Thursday, April 29, 2010


When asked by a reporter - “Would you be against lobbyists who are working for your program?,” President Harry Truman replied, “We probably wouldn’t call those people lobbyists. We would call them citizens working in the public interest.”

How a politician defines who is and who isn’t a lobbyist, is as likely to depend on where the lobbyist’s clients stand with regard to the politician’s own agenda, as any other factor.

So it should come as little surprise that President Obama devoted a significant portion of his Wall Street Reform speech to attacking lobbyists.

It’s a classic political strategy - don’t engage the opposition directly, find a convenient third party to attack. During the health care debate, his target was insurance companies.

Now, with a new battle joined, his speech resorts to military terms - “we have seen battalions of financial industry lobbyists descending on Capitol Hill, firms spending millions to influence the outcome of this debate.” Battalions! Indeed.

It’s an attempt to control the debate by controlling who takes part in the debate. So he demonizes lobbyists -  “despite the furious effort of industry lobbyists to shape this legislation to their special interests.” He frames the debate as being one between House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans, versus the evil “special interests.”

Lobbyists are an easy target, because few people know what lobbyists actually do. More than that, few people realize lobbying - the right to petition for a redress of grievances- is the oldest right contained in the First Amendment. It dates back to the Magna Carta in 1215.

It is a right exercised on both sides of almost every issue. To match those who oppose new Wall Street regulations, there is another cadre who promotes them. What makes lobbying such an important right? It keeps the well-intentioned people in government, from doing things which have unintended consequences.

It’s what I call - A Right for a Reason.

So, will President Obama’s vitriol against lobbyists succeed? Perhaps we should look to history for the answer.

In the end - Harry Truman is remembered for many things. His attack on lobbyists is not one of them!

From The Bully Pulpit - Tom

Thursday, April 22, 2010

In The Shadows

Speech By:  President Barack Obama
Title: Wall Street Reform
Date: April 22, 2010
Location: Cooper Union
Text Posted: State of Politics Blog

Put simply - this was not one of the President’s more effective, or dynamic speeches. Given the pre-speech hype by the White House, and its importance to his legislative agenda - especially since the passage of health care failed to deliver a bounce in public opinion polls - one would have expected otherwise.

As the White House press pool report noted: “Apart from loud cheers and applause when the president walked in, the speech was heard in mostly silence apart from the flutter of camera shutters." This is more notable because a number of local politicians, most of them members of the President’s own party, were in the audience.

There really was not much memorable about this speech. No great catch phrases stand out. It was delivered without great passion, and received in like manner. It was as if the President had left his great oratorical skills, and truly, such they are, back in the Oval office.

In some sense, this speech was delivered amid long shadows. As he notes in the opening paragraph, Cooper Union is basically in the shadows of Wall Street. But other shadows are cast on the Great Hall at Cooper Union. Six future Presidents, and three incumbent Presidents have spoken from that stage. President Obama is the only one who falls into both categories. From that stage, an aspiring politician from Illinois gave the speech that would make him President - exactly a century and a half ago. Then, it was a lanky fellow who wore a stove-pipe hat.

Obama even refers to shadows as part of his speech: “these markets operated in the shadows of our economy,” and maintains his proposed reforms “would bring complex financial dealings out of the shadows;”.

Perhaps these shadows obscured the perspective of his speech writers. But this was not an outstanding effort to justify greater government involvement in an essential facet of the American economy.

Whether you support these reforms or oppose them; welcome greater government control over the finance industry, or abhor the very prospect; it is disappointing the President did not make a more forceful case for this key element in his legislative agenda.

One sentence in the next-to-last paragraph did garner my attention. “In the end, our system only works – our markets are only free – when there are basic safeguards that prevent abuse, that check excess, that ensure that it is more profitable to play by the rules than to game the system.” Yes it is a summation, but to my mind it should have been punched up, and inserted as the second paragraph. It could have been the pillar around which the rest of the speech was built. Instead, it meanders until it reaches this summing up paragraph, By that time, the potential power of the speech was lost.

He does spend three of his 30 paragraphs - ten percent - slamming lobbyists. That will be the topic of a separate Bully Pulpit post. Believe me.

Length (words): 2849

From The Bully Pulpit - Tom

Monday, April 19, 2010


Speech By: Abraham Lincoln
Date: November 19, 1863
Location: Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
Occasion: Dedication of National Cemetery

The Bully Pulpit has already covered the Gettysburg Address. But, since it deservedly resides on Time’s list of Top Ten speeches, it is worth another review. Besides, there is always more to say about this magnificent speech - little appreciated, by those who first heard it.

It is important to consider the context of this speech. Obviously, it was part of the dedication ceremony for the new national cemetery, on the site of the largest battle ever fought on the North American continent. But so much more was at stake than that.

President Lincoln was facing re-election in less than a year. No nation in history had ever been able to host a free election amidst a civil war. His prospects for success in that re-election effort seemed dim. He would prevail in that election, but no one listening knew that.

The battle had occurred on Union soil, because the Army of Northern Virginia had the ability to invade, putting Washington itself at risk. With the lense of historical perspective, we know the South would never again be able to invade North. But those in the crowd did not know that.

After the war, it became obvious that Gettysburg was the battle from which the South could never recover. Its losses over those three days of battle had been too severe. But no one on either side yet knew that.

All those uncertainties which plagued those who heard the Gettysburg address, are no longer apparent to us, in the clear light of historical knowledge.

Lincoln not only sought to address these uncertainties, as well as to honor the dead whose final resting place was being dedicated that day, he had the higher object of inspiring his people on to final victory.

For the first two years of the war, Lincoln had steadfastly maintained the issue was over secession - not slavery. In late 1862 Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect January 1, 1863. By November of that year, Lincoln, speaking at Gettysburg, no longer cast the bitter conflict between the states as a question of union versus secession, but as "a new birth of freedom." In his first sentence he pointed out the nation’s founding had been “dedicated to the proposition that all men are create equal.”

He proceeds with spare, yet masterfully descriptive language. He also uses classic speech techniques such as repetition, particularly in groups of three. “we can not dedicate...we can not consecrate...we can not hallow this ground.

The phrase “we can not” serves the same purpose as bullets on a sheet of paper do for a reader - it warns of each important point that is about to be made. Notice also he uses “can not” as separate words rather than the more common cannot. The purpose is to make each syllable distinct as part of the emphasis.

As a final trick to capture the audience, Lincoln reverses the repetition technique in the final sentence, placing the repeated word at the end of each thought rather than at the beginning: “- and that government, of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Length (words): 267
Text Posted: Avalon Project - Gettysburg Address

From The Bully Pulpit - Tom

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Shameless Hypocrisy

Title: American Slavery
Speech By: Frederick Douglass
Date: July 4, 1852
Location: Rochester, NY
Occasion: Independence Day Celebration

An escaped slave, Douglass left America, then returned to purchase his freedom so he could speak out publicly against slavery, without fear of being returned to bondage under the fugitive slave act. He certainly spoke out this Independence Day, almost nine years before the start of the Civil War.

He begins by involving his audience immediately: “Fellow citizens, pardon me, and allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today?” This simple opening sentence is effective on so many levels. By addressing his “fellow citizens,” he not only creates a shared identification, but establishes the basis on which his entire speech will rest - that he, and they, share the equal station of citizenship.

His next two words, “pardon me,” is a phrase designed to grab the attention of his listeners. “Pardon you?”, they would almost certainly be asking themselves, “Why do we need to pardon you?” In his first four words, Douglass has grabbed his listeners’ attention. He reinforces that by asking: “why am I called upon to speak here today?”

Now that he has their attention, he intends to cast cold water on their celebration. His point - The birth of American freedom, did not bring freedom to all Americans.

I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary!”, he declares. A marvelous turn of phrase, that. It references the old phrase “beyond the pale,” which means something or someone operating outside agreed standards of decency. But it’s also a thinly-veiled reference to the fact that the only difference between those who have reason to celebrate this day, and those who don’t, is the degree of their skin pigmentation. Were he paler, it would make an immeasurable difference in his freedom to participate in this festive occasion.

He then launches into the point he wants his audience to hear: the rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by the founders to his listeners, is not shared by the millions still held in chains. He announces that he sees this holiday from a different perspective, “I shall see this day and its popular characteristics from the slave's point of view.

His audience would have known that he shares this perspective because it is one he has experienced personally, something they have not.

It is not a pleasant speech, but it is undeniably powerful. “I will use the severest language I can command,” he promises. He does not disappoint.

He then proceeds to examine the arguments used to justify slavery, and dispenses with each in neat fashion.

Is the slave a man? “That point is conceded already,” he notes. He points to southern laws which prohibit teaching slaves to read and write. Such statutes are not needed for dogs or cattle or any of the other animal species extant.

Members of his race engage in all the professions other races do, and live in traditional family units. And above all, they engage in “confessing and worshipping the Christian God, and looking hopefully for life and immortality beyond the grave.” This argument indeed is above all. For, while an animal may have a concept of mortality, it does not ask if there is an after-life, or how the world came to be. This ability, only humans possess.

Then he poses the rhetorical question - is a man entitled to liberty? It’s a question which has been already answered for him. It is, in fact, the entire premise of the document his audience has gathered to celebrate. The Declaration of Independence itself proclaims men - “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Who can celebrate such a document, and simultaneously dispute its basic premise?

His next to last paragraph is a triumph of the orator’s art:
What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mock; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy - a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour.

His final verdict on an American nation which continues to sanction slavery is damning: in “shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.

This is a wonderful speech, about a not-so-wonderful time in our history. That it belongs in Time’s Top Ten Speeches is no more subject to dispute, than the premise that all humans are entitled to liberty.

Text Posted:
The History Place
Length Words: 1817

From The Bully Pulpit - Tom