A speech writer's take on important speeches, and the craft of writing for an audience.
Wednesday, January 6, 2010
Winter of Reckoning
Speech By: Governor David Paterson Title: State of the State Address - 2010
Date: January 6, 2010
Location: Assembly Chamber, the Capitol, Albany, New York Occasion: Opening of the Legislative Session
Length (words): 3306
This year’s State of the State message comes at a time of severe economic turmoil in a state that boasts the world’s eleventh largest economy. Or, at least it did until the economic downturn hit the Wall Street-based financial institutions which are responsible for driving so much of that economy.
They are also responsible for a disproportionate share of the revenues of state government. Their misfortune is the state’s disaster.
It is also a time of great political turmoil. This year, every statewide office is up for election - Governor, Lt. Governor, Attorney General, Comptroller, and both U.S. Senate seats. Only two of those six statewide officeholders were elected to the seat they now hold. For good measure, every seat in both houses of the state Legislature will be on the ballot.
Because this election falls in a census year, control of the all-important redistricting process is also at stake. Right now Democrats control everything. But if the Republicans take back the Senate, or even manage a tie, they will have a strong hand in the process of how districts are redrawn. This will play a major factor in every political calculation that is made.
Another consideration, at least for the state Senate, is that the chamber is only narrowly controlled by the party in power - the Democrats. It takes 32 votes to pass anything in the 62 seat Senate, and that’s exactly how many votes the Democrats have.
This precarious margin of control is what led to the coup that brought the Senate to a halt with three weeks left in the session last June. Even one defection on a controversial issue means the Democrats can’t pass their bills, and many suburban and upstate Senators are concerned about facing re-election after voting for such city-oriented legislation as the MTA payroll tax.
To add to the other uncertainties, one Senate Democrat, Senator Monseratte, was convicted of misdemeanor assault last year and faces the possibility of jail time, as well as the possibility of an expulsion resolution from some of his colleagues.
One final consideration the Governor brings to the speech making process is that he is legally blind. In an age when many politicians wouldn’t give their mailing address without a teleprompter, Governor Paterson pretty much memorizes what he has to say. Perhaps he takes inspiration from a poet of a few years back, who also had the ability to speak at length without written notes - a guy named Homer.
All these are calculations the Governor must consider as he ascends the rostrum on this cold, gray, January afternoon.
Governor Paterson began this speech well. He turned his visual disability to his advantage, by changing past practice. Instead of recognizing various dignitaries around the Chamber as previous Governors have done, he announced he wouldn’t do this, and said we are all citizens of equal standing. This neatly took care of two problems -
First, it avoided the problem of spotting those dignitaries in a large Chamber, by someone whose vision isn’t sufficient to that task.
Second, it is a great technique to establish that all important audience identification every speaker wants to establish.
He also established the tenor of the speech with a good rhetorical flourish, by calling this our “Winter of reckoning.” It evokes our nasty weather of late, ambient, political, and financial, and pays homage to Shakespeare at the same time.
He also ended well, with a reference to his disability, and the determination required for him to overcome it despite the doubts of others.
The middle was less successful. His focus on what he calls a “Reform Albany Ethics Act” seems almost a distraction, given the financial crises the state must confront this session. Perhaps it is intentional - a device to divert attention from the hard choices which must be made. But that seems counter-productive, particularly since it seems to declare war on the very Legislators he must work with to enact the other elements of his program.
However, he did introduce a surprise here, and with a nice turn of phrase as well, by announcing that among the targets of reform are the “so-called good government groups who hide their donors behind walls of sanctimony.” Those groups are the ones who usually focus on what they claim are other people’s ethical failings. They can’t be pleased the scrutiny will now be on them.
The Governor will never have the ability to give a long detailed speech, and that may be just as well. There are far more than enough of those already. Being a powerful orator does not always guarantee success as Governor - witness the tribulations at the end of Governor Cuomo’s last term. But in just under half an hour, he demonstrated the ability to speak as a Governor.
In all it was a reasonably effective speech. Now we must see if the ideas it conveyed meet with the same success.
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.