Political speeches becoming more than just partisan fodder

Pete Souza

Posted on October 02, 2012 in Perspectives
By Spencer McBreairty

Perhaps the greatest weapons a political candidate has in his or her arsenal are an incredible speech writer and a talent for persuasive delivery.

In 2008, Barack Obama gave some incredible speeches while trying to defeat Hillary Clinton. Although the speeches carried Obama’s ideas and vision, much of the speech writing was actually done by a relatively unknown young man named Jon Favreau. A man of only 27, Favreau would go on to draft some of the most pivotal speeches in the campaign, helping Obama secure victory in the primary. Now the director of speech-writing at the White House, he continues to help the Obama campaign organize and perfect the president’s thoughts.

But the prominence of political speeches has been an evolving process. In 1936, faced with re-election and increasing tension within foreign affairs , Roosevelt declared “I hate war” while speaking in western New York. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, he called it a “date which will live in infamy.” That day, like Roosevelt’s speech, has in fact gone on to be remembered at the same level as “Four score and seven years ago” or “a crisis of confidence.”

So what is it about these speeches that makes them noteworthy in the eyes of the public? Are we really so simple that a few nice-sounding words woo us into confidently checking that little box? On the one hand, yes – we are that simple. We hear a candidate say “no new taxes,” and we don’t question why or how – we vote for them.

The words are only part of it. Reagan was criticized heavily for his speeches being too fluffy. It was often said that he intentionally avoided serious issues in his speeches and instead chose to focus on less demanding ones. But when he stood behind the podium as president, he commanded an audience – not because of his title, but because of his talent. He was great at giving speeches, even when they lacked substance. For the Americans that witnessed it, the thought of the Challenger disaster and Reagan’s “touch the face of God” speech are mutually inclusive.

So diction isn’t the only defining factor. But the same can be said about mannerisms and confidence. There is art in speech-writing and deliverance, and when you run for president, that skill needs to be perfected.

Campaign speeches that leave an impression do a few different things. First, they relate to the audience. Second, they have emotional impact. For instance, talking about a dead relative or a great love of America is always a sure crowd-pleaser. Next, they almost always have to put down the competition. Maybe they’ll be upfront – “Obama is a tax-and-spend Socialist.” Or maybe it’ll be less confrontational – “There are those who believe increased taxation and high government spending are beneficial,” etc. Finally, no campaign speech is complete without mentioning what makes the speaker top dog, whether it be a military record or time spent working with the poor. Whatever they have to sell, they have to do it quite well, but in the end, the average voter doesn’t really listen to what is said in many speeches, a major problem.

If candidates have a combination of good writing and confidence, there will really be a competition. As the election approaches, it will be interesting to see how speeches evolve. The convention speeches were a good indicator that both sides are prepared and committed to their message. It might not be a bad thing that speeches are evolving and becoming more influential with voters. If anything it allows average Americans the opportunity to hear a candidate’s message quickly and still get a meaningful bit of knowledge in the process.