin: “And I would like, before I close, to say one word. I have read, and I have been questioned since I've been here about certain demonstrations against my coming. And I would like to say just one thing, and to those who demonstrate so. I wonder if they have ever asked themselves that if they should have the kind of government they apparently seek, no one would ever be able to do what they're doing again.

I wonder if this last paragraph was not added at the last moment, perhaps even the morning of the speech, because the rest of the speech was almost certainly finished before the President climbed aboard Air Force One for the trip to Europe. It is well done, if that is the case. I remember laughing out loud when I heard this the first time, because it rang so true.

With the judgment of history now rendered, that truth is now obvious.

Length (words): 2651
Text Posted: The History Place

From The Bully Pulpit – Tom

Monday, January 31, 2011

State of the Union 2011

Speech By: President Obama
Date: January 25, 2011
Location: House of Representatives
Occasion: State of the Union
It may be that he set the bar so high with his speech in Arizona, that any subsequent effort would be a mere shadow in its wake; or, maybe, it may be the nature of the speech itself, which is akin to a homeowners “to-do list” on a busy weekend – except this id for a nation of 300 million people, and for an entire year; and maybe, just maybe, it was the new seating arrangements, which not only blurred the partisan affiliation of the audience, but blunted their reaction to the speech, as well. Whatever the reason – the President’s State of the Union address was less than inspiring.

In fact, it would not be uncharitable to say it fell flat.

A State of the Union speech is assembled by a committee, the different agencies of government, the different interests among the public to whom the President wants to appeal, or to whom he owes a special thank you – and none of them are gathered in the same room to hear what the others have to say. It’s not a condition geared towards achieving excellence.

But last year’s speech was a solid effort.

This year’s speech was slightly shorter (about 300 words) than last year’s. But it seemed longer.

It may be that the new practice of having members of each party sit next to each other, diminished the enthusiasm, or the energy of the audience.

It may be, that sitting interspersed dilutes the effect of support for what the President is saying.

It occurs to me that the suggestion to mix up the seating came from one of the President’s own, now much reduced, party. Perhaps the idea was to distribute the President’s Democratic colleagues throughout the audience, and, in so doing, show more support throughout the House chamber than would otherwise have been exhibited. 

The problem seems to be that rather than distributing the President’s support more widely throughout the audience, it became diluted. If showing greater support was the intent, it was indeed a miscalculation.

As for the rhetoric of the speech itself, he appears to have abandoned the phrase “Let me be clear,” an expression which had become distressingly common in his earlier speeches. However, he still begins sentences with the word “And,” far too often. In this case, it was 49 times in 480 sentences. That’s more than 10 per cent of the time. The President, and his speech writers, can do better than that.

Finally, let’s talk about the catch-phrase of the speech “This is our Sputnik moment.” If you have doubts that this is the phrase the White House wanted to promote – go back and look at all the press coverage, just prior to, and just after the speech. Almost every outlet picked up on that phrase. 

Was that because it’s catchy, and has been on everyone’s lips in the days following the speech? No, it’s because the White House press office pushed it, thinking, or at least hoping, it would capture the public’s imagination.

Just one more miscalculation.

Length (words): 6945
Text Posted: The White House

From The Bully Pulpit - Tom

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Ask Not

Speech By: John F. Kennedy
Date: January 20 1961
Location: U.S. Capitol
Occasion: Inaugural Address
We view this speech today through the long lense of half a century. That long perspective has done nothing to diminish its power.

Despite the pomp, ceremony, and celebration attendant with a Presidential inauguration, few inaugural speeches are memorable. Among that number we might include Roosevelt’s first, both of Lincoln’s, and, perhaps, Jefferson’s first. 

William Henry Harrison’s was memorable, but not for the reason’s he might have preferred. It was the longest, taking just over two hours to deliver outdoors on a cold, wet, March day. (Inauguration day was originally March 4.) He proceeded from there to serve the shortest term in office, just over 31 days, expiring from pneumonia and septicemia. While it is probably not true that “Old Tippecanoe’s” pneumonia resulted from his delivery of a two hour speech in inclement weather, it likely served as a warning to his successors.

Kennedy’s speech was reasonably brief, running only 14 minutes and 1364 words. So what, in this brief address, is so special?

For one thing, it is quite deliberately aimed at the whole world – not just the people he had just sworn an oath to govern. It might have been, in another setting a great foreign policy speech.

He is also clearly trying to dispel doubts, about whether he, the youngest man ever elected to the post, is up to the job. He does this by by creating an image of the historic forbears who created this great and mighty country he now leads – “For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forbears prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago.

He then proceeds to outline the one great concern of his time: “The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.” There it is – in subtle but undoubted form – the one great fear of his nascent presidency, and the world at large. Nuclear war.

At that point, he issues one of the great rhetorical passages of the speech: “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans...” It conjures images of an ancient Greek messenger, tiring from his exertions, handing off the torch to the next runner, to light the way to the next city, so the message would not be delayed. What is particularly striking about this image is that the tradition of passing a torch is an invention of the modern Olympic Games, not the ancient ones. It dates back only to 1936!

Next he resorts to one of the most effective techniques of good speech writing – repetition. As we have discussed before, repetition serves the same purpose in a speech, as bullet points do on a piece of paper. It prepares the audience for each point the speaker wants to emphasize.

The phrase is “To those,” and it is an appeal to the world. To “old allies, new states, people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, sister republics south of our border, the United Nations, and finally, nations who would make themselves our adversary.

To each of these is offered a pledge – save for that last, “nations who would make themselves our adversary.” To those he makes a request: “that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction.” It is now nearly a quarter century since President Reagan’s speech in the shadow of the Berlin wall, led to a lessening of tensions between the world’s two great nuclear powers. It somehow seems alarmist to read the words of 50 years ago. But at the time, it was anything but – as the Cuban missile crisis would soon prove.

He again resorts to using repetition, with the phrase: “Let both sides.” It is a challenge to both sides – to use their power to advance the human condition rather than diminish it.

Near the end, he issues a phrase which sounds hauntingly reminiscent of Lincoln’s first inaugural: “In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. In Lincoln’s version it sounds like this: “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war.

Another haunting phrase from that paragraph is this: “The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.” It can’t help but escape notice that his own older brother would lie in just such a grave, had enough of his remains been recovered to bury, and, that he himself might have occupied such a grave, had things gone just a little worse that dark night in the Solomon Islands.

He expresses the resolve of his administration, and his nation, to defend freedom. Then it is on to the summation – the call to action. And a historic call it is.

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country.

It could have just as easily been – “Don’t ask what your country can do for you.” But that would not have offered the rhetorical flourish which makes the phrase so memorable. Not only that, there is a natural cadence to this phrasing that creates a dramatic pause after “Ask not,” that would have been otherwise lacking.

From The Bully Pulpit – Tom