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

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Tonight, it matters

He has given, by the count I arrived at based on information posted on the White House Web site, 450 speeches since taking the oath of office. This does not include statements, press conferences, interviews or toasts.

My guess is, his remarks at the annual Easter egg roll probably weren’t extensive, considering the attention span of the intended audience. But many of those speeches were in depth policy talks.

It is said by any number of observers that President Obama’s first instinct when confronted by a problem is to give a speech. This is not intended as a compliment by said observers. This night however, before an audience crammed into the chamber of the House of Representatives, is different.

Tonight is President Obama’s first State of the Union speech, an occasion called for in 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;”

This speech is seen by many as a moment in which the President will attempt to turn around the slide in political fortunes of his party, his policy agenda in Congress, and ultimately his administration. Some are even starting to talk about President Obama as a one-term President. These people, of course, know nothing about politics. Three years is about a dozen lifetimes away in politics. There will be many successes to buoy the President between now and the next Presidential election, and many failures to deflate his administration. Of more immediate concern are the Congressional elections which are now just over nine months away, and which may prove a disaster for his party unless there is some significant change in public perception. This speech will try to change that perception.

Political reporter Chris Cillizza of The Fix offers a handy “State of the union viewer’s guide.

Along the same lines the Capitol newspaper The Hill gives this preview of the speech: “Obama changes message to revive agenda, help Dems in 2010 races.

We of course, will be watching tonight from the vantage point of -

The Bully Pulpit - Tom

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

I Concede - Martha Coakley

Speech By: Martha Coakley - Senate Candidate
Title: I Concede
Date: January 19, 2010
Location: Boston Massachusetts
Occasion: Loss of Senate Special Election
Length (minutes): 8:21
Video Posted:
Martha Coakley wasn’t supposed to have to give this speech. Unfortunately for her, she did. Scott Brown did 66 public events, during the six week special election campaign, or, 11 a week. Coakley did just 19 events during the same stretch, or just over three a week. While she apparently recognized she would lose at the end, the personal disappointment of seeing a lofty goal denied because of some internal flaw - well, actually, that really is the stuff of ancient Greek tragedy.

Coakley’s remarks were prepared - she keeps looking down at the podium and moving something with her hands - which is always a good thing in a tough situation like this.

In my earlier post on concession speeches, I detailed the elements of a successful concession -
  • Announce you have called the winner to concede, and wish that person luck in office.
  • Thank your family. If your campaign has been at all active, it has truly put a burden on them.
  • Thank your supporters for all their hard work.
  • Mention how you much you appreciate the opportunity to represent your party, and to meet as many voters as you did.
  • Say thank you once more, then leave the stage.

Although in a slightly different order, it’s a formula Coakley stuck to with little variation.

She starts out with a weak attempt at humor - “I don’t know, somebody told me there was a crowd out here.”

Then she goes immediately to the point of her talk - “I just got off the phone with Scott Brown and I’ve offered him my congratulations, and my best wishes on his victory tonight.

Despite her obvious personal disappointment, she then shows a moment of true class - “I told him Mr. Brown, you’ve got two lovely daughters, which he does.

With only this slight variation from the formula I suggested, she thanks her supporters first - “You poured your hearts and souls into this campaign. I want to say an incredibly sincere thank you.

Next she turns - literally - to thank the family standing up there with her, husband Tom, her sisters, and nieces and nephews. She talks about Tom’s hard work on the campaign trail, and, in a very human aside, about the family members who couldn’t really comprehend what the campaign was about, their two dogs.

She then offers thanks to a few very special volunteers in her campaign, President Obama, Former President Clinton, and a very personal thank you to Vicki Kennedy, widow of the Senator whose seat Coakley had hoped to win.

Finally, she gets to the fourth element of the formula, talking about the ideas and issues she campaigned on, and which are philosophical underpinnings of her party. She talks about meeting voters who share those views.

Then, if there is any failure in her concession, she blows the conclusion. She quotes from the final passage of the most famous speech of the man whose seat she had hoped to assume. That it was his concession speech, in the only race he ever lost, makes the failure more telling.

She quotes it this way - “We will always remember our terrific Senator Ted Kennedy and his words - the work begins anew, the hope rises again, and the dream lives on.

If this is the failure of the speech writer, then that person should be ashamed. There are far too many sources readily available on the internet where the correct language is posted. I have seen them.

Perhaps though, it was just the failure of mist-clouded eyes to properly read what had correctly been transcribed. I’d like to think that’s what it was.

For the record, here’s how Senator Ted Kennedy ended his only concession speech:
For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end.
For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.

From The Bully Pulpit - Tom 

Monday, January 18, 2010

Equal Time

Title: Response to the State of the State
Speech By: Senator Dean Skelos

It is traditional for the other party to respond to a major speech, such as the State of the State, or State of the Union. We examined the former, so this is an examination of the response by Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos. It is our version of equal time.
Full Disclosure - In examining New York politicians, we are talking about people I know personally. Governor Paterson and I have discussed seeing eye dog legislation, and Senator Skelos addresses me on a first-name basis. But none who ascends The Bully Pulpit is absolved of scrutiny from our little Congregation.
Date: January 6, 2010
Location: Albany, New York
Length (words): 850
Video Posted: YouTube
Text Posted: New York State Senator Dean G. Skelos

This speech starts out with the phrase “I’m Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos.” That’s a bad start. “I” is always a bad way to start a speech. It does not establish that all-important shared identification with the audience that gets people to listen. It generally does the opposite.

Granted, Governor Paterson spoke live before a crowded Assembly chamber, with an introduction by the Lieutenant Governor, while Senator Skelos spoke on television. But there are ways to handle this problem. Why not have an announcer introduce the Senator, or even superimpose on-screen titles? Actually, why not both? To compound the problem, the original tape is posted on the Web - unedited. It would take little effort to trim the first four seconds of video, or even just the sound, and insert a voice-over intro and titles. That way, later viewers would see a better product.

There are other flaws with this talk, though none is extremely damaging, and it’s not a bad speech, on balance. But it should have been better. The thing is - when you are competing with a Governor, who gets a greater share of public attention, you must maximize your opportunities.

This is an era when identification with political parties is at an all-time low. The largest portion of the electorate is not Democrat, nor Republican, it is unaffiliated voters - “independents.” So a speech that appeals heavily to partisan identification is likely to miss a large portion of the intended audience.

Yes, you want to blame the other side for their mistakes, and take credit for what you did right, that’s how democracy works. But he uses the phrase “Republican” or “Senate Republicans” half a dozen times. That’s more than once a minute, in this five minute speech. After once or twice the phrase “my colleagues and I,” might be preferable. If you are politically aware enough to listen to these speeches, you pretty much know what the sides are.

In terms of assigning blame to the other party, I actually think he lost a good opportunity. Early in the speech, he talks about how the budget adopted by the Democrats last year made life tougher for New York families, reciting a litany of problems.
“You lost your STAR rebate checks that helped you pay your property taxes.”
“Your energy taxes were raised, increasing your utility bills.”
“They increased the cost of health insurance for your family.”
“And, they made it more expensive for you to register your car, renew your driver’s license and pay for every day family needs.”
This was truly a lost opportunity to make an “Us versus them” comparison. For example, when you think about it, if “You lost your STAR rebate check,” you should start looking for it in the last place you saw it. That’s not what happened. It was taken away in a budget maneuver.

How about phrasing it this way instead:
“They took away our STAR rebate checks, which helped pay our property taxes.”
“They  raised energy taxes, increasing our utility bills.”
“They increased the cost of our health insurance.”
“And, they made it more expensive to register our cars, renew our driver’s licenses and pay for every day family needs.”

It makes the other party “they,” and, by substituting "our" for "your," makes it clear on whose side the speaker stands.

Equal time isn’t really equal - except perhaps at The Bully Pulpit - you have to make the most of your opportunities. This could have been better.

From The Bully Pulpit - Tom

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Speech Writer’s Tale

This profile of White House speech writer Ben Rhodes in today’s Washington Post, fascinates me on so many levels.

First, it chronicles his path to becoming a speech writer, one I suspect is familiar to most other practitioners of the craft. It’s the kind of thing you sort of fall into, because other people discover you have a talent for it. Yes, there are courses of study you can pursue, as I have. Writing courses certainly help. But those mainly hone an innate talent.

Second, it’s a rather extended profile for someone who isn’t even the Chief White House speech writer.

Finally, I can’t help wonder if this isn’t a violation of one of the cardinal rules of those in the public relations field - and certainly speech writing falls beneath that penumbra - “don’t let yourself become the story.”

Some fascinating insights into the way this administration values President Obama’s speeches are revealed:
“Rhodes said all the speechwriters were aware of the critical role they shared in an administration that depends so much on Obama's speeches to move the agenda forward.”

This elicits a counter view:
“Not everyone thinks that's the best way to govern.
‘Obama's instinct to save himself with a big speech is not a good instinct,’ said David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush. ‘People get a sense of you and they stop hearing you. People do tune you out.’”

But what really stood out in my mind was this quote from Rhodes: “I drank the Kool-Aid hard after the '04 convention speech,” according to the Post.

“Drank the Kool Aid,” seems to me a rather loaded phrase, since it refers to the Reverend Jim Jones and the mass suicide at Jonestown. It’s a phrase which indicates a belief in something one shouldn’t, with disastrous results. If that’s what he really means, why is he working for this President?

That’s why letting yourself become part of the story is dangerous.

Still it’s a fascinating read for anyone interested in how speech writers work.

From the Bully Pulpit - Tom

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Winter of Reckoning

Speech By: Governor David Paterson
Title: State of the State Address - 2010
January 6, 2010
Assembly Chamber, the Capitol, Albany, New York
Occasion: Opening of the Legislative Session
Length (words):
Text Posted:

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.

From The Bully Pulpit - Tom

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Elements - Rhetoric

What is the difference between rhetoric, and plain old  words? In one sense - it is akin to asking the difference between the cement blocks that support your house, and the foundation. You simply don’t have a foundation without those blocks. Yet, they are not the same thing. Just as the foundation is so much more than the individual blocks of which it is comprised, so, too, rhetoric is far more than the individual words of  which it is composed.

It is a term descended to us from the ancient Greeks, to whom it meant “the art of oratory.” Plato called it “the art of enchanting the soul.”

Merriam-Webster defines it as: “the art of speaking or writing effectively.”

“Effectively” is the key word in that definition. It doesn’t mean using multi-syllabic language in order to sound impressive. Certainly, that approach does not hold the key to enchanting the soul.

Nor does it mean speaking at great length. In fact, brevity and effective rhetoric are naturally compatible, because well-crafted rhetoric, generally requires fewer words than less carefully structured language.

Keep in mind the featured speaker at the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery was Edward Everett, former President of Harvard, and a nationally-known orator. He spoke for a little over two hours. The speaker who followed him, a lanky fellow named Lincoln, spoke for little more than two minutes.

Everett himself recognized the effectiveness of Lincoln’s spare approach to his remarks. In a note to the President the next day, Everett wrote, “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

Judging by whose address is best remembered today, Everett’s assessment proved prophetic.

So what makes a particular combination of words effective enough to be classified as rhetoric?

In one sense, crafting a speech using effective rhetoric is much like the sculptor Francois-Auguste Rodin’s description of how to carve a statue - “I choose a block of marble and chop off whatever I don’t need.”

Like chopping pieces off a marble block, eliminating extraneous, unnecessary words, is vital to the formation of rhetoric. There are words whose presence detracts from the whole. Articles in particular, words such as “the,” and “that,” are needlessly tedious elements of language.

Tedium is to rhetoric, what extraneous chunks of marble are to a statue.

When a speech I am writing is finished, I return to the work and ruthlessly excise as many articles, and as much other extraneous verbiage as possible, without risking the ability of the audience to comprehend what is said. The maxim of Thomas Jefferson, who was a lousy public speaker, but a more than passable writer, is instructive here: “Never use two words, when one will do.”

There is far more to be said on rhetoric. Entire college courses are devoted to the subject. But it is best to digest this first offering on the subject.

We are approaching the season of important public speeches - the State of the State, and the State of the Union. As you listen to them this year, I hope you will keep in mind the elements of speech writing, and whether they have been effectively used.

From The Bully Pulpit - Tom