Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A President Ascends The Bully Pulpit

Speech By:
President Barack Obama
July 23, 2009
Shaker Heights High School, Shaker Heights, Ohio
Length (words): 3048

Video Posted: YouTube

There is no more classic use of the Bully Pulpit than a President trying to promote a controversial policy agenda. Thus we have the President’s health care speech in Shaker Heights Ohio, the day after his prime-time network news conference on the same topic.

Once again the President proves himself a master of the rhetorical arts. But rhetoric and policy are not the same thing.

He begins his speech by recognizing the Governor, the State Treasurer, Secretary of State, all members of his party, as well as the Mayor, and even the school superintendent. This is a time-honored tradition. A friendly mention by the President, especially less than a year after first taking up residence in the White House, can do wonders for the public approval rating of a local politician.

But in terms of speech craft, it serves a far larger purpose. Mentioning the home town political figures helps the President establish a shared identity with the audience. “I know the local folks just as well as you do,” it seems to say.

Establishing a shared identity, creating a common ground with the listener, is one of the most essential elements in effective speech writing. It is effectively done here.

Then it’s on to policy. But it begins with economic policy. “And when my administration came into office, we were facing the worst economy since the Great Depression.”
This is a bit of overreach, in terms of economic history. But no one will stand up and dispute this assertion.

It is also another classic technique. Because this is a relatively new administration, this is, by inference, an indictment of the previous one.

He takes credit for a two-year Recovery Act - then goes on to recite a litany of the administration’s other priorities - this includes transforming education from “cradle to college” - an interesting turn of phrase.

At that point, the speech transitions to health insurance and the larger question of health care.

A number of promises for the health care program are made - including coverage for pre-existing conditions, a marketplace where insurance companies will compete to cover you, nearly everyone is covered, and a promise is made that the federal deficit will not be increased to fund the program.
“I won't sign it if that reform adds even one dime to our deficit over the next decade -- and I mean what I say.”
Considering some of the cost estimates for the proposed program, this statement has something of a “Read my lips- no new taxes,” feel about it.

Along those lines - he also attacks the other party for opposing the program he has proposed. “You know, the Republican -- the Republican Party chair, seeking to stall our efforts, recently went so far as to say that health insurance reform was happening “too soon.”” This is another tried and true political technique - first, blame your predecessor, which happened earlier in the speech, then blame the other party.

Part of the problem here is that as much of the opposition has come from members of his own party, as from the other party. The President originally demanded that Congress vote on his Health Care program by early August. By the time of this speech, the day after a nationally televised press conference on the topic, he had already adjusted his sights to “I want it done by the end of this year.”

Reading this speech, it’s hard not to ask the question: Might this speech, with its ringing generalities, promises that sound to good to be true, and broad overreach, be a metaphor for the fate of the program?

In the end it is the persuasive power of the words which issue from the Bully Pulpit that determine its success. Words alone may not be sufficient to overcome the force of opposition to the policy those words are designed to enact.

From the Bully Pulpit - Tom



Shaker Heights High School
Shaker Heights, Ohio

THE PRESIDENT: Hello, everybody. Thank you. Thank you. Thank, please, everybody have a seat. Thank you. Hello! Hello, Shaker Heights! Hello, Ohio! It is great to be here. There are a couple of quick acknowledgments I want to make. First of all, please give Rick a big round of applause for his introduction.

Some special guests that we've got. First of all, the governor of the great state of Ohio, Ted Strickland, is in the house. There he is right there. Your State Treasurer Kevin Boyce is here. Your Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner is here. The mayor of the great city of Cleveland, Frank Jackson, is here. Shaker Heights Mayor Earl Leiken is here. The Shaker Heights school superintendent Mark Freeman is here.

Not here, but a couple of my favorite people: Congresswoman Marcia Fudge and Sherrod Brown couldn't be here today. They've got work to do in Washington.

It is good to be back in the great state of Ohio. Now, I know there are those who like to report on the back-and-forth in Washington. But my only concern is the people who sent us to Washington -- the families feeling the pain of this recession; the folks I've met across this country who have lost jobs and savings and health insurance but haven't lost hope; the citizens who defied the cynics and the skeptics -- who went to the polls to demand real and lasting change. Change was the cause of my campaign; it is the cause of my presidency.

And when my administration came into office, we were facing the worst economy since the Great Depression. We were losing an average of 700,000 jobs per month. Hundreds of thousands of Ohioans have felt that pain firsthand. Our financial system was on the verge of collapse, meaning families and small businesses couldn't get the credit they need. And experts were warning that there was a serious chance that our economy could slip into a depression. But because of the action we took in those first weeks, we've been able to pull our economy back from the brink.

Now that the most immediate danger has passed, there are some who question those steps. So let me report to you exactly what we've done.

We passed a two-year Recovery Act that meant an immediate tax cut for 95 percent of Americans and small businesses -- 95 percent. It extended unemployment insurance and health coverage for those who lost their jobs in this recession. It provided emergency assistance to states like Ohio to prevent even deeper layoffs of police officers and firefighters and teachers and other essential personnel. At the same time, we took needed steps to keep the banking system from collapsing, to get credit flowing again, and to help responsible homeowners -- hurt by falling home prices -- to stay in their homes.

In the second phase, we're now investing in projects to repair and upgrade roads and bridges, ports and water systems -- and in schools and clean energy initiatives throughout Ohio and all across the country. These are projects that are creating good jobs and bring lasting improvements to our communities and our country.

There's no doubt that the steps we've taken have helped stave off a much deeper disaster and even greater job loss. They've saved and helped create jobs and have begun to put the brakes on this devastating recession. But I know that for the millions of Americans who are looking for work, and for those who are struggling in this economy, full recovery can't come soon enough.

I hear from you at town hall meetings like this. I read your letters. The stories I hear are the first thing that I think about in the morning; they're the last thing I think about at night. They're the focus of my attention every waking minute of every day. The simple truth is that it took years to get into this mess, and it will take more than a few months to dig our way out of it. But I want to promise you this, Ohio, we will get there -- and we are doing everything in our power to get our people back to work.

We also have to do more than just rescue this economy from recession; we need to address the fundamental problems that allowed this crisis to happen in the first place. Otherwise, we'd be guilty of the same short-term thinking that got us into this mess. That's what Washington has done for decades. We put things off. And that's what we have to change.

Now is the time to rebuild this economy stronger than before. Strong enough to compete in the 21st century. Strong enough to avoid the waves of boom and bust that have time and time again unleashed a torrent of misfortune on middle-class families across the country. That's why we're building a new energy economy that will unleash the innovative potential of America's entrepreneurs -- and create millions of new jobs -- helping to end our dependence on foreign oil. We are -- we're transforming our education system, from cradle to college, so that this nation once again has the best-educated workforce on the planet. We are pursuing health insurance reform so that every American has access to quality, affordable health coverage.

I want to talk about health care just for a second. I want to be clear: Reform isn't just about the nearly 46 million Americans without health insurance. I realize that with all the charges and the criticism being thrown out there in Washington, many Americans may be wondering, "Well, how does my family, or my business, stand to benefit from health insurance reform? What's in this for me?" Folks are asking that, so I want to answer those questions briefly.

If you have health insurance, the reform we're proposing will give you more security. You just heard Rick's story. Reform will keep the government out of your health care decisions, giving you the option to keep your coverage if you're happy with it. So don't let folks say that somehow we're going to be forcing government-run health care. It's just not true. And it will keep the insurance companies out of your health care decisions, too – by stopping insurers from cherry-picking who they cover, and holding insurers to a higher standard for what they cover.

You won't have to worry about receiving a surprise bill in the mail, because we'll limit the amount your insurance company can force you to pay out of your own pocket.

You won't have to worry about preexisting conditions, because -- never again will anyone in America be denied coverage because of a previous illness or injury.

You won't have to worry about losing coverage if you lose or leave your job, because every American who needs insurance will have access to affordable plans through a health insurance exchange – a marketplace where insurance companies will compete to cover you, not to deny you coverage.

And if you run a small business and you're looking to provide insurance for your employees, you'll be able to choose a plan through this exchange, as well. I've heard from small business owners across America trying to do the right thing, but year after year premiums rise higher and choices grow more limited. And that's certainly true right here in Ohio.

Now, if you're a taxpayer concerned about deficits, I want you to understand I'm concerned about deficits, too. Because in the eight years before we came into office, Washington enacted two large tax cuts, primarily for the wealthiest Americans, added a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, funded two wars -- all without paying for it -- didn't pay for it. The national debt doubled. We were handed a $1.3 trillion deficit when we walked in the door -- one we necessarily had to add to in the short term to deal with this financial crisis.

Now, I have to tell you, I have to say, that folks have a lot of nerve who helped get us into this fiscal hole and then start going around trying to talk about fiscal responsibility. I'm always a little surprised that people don't have a little more shame -- about having created a mess and then try to point fingers, but that's another topic.

Because the truth is, is that I am now President and I am -- and I am responsible, and together we have to restore a sense of responsibility in Washington. We have to do what businesses and families do -- we've got to cut out the things we don't need to pay for the things we do.

And that's why I pledged that I will not sign health insurance reform -- as badly as I think it's necessary, I won't sign it if that reform adds even one dime to our deficit over the next decade -- and I mean what I say.

Now, we have estimated that two-thirds of the cost of reform to bring health care security to every American can actually be paid for by reallocating money that's already in the system but is being wasted in federal health care programs. So let me repeat what I just said: About two-thirds of health care reform can be paid for not with new revenues, not with tax hikes, just with taking money that's not being spent wisely and moving it into things that will actually make people healthy.

And that includes, by the way -- right now we spend more than $100 billion in unwarranted subsidies that go to insurance companies as part of Medicare -- subsidies that do nothing to improve care for our seniors. We ought to take that money and use it to actually treat people and cover people, not to line pockets of insurers. And I'm pleased that Congress has already embraced these proposals. And while they're currently working through proposals to finance the remaining costs, I continue to insist that health care reform not be paid for on the backs of middle-class families.

Now, in addition to making sure that this plan doesn't add to the deficit in the short term, the bill I sign must also slow the growth of health care costs, while improving care, in the long run.
I just came from the Cleveland Clinic where I toured the cardiac surgery unit, met some of the doctors who are achieving incredible results for their patients. There's important work being done there as well as at the University Hospitals and MetroHealth. And Cleveland Clinic has one of the best health information technology systems in the country. And that means they can track patients and their progress. It means that they can see what treatments work and what treatments are unnecessary. It means they can provide better care for patients. They don't have to duplicate test after test because it's all online. They can help patients manage chronic diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure and asthma and emphysema by coordinating with doctors and nurses both in the hospital and in the community.

And here's the remarkable thing: They actually have some of the lowest costs for the best care. That's the interesting thing about our health care system. Often, better care produces lower, not higher, expenses, because better care leads to fewer errors that cost money and lives. You, or your doctor, don't have to fill out the same form a dozen times. Medical professionals are free to treat people -- not just illnesses. And patients are provided preventive care earlier -- like mammograms and physicals -- to avert more expensive and invasive treatment later.

That's why our proposals include a variety of reforms that would save both money and improve care -- and why the nation's largest organizations representing doctors and nurses have embraced our plan. Our proposals would change incentives so that doctors and nurses finally are free to give patients the best care, not just the most expensive care. And we also want to create an independent group of doctors and medical experts who are empowered to eliminate waste and inefficiency in Medicare -- a proposal that could save even more money.

So overall, our proposals will improve the quality of care for our seniors, save them thousands of dollars on prescription drugs, and that, by the way, is why AARP has endorsed our reform efforts, as well.

So the fact is, lowering costs is essential for families and businesses here in Ohio and all across the country. Let's take the Ohio example -- over the past few years premiums have risen nearly nine times faster than wages. That's something that Rick and his wife understand very well. As we meet today, we're seeing double-digit rate increases on insurance premiums all over America. There are reports of insurers raising rates by 28 percent in California; seeking a 23 percent increase in Connecticut; proposing as much as a 56 percent increase in Michigan. If we don't act, these premium hikes will just be a preview of coming attractions. And that's a future you can't afford. That is a future that America can't afford.

We spend one of every six of our dollars on health care in America, and that's on track to double in the next three decades. The biggest driving force behind our federal deficit is the skyrocketing cost of Medicare and Medicaid. Small businesses struggle to cover workers while competing with large businesses. Large businesses struggle to cover workers while competing in the global economy. And we'll never know the full cost of the dreams put on hold, the entrepreneurial ideas that are allowed to languish, the small businesses never founded -- because of the fear of being without insurance, or having to pay for a policy on your own.

So, Ohio, that's why we seek reform. And in pursuit of this reform we've forged a consensus that has never before been reached in the history of this country. Senators and representatives in five committees are working on legislation; three have already produced a bill. Health care providers have agreed to do their part to reduce the rate of growth in health care spending. Hospitals have agreed to bring down costs. The drug companies have agreed to make prescription drugs more affordable for seniors. The American Nurses Association, the American Medical Association, representing millions of nurses and doctors who know our health care system best, they've announced their support for reform.

So we have never been closer -- we have never been closer to achieving quality, affordable health care for all Americans. But at the same time, there are those who would seek to delay and defeat reform -- is that the air-conditioning? That's good. It's a little warm. You can still hear me, though.

You know, we had one Republican strategist who told his party that even though they may want to compromise, it's better politics to "go for the kill." Another Republican senator said that defeating health reform is about "breaking" me -- when it's really the American people who are being broken by rising health care costs and declining coverage. You know, the Republican -- the Republican Party chair, seeking to stall our efforts, recently went so far as to say that health insurance reform was happening "too soon."

Well, first of all, let me just be clear. If there's not a deadline in Washington, nothing happens. Nothing ever happens. And, you know, we just heard today that, well, we may not be able to get the bill out of the Senate by the end of August -- or the beginning of August. That's okay. I just want people to keep on working. Just keep working. I want the bill to get out of the committees; and then I want that bill to go to the floor; and then I want that bill to be reconciled between the House and the Senate; and then I want to sign a bill. And I want it done by the end of this year. I want it done by the fall.

Whenever I hear people say that it's happening too soon, I think that's a little odd. We've been talking about health care reform since the days of Harry Truman. How could it be too soon? I don't think it's too soon for the families who've seen their premiums rise faster than wages year after year. It's not too soon for the businesses forced to drop coverage or shed workers because of mounting health care expenses. It's not too soon for taxpayers asked to close widening deficits that stem from rising health care costs -- costs that threaten to leave our children with a mountain of debt.

Reform may be coming too soon for some in Washington, but it's not soon enough for the American people. We can get this done. We don't shirk from a challenge.

We can get this done. People keep on saying, wow, this is really hard, why are you taking it on? You know, America doesn't shirk from a challenge. We were reminded of that earlier this week, when Americans and people all over the world marked the 40th anniversary of the moment that the astronauts of the Apollo 11 walked on the surface of the moon. It was the realization of a goal President Kennedy had set nearly a decade earlier. Ten years earlier he'd said we're going to the moon. And there were times where people said, oh, this is foolish, this is impossible. But President Kennedy understood and the American people set about proving what this nation is capable of doing when we set our minds to doing it.

There are those now who are seeing our failure to address stubborn problems as a sign that our best days are behind us; that somehow we've lost our sense of purpose, and toughness, and capacity to lead; that we can't do big things anymore. Well, I believe that this generation, like generations past, stand ready to defy the skeptics and the naysayers, that we can once again summon this American spirit. We can rescue our economy. We can rebuild it stronger than before. We can achieve quality, affordable health care for every single American. That's what we're called upon to do. That's what we will do with your help, Ohio. With your help.

All right, thank you.

From The Bully Pulpit - Tom

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Dangers of the Bully Pulpit

Then again - maybe not!

Obama and the Speech
What is the point and purpose of the President's orations?

A great analysis by the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Henninger of President Obama's rhetorical skills and predilections. He begins by asking: “Can Barack Obama talk his way onto Mount Rushmore?”

Then he points out: “More than any U.S. president, The Speech is the primary vehicle of Barack Obama's politics.”

While Henninger concludes by saying "he is trying to shape a presidency from the force of his own political personality carved out of a mountain of random eloquence. It might work, too." I think he actually understands why that won't work.

This illustrates one of the dangers inherent in a President's use of the Bully Pulpit - its over use. If people get to the point where they say - "Oh, him again. He's always talking but not accomplishing anything," it's a problem.

To preserve its power to persuade, the Bully Pulpit must be used judiciously.

From The Bully Pulpit - Tom

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Speech Writer’s Nightmare

He’s only one man. He doesn’t spend his entire day giving speeches. So why does the President need an entire team of speech writers?

Today’s state visit to Russia should illustrate the answer quite nicely. His schedule included one major speech lasting half an hour, two others of more than ten minutes each, another of at least five minutes duration, and brief remarks with both President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin.

When the President of the United States speaks, it is not just to the people back home. It is not only to the people in the audience he is addressing, or of the nation he is visiting. When the President speaks, the whole world listens. Every word has implications. Sometimes, even, direct consequences.

Consider what is involved in producing each of these speeches. Someone has to sit and do research before even making a preliminary draft. That means researching the policy, the group to whom the speech will be given, and the foreign policy implications. Then a first draft is made, and circulated around different offices of the White House. It might go to the Communications Director, the Foreign Policy Advisor, maybe even the National Security Advisor - just as examples. Their revisions are incorporated.

Then it is sent to the Department of State, where different desks - the Russian desk, the Office of Protocol for example, make more revisions.

If the President is mentioning something related to, say, agriculture or education, those Departments will probably be involved. Then, it’s back to the White House for more honing by the speech writer.

In all this, the speech writer must keep the words true to the President’s individual voice - his way of speaking. The danger is that with too much input from various interests, the whole thing will sound like a disjointed mess. It could make the President sound unauthentic.

Finally, shortly before the trip itself, the near-final draft is circulated at the highest levels of the White House, more changes made, and the final draft loaded into teleprompters. Except for last-minute changes!

It’s a nightmare. That is why you need a stable of speech writers for just one man.

As for the substance of what was said today - I am rather shocked the President said this - during his meeting with opposition leaders in Moscow: “And we obviously still have much work to do with our own democracy in the United States, but nevertheless, I think we share some common values and interest in building a strong, democratic culture in Russia as well as the United States.”

Really? We have much work to do with our own democracy in the United States? We need to build a strong, democratic culture in the United States? This is the oldest functioning democracy in the world. The oldest government of any kind, as a matter of fact. Thanks to that democracy. How much more democratic culture do we need to build?

Even if you think that’s true - Why go to Russia and say it? I think it’s a mistake, and I wonder if anybody here at home will pick up on it. Such are the dangers when the President speaks.

Following is the President’s schedule and transcript as posted by the White House, with links.

Obama Speeches and Remarks On visit to Russia - 7/7/2009

Remarks by the President at Parallel Civil Society Summit - 1485 words

Remarks by the President at Parallel Business Summit - 1147 words

Remarks by President Obama in Meeting With Opposition Leaders
- 310 words (partial transcript)

Remarks by President Obama and President Medvedev of Russia Before Meeting - 187 words

Remarks by President Obama and Pime Minister Putin of Russia Before Meeting
- 137 words

Remarks by President Obama at the New Economic School Graduation - 4233 words

From The Bully Pulpit - Tom

Monday, July 6, 2009

On The Fourth Of July

Speech By: President Barack Obama
Title: On the Fourth of July, Overcoming America’s Challenges
Date: July 4, 2009
The White House
Occasion: Weekly Message - Independence Day
Length (words): 746
Video Posted: www.whitehouse.gov

President Obama is a particularly gifted orator. No matter how you view his policies, he has a gift for oratory few can match. It was said of the actor Orson Welles, that he had the ability to read from the telephone directory, and make it sound exciting. The President might well be counted in such company.

But good material helps. So, in honor of this past weekend’s festivities, let’s take a look at the President’s Fourth of July address to the American people.

It’s traditional for the President to recognize important national holidays, particularly one of historic significance like Independence Day, then use the occasion to promote the administration’s agenda. This does not fail that tradition.

The first task of any speech is to establish a shared identity with the audience. This is a theme we will refer to in almost every speech we examine. He starts by wishing everyone a happy fourth of July, and talks about how it’s a chance for family and friends to get together - things most Americans will identify with.

He then goes on to talk about how the American Revolution succeeded against long odds - “that a small band of patriots would declare independence from a powerful empire;” A style note - For the most part, the word “that” is to effective writing, what the phrase “you know” is to effective conversation - it detracts. I usually go through a speech and remove the word “that” from about 90% of the places it appears. Here, it is used twice more in succession to emphasize points. Repeating a specific word or phrase to help the audience recognize each new point the speaker makes, is an effective speech technique. Here, it might work.

But then a new repetitive phrase “It is what,” is introduced. Frankly, this is a far better repetitive phrase. I would edit out that.

Speaking of over-used repetition, he begins sentences with “And” seven times. Some claim you shouldn’t ever start a sentence with the word “And” - usually those folks who also claim you can’t end a sentence with a preposition - another “rule” that isn’t true. Nothing in English grammar forbids either, but both can be employed too often. In this case, that frequency, seven times in a work with only 43 sentences - is too often.

He makes a pitch for his administration’s policy priorities, and then turns to confront “the naysayers” who oppose those policies. He never defines exactly who those naysayers are, and that’s perfectly fine for two reasons - it allows the audience to define in their own minds who the opposition might be, and it denies any specific person or group, the chance to rebut the President’s contention or attack his policies.

It also reinforces the shared identity with the audience “We versus they” - especially when “they” is amorphous - is always a good technique.

In the end, I hope you all took the President’s most sage advice - to kick back and enjoy the holiday weekend.

From the Bully Pulpit - Tom

Remarks of President Barack Obama
Weekly Address

The White House

July 4, 2009

Hello and Happy Fourth of July, everybody. This weekend is a time to get together with family and friends, kick back, and enjoy a little time off. And I hope that’s exactly what all of you do. But I also want to take a moment today to reflect on what I believe is the meaning of this distinctly American holiday.

Today, we are called to remember not only the day our country was born – we are also called to remember the indomitable spirit of the first American citizens who made that day possible.

We are called to remember how unlikely it was that our American experiment would succeed at all; that a small band of patriots would declare independence from a powerful empire; and that they would form, in the new world, what the old world had never known – a government of, by, and for the people.

That unyielding spirit is what defines us as Americans. It is what led generations of pioneers to blaze a westward trail.

It is what led my grandparents’ generation to persevere in the face of a Depression and triumph in the face of tyranny.

It is what led generations of American workers to build an industrial economy unrivalled around the world.

It is what has always led us, as a people, not to wilt or cower at a difficult moment, but to face down any trial and rise to any challenge, understanding that each of us has a hand in writing America’s destiny.

That is the spirit we are called to show once more. We are facing an array of challenges on a scale unseen in our time. We are waging two wars. We are battling a deep recession. And our economy – and our nation itself – are endangered by festering problems we have kicked down the road for far too long: spiraling health care costs; inadequate schools; and a dependence on foreign oil.

Meeting these extraordinary challenges will require an extraordinary effort on the part of every American. And that is an effort we cannot defer any longer.

Now is the time to lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity. Now is the time to revamp our education system, demand more from teachers, parents, and students alike, and build schools that prepare every child in America to outcompete any worker in the world.

Now is the time to reform an unsustainable health care system that is imposing crushing costs on families, businesses, large and small, and state and federal budgets. We need to protect what works, fix what’s broken, and bring down costs for all Americans. No more talk. No more delay. Health care reform must happen this year.

And now is the time to meet our energy challenge – one of the greatest challenges we have ever confronted as a people or as a planet. For the sake of our economy and our children, we must build on the historic bill passed by the House of Representatives, and make clean energy the profitable kind of energy so that we can end our dependence on foreign oil and reclaim America’s future.

These are some of the challenges that our generation has been called to meet. And yet, there are those who would have us try what has already failed; who would defend the status quo. They argue that our health care system is fine the way it is and that a clean energy economy can wait. They say we are trying to do too much, that we are moving too quickly, and that we all ought to just take a deep breath and scale back our goals.

These naysayers have short memories. They forget that we, as a people, did not get here by standing pat in a time of change. We did not get here by doing what was easy. That is not how a cluster of 13 colonies became the United States of America.

We are not a people who fear the future. We are a people who make it. And on this July 4th, we need to summon that spirit once more. We need to summon the same spirit that inhabited Independence Hall two hundred and thirty-three years ago today.

That is how this generation of Americans will make its mark on history. That is how we will make the most of this extraordinary moment. And that is how we will write the next chapter in the great American story. Thank you, and Happy Fourth of July.

From The Bully Pulpit - Tom

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Turning The Lense On Myself

Background: Little of my own speech writing will be examined here. Client confidentiality is respected at all times.

But a sample of my own writing should be on display for all to see - and comment on. A dose of my own medicine - so to speak. This exception is allowed, because it was written by me, for me to deliver.

To become a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, a candidate must prepare a short speech, describing their journey to that point. This task is a challenge for every black belt candidate. Some say, it is the toughest single task in their four years of training. I approached it - from the unique perspective of a speech writer.

Speech By: Tom Shanahan
Date: September 17, 2005
Location: Kinderhook Tae Kwon Do
Occasion: Black Belt test
Length (words): 910
Video Posted: YouTube

A special challenge here was to involve the audience in what is essentially a tale of personal achievement. The other challenge was to get them to pay attention. The essay is delivered as the last task of a demanding physical test which lasts between two and three hours. For the audience, it is the least exciting portion of an exercise which also features sparring, breaking half a dozen boards and a concrete brick, forms and self defense.

The technique I employed to involve the audience was to begin with a shared experience. That was September 11, the same incident which inspired me to study Tae Kwon Do. The attacks still burned fiercely in the consciousness of those in the audience.

To grab their attention, I began by stating something which would sound obviously wrong to the audience. I could feel heads whip in my direction as I started off - “On September 12th, 2001.” How could anyone not know the date is September 11! By the end of the second sentence, I had clarified that it was the day after the attacks to which I referred. But their attention belonged to me.

This is not the kind of occasion that is suitable for a lot of raucous laughter - it’s fairly solemn. But a little gentle humor at the speaker’s own expense is not unwarranted - “Since that awful day, I have given more than a gallon of blood - and that’s just counting what the Red Cross was able to collect.” Not only refers to an additional commitment in the wake of 9/11, but to the idea that pursuit of the martial arts will inevitably result in a certain amount of personal blood loss.

Finally, once full thanks have been made and due tributes rendered, the task of a “kicker,” a final, quick summation, presents itself. I took it as an opportunity to bring the talk full circle, back to the events of 9/11, and, to once more involve the audience in this day’s event: “Will have all of you - to thank for it.”


On September 12th, 2001, I stood on my front porch and watched, as a military helicopter raced desperately across a clear blue sky south towards New York City. And knew - that because of the attacks on our country the day before, it was likely to be the only aircraft I would see in the sky that day. War - had been brought to the shores of our nation.

While taking up arms was not an option, I looked for ways to serve my country. Since that awful day, I have given more than a gallon of blood - and that’s just counting what the Red Cross was able to collect. In the days following the attack, we read about a seeing-eye dog named Roselle, who skillfully guided her blind handler down through 78 floors of smoke and dust and fear, to the safety of the street. So when the Guide Dog Foundation called two weeks later to ask if we would raise another puppy for them, we agreed. “It’s like a patriotic duty for us,” Kate said, and I saw no reason to dispute her. And, because chance truly does favor the prepared mind, I decided to study Tae Kwon Do.

I stand here alone right now, but did not get here by myself.

Most important among the people who guided me to this spot is Kate, who regularly issued the threat - “If you need surgery one more time, you’re going to have to quit Tae Kwon Do!” She never meant it, and nursed me through surgery four times. Thank you for that.

There have been so many others:
Laura, Lisa, Liz and Annie. Female athletes, in a world that too often does not properly recognize women’s athletic accomplishments. Each had the additional impediment of having to overcome injuries - some serious. From them I learned that there are always excuses, but if you ignore the easy way out and keep going, you will reach your goal. I thank each of them for that.

We are taught here that a black belt is something you become, not something you earn. I would dispute that, but only slightly. From what I have seen, a black belt is something you become, and earn. I say this with the confidence which comes from having watched Trevor, Frankie, Dan, and Frank, as they became black belts. Thank you for that example.

A great many faces have passed through the doors of this Do-Jang during my time here. Most of those did not complete the journey to where I stand now. Some were limited by physical infirmities or the time constraints that confront us all in our daily lives. A few, simply did not belong here, and it was truly better for all concerned, when the day came they did not return. But most, simply succumbed to the most potent poison known to humankind - the bitter essence of self doubt. For those of you on the mat today in the lower ranks, my advice is simple - if you ever feel that bitter poison begin to invade, Mister Blair, Mister Gould, and Ms. DeSantis, are here to provide the antidote, as they have for me. Thank you for that.

Let me add a special note of thanks to Mr. Gould, who gave of his own time to run special brush up classes for the black belt candidates.

Shannon, Dana and Bennett - thanks for waiting, so I could have the honor of testing with you this day.

Finally, let me speak of our Sah-Buhm-Nim, Master Jacon and Master McCagg. Frankly, when I first walked through these doors, they seemed to look at me in a way that was eerily similar to the scene from that great baseball movie, The Natural, where the manager meets Roy Hobbs for the first time. Standing in the dugout, Pop Fisher looks at his new player and tells him - “Fella, you don’t start playing ball at your age. You retire!” But I chose instead to take the advice of a real life baseball legend, the great Satchel Paige, who once observed - “Age is simply a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

When I first came to this academy I knew that with perseverance I would learn the martial arts. What I didn’t understand was how much fun it would be, and, on those days when my schedule, or surgeon, said I couldn’t be here, how much I would miss it. You two are responsible for the atmosphere at this academy, and should be applauded for creating a place where anyone, possessing nothing more than the mere determination to do so, can learn the skills being taught here. I thank you both for that.

In the end, it comes back to that dark September day when the sun shone so mockingly bright above clouds of black smoke which marked where the attacks had been struck. Our nation is still at war, and will likely be so for some time to come. Anything we, as individuals, do to become stronger and better prepared, makes our entire nation that much stronger and better prepared as well. While the odds are better that I will win tonight’s lottery than that I will sit beside some deranged shoe bomber on my next flight to Washington, if it ever does happen that way, it will be the sorriest day in that person’s misbegotten life. And that person will have all of you - to thank for it.

From The Bully Pulpit - Tom