Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Speech By: Marion Roach Smith
Date: 2002
Occasion: Commencement
Let’s begin with full disclosure – Marion Roach Smith is a friend, and writing instructor. She teaches an excellent writing class here in the capitol region, and, whether you are looking to develop, or just hone your writing skills, I highly recommend it.

That said – let’s take a look at 15 Rules for Us Girls to Live By.

One of the difficult tasks in delivering a commencement address is the opening. While it is the speaker’s assigned mission to offer insight and words of wisdom to the audience, from the speaker’s own perspective, “I” is a terrible way to start a speech. Yet people are there to listen to what “You” have to say.

Marion handles this dilemma quite nicely. “Why would I be asked to speak at a school commencement, my daughter wanted to know?” It’s a great start, because it’s a little self-deprecating, it’s a question asked by someone else, and, it’s even a great way to let the audience know she has a daughter. That last point means she has created instant identification with the two main elements of the audience – the parents, who are obviously also the parents of daughters, and those daughters themselves.

Then she proceeds to focus attention directly on the new graduates by offering her 15 rules.

First is: “Never be without at least one pair of red shoes. There are few situations in life that cannot be improved by them.” All right, I have to confess – I’m not really a “red shoes” kind of guy. Although I do have a pair of white bucks, which, worn with the blue seersucker suit on a bright summer day, makes people notice. In a good way. So I kind of get this.

Next is: “Don’t read the Cliff Notes. Read the book.” Face it, this is not a rule for “Us Girls,” it’s a rule for everybody. I already knew what evolution was, and how it worked, when I read Darwin’s Origin of Species. But reading the book, and understanding how he arrived at his conclusions, made Darwin’s theory available in a new way. I hope by now, eight years later, those in Marion’s audience are able to cite their own examples.

Next we get to: “Wear lipstick. All right, we have now reached a point in the speech that far exceeds by limited ability to fathom. I don’t get lipstick. I don’t just mean on me – I don’t even get why women wear it! So, to make it a “rule to live by,” simply is beyond my comprehension.

Marion goes on to explain: “It feels great, and it’s fun, and all too often we depend on other people to make us feel good and show us a good time. Get yourself some lipstick, and every time you apply it, remember that this is one of your rules of life: to show yourself a good time, in your shade, on your terms.


In case you hadn’t figured it out yet, I’m a real guy, and particularly fond of the girl-next-door look to boot. This explanation still hasn’t helped much.

The nearest I can figure is that wearing lipstick for a woman is like throwing a ball for a man. There’s nothing like picking up a ball at a picnic or on a playground, and throwing a nice tight spiral. It’s even better if you can snap off a throw with zip, maybe enough to get that nasty little hum which warns the guy about to catch it that his hands are going to burn when he does. Then the guy at the receiving end picks it back up and tries to throw it back exactly the same way. Perhaps it’s like that.

I don’t know.

So why am I focusing so much attention on one out of fifteen rules, particularly one I admittedly don’t understand? Here’s the thing – I don’t need to know. It’s not intended for me, or anyone like me. It was meant to be heard, and understood, by the girls of the Albany Academy. Marion has not only connected with those girls in a way they can personally identify – but in a way that even has the power to exclude some of those listeners for whom the speech is not intended! What wonderful shared identification!

There are a dozen more rules, many of which apply to everyone, some of which – not so much. But I bet Marion had their attention for every one of them!

From The Bully Pulpit - Tom

Monday, February 7, 2011

Tear Down This Wall - Back Story

How does a Presidential speech get written? As I’ve mentioned here, or here, a Presidential speech is almost never a case of one writer, no matter how talented, sitting down at a desk and whipping up some stirring rhetoric. It almost always involves input from various departments of a very large government.

Each of those has specific, and to their mind at least, quite convincing arguments about why the President should say what they want the President to say. Most often, they get their way.

In fact, it’s a wonder a President ever has anything to say that’s even worth listening to.

Today I ran across a fascinating blog post by Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, who was one of President Reagan’s speech writers for his “Tear Down This Wall” speech.

He describes the strategy the President’s speech writers employed to get the speech past powerful figures like Secretary of State George Schultz, and General Colin Powell. Rohrabacher and his colleagues knew that the phrase “Tear down this wall,” would be problematic for the senior advisors who normally have enough influence to get things taken from a speech.

By getting their draft into the President’s hands before it could be watered down by his advisors, the speech writers managed to create something powerful, and memorable.

Today, the line they had to fight so hard to preserve, is what is most memorable about that speech.
Just imagine if Reagan had gone to Berlin and merely said “we think this wall is a really bad idea,” rather than hurl his unmistakable challenge to Gorbachev, with the whole world watching.

Bonn might still be the Capitol of a nation known as West Germany!

From The Bully Pulpit - Tom

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Tear Down This Wall

Speech By: President Ronald Reagan
Date: June 12, 1987
Location: Brandenburg Gate
Occasion: Speech to West Berlin
This marks the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth. In honor of that occasion, we look to one of his greatest speeches – to the people of West Berlin, in front of the Berlin Wall.

It is likely a difficult thing to imagine, for those of us who truly remember what the Berlin Wall represented – but there are people old enough to walk into a bar and buy a drink today, who had not yet been born while that wall still stood. Today, there is no such thing as an East or West Berlin. It is one city.

President Reagan’s policies largely brought that about, and this speech is emblematic of those policies.

The wall was a stark gulf between the ideals of freedom, and the forces which sought to impose “the will of a totalitarian state.

He begins by recognizing that President Kennedy and two other Presidents since, have come to this divided city to speak, and that this is his second trip. It is repeating to Berlin, and the world, the old American adage – partisanship ends at the water’s edge.

There is also some danger in this – President Kennedy’s speech, featuring the famous line “Ich bin ein Berliner,” was one of the most famous foreign policy speeches in American history. The danger for Reagan was that his own speech, at a moment of great import, would pale by comparison. He proves equal to the task.

We come to Berlin, we American presidents, because it's our duty to speak, in this place, of freedom.” More than just the states are united in the U.S.! He ends this paragraph with a phrase in German: “You see, like so many presidents before me, I come here today because wherever I go, whatever I do: Ich hab noch einen Koffer in Berlin. [I still have a suitcase in Berlin.]

It may be a take off on Kennedy’s Berlin speech, using a German phrase, but it is also a perfect way to establish that all important audience identification. We stand in common, it says to the crowd. He uses the same technique in the very next paragraph: “I join you, as I join your fellow countrymen in the West, in this firm, this unalterable belief: Es gibt nur ein Berlin. [There is only one Berlin.]” He will do it once again a little later.

Next he talks about the wall itself, and the network of barriers that divide Germany: “those barriers cut across Germany in a gash of barbed wire, concrete, dog runs, and guard towers.” What wonderfully stark imagery this is! A “gash,” an open wound, composed not of torn flesh, but of “barbed wire, concrete, dog runs, and guard towers.” We can not help but consider that blood has flowed across these barriers just the same.

Then he brings that image to the place where he stands at that very moment: “Standing before the Brandenburg Gate, every man is a German, separated from his fellow men. Every man is a Berliner, forced to look upon a scar.

After this stark reminder, he turns to hope for the future: “Yet I do not come here to lament. For I find in Berlin a message of hope, even in the shadow of this wall, a message of triumph.

He refers to the reforms that have been taking place, in a Soviet Union which is beginning to realize it can no longer sustain this conflict with the West: “And now the Soviets themselves may, in a limited way, be coming to understand the importance of freedom.

Then, just about half way into the speech, he comes to the galvanizing line that etches it into the mind: “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

Tear down this wall!” It is a challenge to action like few others that have ever been issued. It is the most powerful man in the world, telling the man who wields power almost its equal, “This is what you must do!” If your policy of Glasnost really means anything, you must close this gash in the earth, heal this wound. It is the way a President says: “Put up, or shut up.” Show us you mean it.

Much is said after this line, but it really doesn’t matter. The call to action has been hurled, the challenge issued.

He sums up with this assurance: “Yes, across Europe, this wall will fall. For it cannot withstand faith; it cannot withstand truth. The wall cannot withstand freedom.

Then he closes – not with a challenge, or call to action, that’s already been done – but with a wonderful little zinger, aimed at those who protested his appearance in Berlin: “And I would like, before I close, to say one word. I have read, and I have been questioned since I've been here about certain demonstrations against my coming. And I would like to say just one thing, and to those who demonstrate so. I wonder if they have ever asked themselves that if they should have the kind of government they apparently seek, no one would ever be able to do what they're doing again.

I wonder if this last paragraph was not added at the last moment, perhaps even the morning of the speech, because the rest of the speech was almost certainly finished before the President climbed aboard Air Force One for the trip to Europe. It is well done, if that is the case. I remember laughing out loud when I heard this the first time, because it rang so true.

With the judgment of history now rendered, that truth is now obvious.

Length (words): 2651
Text Posted: The History Place

From The Bully Pulpit – Tom