A speech writer's take on important speeches, and the craft of writing for an audience.
Sunday, June 6, 2010
Boys of Pointe du Hoc
Speech By: President Ronald Reagan Title: The Boys of Pointe du Hoc Date: June 6, 1984 Location: Pointe du Hoc, France Occasion: 40th Anniversary of D-Day Analysis:
They landed at the bottom of the cliffs on D-Day, 225 Rangers assigned to scale the sheer cliffs on ropes, battling German defenders above the whole way up. Those lucky enough to reach the top, then had to take the German 155 howitzers whose sights were trained on the beaches at Normandy. After two days of fighting, the Rangers had suffered 60% casualties.
This was the heroic feat commemorated in President Ronald Reagan’s speech “The Boys of Pointe du Hoc.” While no mere ceremony could be equal to their feats of valor, this speech is at least worthy of describing them.
This is a masterpiece of the collaboration between speech writer and speaker. Written by Peggy Noonan, she brings a visual quality to the description of the scene, using plain language. “We stand on a lonely, windswept point on the northern shore of France. The air is soft, but 40 years ago at this moment, the air was dense with smoke and the cries of men, and the air was filled with the crack of rifle fire and the roar of cannon.”
The opening sentence launches into the speech without hesitation, and establishes that all-important shared identification with the audience. In this case it’s a simple but inarguable premise - We all owe these men a very great deal: “We're here to mark that day in history when the Allied armies joined in battle to reclaim this continent to liberty.”
The symbolic meaning of the memorial being dedicated that day is revealed: “Behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust into the top of these cliffs. And before me are the men who put them there.”
Then come the simple yet memorable lines from which the speech takes its name: “These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.” Repetition. Like bullet points on a sheet of paper. Notice how each line builds in significance - to show the true importance of what these men accomplished.
As befits an international ceremony, it does not stint on praise for the honor, the resolve, and the sacrifice of all the allies who took part in the liberation of Europe - it speaks of the valor of the Poles, and the Canadians, with a thinly-veiled reference to the disastrous raid at Dieppe two years earlier. Then a seeming roll call of the units involved: “All of these men were part of a rollcall of honor with names that spoke of a pride as bright as the colors they bore: the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, Poland’s 24th Lancers, the Royal Scots Fusiliers, the Screaming Eagles, the Yeomen of England’s armored divisions, the forces of Free France, the Coast Guard’s “Matchbox Fleet” and you, the American Rangers.”
Three years before his speech at the Brandenburg Gate, Reagan does not hesitate to call one of the allied partners up short: “Some liberated countries were lost. The great sadness of this loss echoes down to our own time in the streets of Warsaw, Prague, and East Berlin. Soviet troops that came to the center of this continent did not leave when peace came. They're still there, uninvited, unwanted, unyielding, almost 40 years after the war.”
Yet he also offers assurance there is no quarrel with the Soviet people, and that he recognizes their own suffering and valor in the War: “It's fitting to remember here the great losses also suffered by the Russian people during World War II: 20 million perished, a terrible price that testifies to all the world the necessity of ending war. I tell you from my heart that we in the United States do not want war. We want to wipe from the face of the Earth the terrible weapons that man now has in his hands. And I tell you, we are ready to seize that beachhead. We look for some sign from the Soviet Union that they are willing to move forward, that they share our desire and love for peace, and that they will give up the ways of conquest. There must be a changing there that will allow us to turn our hope into action.”
If you listened to just the audio of this speech there would be points where it seemed that maybe Reagan had lost his way, that there were awkward silences. But if you watch the video, it becomes apparent he is taking his time to pause deliberately, to seek out faces in the crowd - particularly those Rangers that crowd was there to honor. When I referred earlier to the great collaboration between speech writer and speaker, this is the part where a speaker is always on their own, and the “Great Communicator” is more than equal to the task. He is, in fact, its Master.
Notice, finally, that in the video Reagan constantly refers to index cards to prompt him along during the speech. Today that would most likely be a teleprompter. It seems as anachronistic as watching a P-51 Mustang fly into battle today. But both got the job done in their time.
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.