Monday, January 31, 2011

State of the Union 2011

Speech By: President Obama
Date: January 25, 2011
Location: House of Representatives
Occasion: State of the Union
It may be that he set the bar so high with his speech in Arizona, that any subsequent effort would be a mere shadow in its wake; or, maybe, it may be the nature of the speech itself, which is akin to a homeowners “to-do list” on a busy weekend – except this id for a nation of 300 million people, and for an entire year; and maybe, just maybe, it was the new seating arrangements, which not only blurred the partisan affiliation of the audience, but blunted their reaction to the speech, as well. Whatever the reason – the President’s State of the Union address was less than inspiring.

In fact, it would not be uncharitable to say it fell flat.

A State of the Union speech is assembled by a committee, the different agencies of government, the different interests among the public to whom the President wants to appeal, or to whom he owes a special thank you – and none of them are gathered in the same room to hear what the others have to say. It’s not a condition geared towards achieving excellence.

But last year’s speech was a solid effort.

This year’s speech was slightly shorter (about 300 words) than last year’s. But it seemed longer.

It may be that the new practice of having members of each party sit next to each other, diminished the enthusiasm, or the energy of the audience.

It may be, that sitting interspersed dilutes the effect of support for what the President is saying.

It occurs to me that the suggestion to mix up the seating came from one of the President’s own, now much reduced, party. Perhaps the idea was to distribute the President’s Democratic colleagues throughout the audience, and, in so doing, show more support throughout the House chamber than would otherwise have been exhibited. 

The problem seems to be that rather than distributing the President’s support more widely throughout the audience, it became diluted. If showing greater support was the intent, it was indeed a miscalculation.

As for the rhetoric of the speech itself, he appears to have abandoned the phrase “Let me be clear,” an expression which had become distressingly common in his earlier speeches. However, he still begins sentences with the word “And,” far too often. In this case, it was 49 times in 480 sentences. That’s more than 10 per cent of the time. The President, and his speech writers, can do better than that.

Finally, let’s talk about the catch-phrase of the speech “This is our Sputnik moment.” If you have doubts that this is the phrase the White House wanted to promote – go back and look at all the press coverage, just prior to, and just after the speech. Almost every outlet picked up on that phrase. 

Was that because it’s catchy, and has been on everyone’s lips in the days following the speech? No, it’s because the White House press office pushed it, thinking, or at least hoping, it would capture the public’s imagination.

Just one more miscalculation.

Length (words): 6945
Text Posted: The White House

From The Bully Pulpit - Tom

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Ask Not

Speech By: John F. Kennedy
Date: January 20 1961
Location: U.S. Capitol
Occasion: Inaugural Address
We view this speech today through the long lense of half a century. That long perspective has done nothing to diminish its power.

Despite the pomp, ceremony, and celebration attendant with a Presidential inauguration, few inaugural speeches are memorable. Among that number we might include Roosevelt’s first, both of Lincoln’s, and, perhaps, Jefferson’s first. 

William Henry Harrison’s was memorable, but not for the reason’s he might have preferred. It was the longest, taking just over two hours to deliver outdoors on a cold, wet, March day. (Inauguration day was originally March 4.) He proceeded from there to serve the shortest term in office, just over 31 days, expiring from pneumonia and septicemia. While it is probably not true that “Old Tippecanoe’s” pneumonia resulted from his delivery of a two hour speech in inclement weather, it likely served as a warning to his successors.

Kennedy’s speech was reasonably brief, running only 14 minutes and 1364 words. So what, in this brief address, is so special?

For one thing, it is quite deliberately aimed at the whole world – not just the people he had just sworn an oath to govern. It might have been, in another setting a great foreign policy speech.

He is also clearly trying to dispel doubts, about whether he, the youngest man ever elected to the post, is up to the job. He does this by by creating an image of the historic forbears who created this great and mighty country he now leads – “For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forbears prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago.

He then proceeds to outline the one great concern of his time: “The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.” There it is – in subtle but undoubted form – the one great fear of his nascent presidency, and the world at large. Nuclear war.

At that point, he issues one of the great rhetorical passages of the speech: “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans...” It conjures images of an ancient Greek messenger, tiring from his exertions, handing off the torch to the next runner, to light the way to the next city, so the message would not be delayed. What is particularly striking about this image is that the tradition of passing a torch is an invention of the modern Olympic Games, not the ancient ones. It dates back only to 1936!

Next he resorts to one of the most effective techniques of good speech writing – repetition. As we have discussed before, repetition serves the same purpose in a speech, as bullet points do on a piece of paper. It prepares the audience for each point the speaker wants to emphasize.

The phrase is “To those,” and it is an appeal to the world. To “old allies, new states, people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, sister republics south of our border, the United Nations, and finally, nations who would make themselves our adversary.

To each of these is offered a pledge – save for that last, “nations who would make themselves our adversary.” To those he makes a request: “that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction.” It is now nearly a quarter century since President Reagan’s speech in the shadow of the Berlin wall, led to a lessening of tensions between the world’s two great nuclear powers. It somehow seems alarmist to read the words of 50 years ago. But at the time, it was anything but – as the Cuban missile crisis would soon prove.

He again resorts to using repetition, with the phrase: “Let both sides.” It is a challenge to both sides – to use their power to advance the human condition rather than diminish it.

Near the end, he issues a phrase which sounds hauntingly reminiscent of Lincoln’s first inaugural: “In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. In Lincoln’s version it sounds like this: “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war.

Another haunting phrase from that paragraph is this: “The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.” It can’t help but escape notice that his own older brother would lie in just such a grave, had enough of his remains been recovered to bury, and, that he himself might have occupied such a grave, had things gone just a little worse that dark night in the Solomon Islands.

He expresses the resolve of his administration, and his nation, to defend freedom. Then it is on to the summation – the call to action. And a historic call it is.

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country.

It could have just as easily been – “Don’t ask what your country can do for you.” But that would not have offered the rhetorical flourish which makes the phrase so memorable. Not only that, there is a natural cadence to this phrasing that creates a dramatic pause after “Ask not,” that would have been otherwise lacking.

From The Bully Pulpit – Tom

Thursday, January 13, 2011


Speech By: President BarackObama
Date: January 12, 2011
Location: University of Arizona
Occasion: Service for those shot in Tucson
No one wishes to be the bearer of bad news. In ancient Egypt, the Pharaoh generally had the messenger who brought unpleasant tidings executed. While it wasn’t exactly news at this point, President Obama’s speech in response to the criminal attacks in Tucson last weekend was a sad duty.
 It was also a chance to stand as leader of a nation shocked, and torn and seeking answers. He made the most of it. He begins by establishing that all important shared identification: “I have come here tonight as an American who, like all Americans, kneels to pray with you today,
“I am one of you,” the President is assuring us, “We share this pain together.”
He speaks on behalf of the entire nation in wishing those who have suffered, and lost much, well. And he speaks openly, and unashamedly, of faith. This is not feigned or incongruous – for many of those who were victims of the attack were people of faith. Judge Roll, the President notes, was on his way back from Mass, which he attended every day. It may be of some comfort to his family, and those who share his obviously deep faith, that this was one of his final acts.
In turn, he speaks of each of the six deceased victims – telling a personal tale about each one. This is a well-researched speech.
Again he speaks for all of us: “Our hearts are broken by their sudden passing. Our hearts are broken – and yet, our hearts also have reason for fullness.
Next he speaks of the living, and in particular, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords: “I have just come from the University Medical Center, just a mile from here, where our friend Gabby courageously fights to recover even as we speak.” Then he departs from his prepared text to announce something that just occurred during his visit to her hospital room. “She just opened her eyes for the first time since the shooting,” he reveals, and the crowd goes wild with applause. He is no longer speaking for all of us – but to all of us.
His speech has become a universal appeal to the country. Who among us does not want to see Gabrielle Giffords recover, or is not deeply pained at the loss of nine year-old Christina Taylor Green? He is erecting a big tent – seeking inclusiveness. This is a large country he leads, and he wants us all to be involved in a respectful manner: “at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do – it's important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.
At a time when so many have used this horrific crime as an excuse to promote their own political agendas, even, in the most crass manner possible, do political fundraising, the closest the President comes to promoting a political agenda is this: “We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of violence in the future.” Is this a reference, perhaps, to stricter gun control? It gets no more specific than that. But the crowd erupted in sustained applause, so they certainly thought they knew what he meant.
He immediately returns to his role as leader of a great, if wounded, nation: “But what we can't do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility.
Then, he calls on us to seek a higher purpose from this attack: “That process of reflection, of making sure we align our values with our actions – that, I believe, is what a tragedy like this requires.”
Near the end, he is urging us on to higher calling: “I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.”
And: “If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let's make sure it's worthy of those we have lost.
He has risen above the sniping, and digging, and vicious calumny of standard political debate, and ascended to a new plane. Now he is asking his nation to join him at that high station.
Truly this is a superior speech at a time such is sorely needed. It would not be venturing too far afield to declare it the best of his Presidency.

Length (words): 2510
Text Posted: New York Times

From The Bully Pulpit - Tom

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Two Roads Diverged

Speech By: Governor Andrew Cuomo
Title: State of the State
Date: January 5, 2011
Location: Convention Center - Albany

Much has been made of the Governor’s decision to change the location of the annual State of the State address from its traditional location, in the Assembly Chamber, to the state Convention Center. Well it should. It is a speech heavy in symbolism.

In making this change, he is making a dramatic statement – before one word has been uttered.
He is sending several important messages:
- That he is ready to exercise the full range of powers available to him as Governor.
- That he is looking to involve the public to a greater extent - the Convention Center holds at least twice as many people as the Assembly chamber (2,200 people, according to the Governor himself.).
- That he understands how to reach out to the public directly, and will do so when necessary.
- That at the same time, he is also willing to work with Legislative leaders, demonstrating this by giving Speaker of the Assembly Sheldon Silver, and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a chance to address the crowd first.

This speech is different from the inaugural he gave last weekend. An inaugural is a statement of principles, a State of the State, an outline of policies.

This speech is designed to communicate a direction for the state, and the new Governor does so with flair. As if the new location were not symbolic enough, on the stage behind the podium, were seated 62 high school students from every county in the state. This is symbolic not only of greater public involvement, but that this speech is looking to the future.

He uses 82 projected slides to illustrate the major points of his speech. This is a first for this annual speech, something the Governor duly notes. Power Point can often take away from a speech. While the novelty value alone, adds something - particularly a touch of humor - these seemed to enhance it for the most part. This seemed particularly true for those I spoke to later who were in the live audience. It may have lost something for the television audience.

The first of the slides shows a road forking toward the top of the slide. Problems facing New York were listed at the bottom, then as the slides progress, the problems move off-screen on the left side of the fork. The solutions, which come next, take the right fork to exit.

There is much symbolism here. While the left side, which is the road the problems take, can be thought of as the liberal side, or wing, and the right fork the conservative, it might have another interpretation. In classical allusion, the left is the “sinister” side.

In either event, I think the problems were made to exit stage left for a reason.

He also used slides to great effect with a touch of humor, playing on the old phrase “Ships passing in the night.” He used it to illustrate how the budget negotiations between the Executive and both houses of the Legislature – represented by three ships – two representing the Senate and Assembly traveling in one direction, the much larger one representing his office headed on the opposite course, must not be like ships passing in the night.

While perhaps not a completely accurate representation, it was certainly good theater.

The new Governor did not completely abandon rhetorical convention for the comfort of power point. He uses those tried and true techniques of speech making, repetition of phrase, and shared identity:
We have four principles that will guide our new government.
We want a government that pays for performance. No more blank checks.
We want a government that actually gets results in real time.
We want a government that puts the people first and not the special interests first.
We want a government that is an icon for integrity where New Yorkers can be proud of their government once again.

One phrase in particular caught my attention: “New York has no future as the tax capitol of this nation.

He ended his speech with great energy, and - this demonstrates the problems with power point – concluded in rousing fashion, speaking directly to the audience, looking directly at them, instead of turning to look at a projection screen. His energy seemed to rally the crowd, and that is usually the point of a concluding paragraph:
Let this 234th legislature stand up and write a new page in the history book of New York State government. Let this 234th legislature solve these problems at a time of crisis and bring this state to a place that it’s never been. We’re not just going to build back we’re going to build back bigger stronger than ever before. That’s what we’re going to do together. Thank you and God bless you.

If the point was – “It’s time to take a new direction” – it certainly came across.
Length (words): 5448
Text Posted: Albany Times Union

From The Bully Pulpit: - Tom

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

State of Politics

The Bully Pulpit got a mention last night from Liz Benjamin's State of Politics blog, so I thought I'd return the favor. For those of you interested in New York politics but unfamiliar with the State of Politics blog, it's one of the premier political blogs around.

Liz Benjamin is a top-notch reporter, with excellent sources all over the state! She also does duty as host of YNN's Capital Tonight - New York's only statewide political program. Thanks for the mention, Liz.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Spare Words

Speech By: Andrew Cuomo
Date: January 1, 2011
Location: New York State Capitol
Occasion: Inaugural
It was an inaugural celebration befitting the times – spare, austere even. Yet that does not mean the words of the inaugural address need be spare. After all, they place no added burden on the public purse.

But these words are indeed spare, for all that there are many of them. The speech itself runs more than 3,500 words. It is plain-spoken with few passages that depend on rhetorical flourishes.

Not only is Andrew Cuomo the first son of a New York Governor to also hold that office, the first Governor Cuomo was a renowned speaker. It can’t be a comfortable feeling to know that there will inevitably be comparisons. Yet, to be a leader in a democracy, public speaking is an essential demand of the job.

The new Governor seems to meet this challenge by concentrating on his plain-spoken approach. “My attitude will be constructive impatience with the status quo of Albany.

This doesn’t mean he abandons all resort to rhetorical convention. For example, he uses repetition to emphasize his points: “New York faces a deficit, a deficit that we talk about all day long: the budget deficit, the budget deficit. But it’s actually worse. The state faces a budget deficit and a competence deficit and an integrity deficit and a trust deficit. And those are the obstacles we really face.

He also demonstrates a distinct change of tone from the inaugural address of the last Governor elected to the post. Where Eliot Spitzer was smug and insulting, Cuomo is gracious and complimentary of others. He makes it clear he is seeking to work cooperatively, not run roughshod over everyone: “because in truth the partnership between the Executive and the Legislature has not been working well for years and that must change.

He regularly resorts to the phrase “My friends.” It’s a way to establish that all-important shared identity with the audience.

It is not a great speech, it is workmanlike. Then again that’s exactly the tone he seems to be setting: “We know what needs to be done. We have known, in truth, what needs to be done for many, many years. What we have to do this time is we actually have to do it,

Our new Governor did use the occasion to announce a radical departure from the security measures of recent years: “And today, my friends, we will reopen the Capitol, literally and figuratively. We will remove the barriers on State Street so the tour buses can return once again. We will be opening up the second floor, the Governor’s floor, so the members of the public will once again have access to their government.

I remember getting on the elevator in the Capitol and riding next to the first Governor Cuomo. You had the opportunity to talk. Just chit-chat, mostly, but if more was called for the opportunity was there. Sadly that was not possible with the last three Governors. It’s nice to think it will be again.

Length (words): 3520

From The Bully Pulpit - Tom