A speech writer's take on important speeches, and the craft of writing for an audience.
Thursday, January 28, 2010
State of our Union
Speech By: President Obama Title: State of the Union Date: January 27, 2010 Location: House of Representatives Occasion: Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution: “He shall, from time to time, give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient;” Length (words): 7237 Text Posted:White House Web site
A few years ago, a Republican Congressman speaking in prime time at his party’s national convention, made mention of George Washington as a signer of the Declaration of Independence. I was incensed! Only two signers went on to become President - John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and they both died the same day, July 4, 1826 - the 50th anniversary of Independence Day. George Washington had already taken command of the Continental army outside Boston by July 1776. A good political speech writer should know these things off the top of their head, and, if not, know where to look it up.
In my mind, the President made a similar gaffe last night, when he said: “We find unity in our incredible diversity, drawing on the promise enshrined in our Constitution: the notion that we're all created equal;” Sorry Mr. President - that notion was enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. Equal protection of the laws was finally amended, not enshrined, into the Constitution - on the 14th change!
I think a President simply has to get this right. It detracts from the speech not at all to cite the Declaration rather than the Constitution. Especially when you refer to it in a speech long in preparation.
It was a speech not only long in preparation, but long in duration. At 7,237 words, it took the President an hour an ten minutes to deliver. It seemed at the end, as if the audience, more than half of whom are from the President’s own party, had simply run out of the energy needed to applaud. The chamber seemed unnaturally silent during that last ten minutes or so.
As mentioned in the last post, the President has become so ubiquitous a figure behind the teleprompter, it has begun to work to his disadvantage. Certain standard catch-phrases appear so often in his remarks, they have become the point of ridicule. One of these is “Let me be clear.” Well, somebody must have been listening in the White House, that phrase appeared not even once last night.
At the same time, certain other remarked on tendencies did appear. The President refers to himself remarkably frequently, and this speech was no exception. He used the word “I” 78 times, and combined with other references to the first person for a total of 110 times, or 1.5% of the entire speech. He did, on the other hand use the collective “us, we, our,” about 2.5% of the time, but then again, it is the state of the “union,” it rather should be that way.
It is tradition that the side of Congress which belongs to the President’s party stands to applaud at salient points during the speech. On this night, both Democrats and Republicans stood to applaud the President’s remarks. It’s just that each side did so at different times during the speech.
His speech came at a time when real problems, of which we are all too well aware, meant he could not issue forth the traditional phrase - “The state of our union is strong.”
He made a couple of bombshell announcements - withdrawal from Iraq by August, and the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” for the military. As Commander-in-chief he can do those things. But he also called for some other surprising things - a renewed national commitment to nuclear power, and to offshore oil drilling. That got a lot of support from the Republican side of the aisle.
He also spent an awful lot of time explaining how his administration has been so much better than the last one, which got a lot of support from the Democrat side of the aisle.
There was little in the way of memorable turns of phrase. But give him credit, the President continues to be a powerful and effective speaker. A little less of it this night would have been welcome.
If pressed to award a letter grade, I’d give it a solid B, maybe a B plus. Definitely better than the Union is doing right now.
From The Bully Pulpit - Tom
A veteran writer, researcher and lecturer, with more than 25 years experience in politics, political communications, and public relations. I’ve studied speech writing at NYU, and authored a number of published articles on the practice of lobbying as well as topics in American history.
My lecture on the War of 1812: 1812 – Uncle Sam’s First War, is now a lecture in the New York Speakers in the Humanities bicentennial commemoration series.