By Robin Masters
Go to any speechwriter’s office and look at the bookshelf. What will you see? Possibly a copy of Strunk & White. Almost certainly Bartlett’s Popular Quotations. And, more likely than not, volumes full of collected speeches, with names like History’s Greatest Oratory and Words We Remember.
Speechwriters turn to those cherished tools often, whether for that elusive spark of inspiration, or—more likely—in moments of sheer desperation. They see them as representing the pinnacle of their craft, speeches that roll off the tongue, remain in the memory, and—in some cases—change the world.
They’re informative, reassuring, even fun to read. They’re also dangerous.
Right now the speechwriters for Senators John McCain and Barack Obama are working away at their convention speeches. They are writing for the biggest stages of their lives. If they’re like most speechwriters, they are being tempted by hundreds of pages of collected rhetoric sitting at their fingertips, waiting to be plumbed. But it’s a temptation they should avoid.
In fact, if they open those books, the first thing they might notice is that very few convention acceptance speeches are to be found. Maybe John. F Kennedy in 1960 laying out his vision of a New Frontier that “sums up not what I intend of offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them.” Possibly Barry Goldwater in 1964 asserting that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Perhaps George H.W. Bush asking us in 1988 to read his lips: “No new taxes.”
But as a rule, acceptance speeches are relatively unlikely to enter the annals of oratorical immortality. Of course, in some ways it is an unfair exercise. The convention acceptance speech is a relatively recent innovation. Abraham Lincoln, our nation’s greatest speaker—and speechwriter—lived at a time when it was considered untoward for a nominee to accept his party’s nomination in person. Had he done so, it is hard to believe that his words would not have been memorable. As it was, it was not until 1932 that Franklin Roosevelt broke from what he called the “absurd traditions” of the past and spoke in his own favor, changing—as he did in so many other ways—the American political landscape forever.
So the universe of acceptance speeches is relatively small. Nevertheless, it is difficult to deny that the last 76 years of American political history—the years since that first 1932 acceptance speech—have offered up more than their share of moments of tremendous rhetorical power. We know them well. FDR exhorting us that the “only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” JFK inspiring us to “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Ronald Reagan mourning with us for seven astronauts who “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.” Three of a multitude of powerful moments … but none from a convention speech.
Is there a lesson to be learned here for the McCain and Obama writing teams? Only that they need to consider exactly what an acceptance speech is supposed to be, and what it should accomplish. They may be tempted to shoot for the moon, but sometimes the moon just isn’t the right target. History-making oratory rarely makes an appearance in acceptance speeches, and success for Obama and McCain—and their writers—will not be defined as being listed in some future collection of great speeches.
So does that mean that these speeches—speeches that will no doubt be promoted and analyzed to within an inch of their lives—don’t in fact matter at all? Can the speechwriters for the McCain and Obama campaigns throw together a few canned clichés and knock off for a late-August vacation?
Unfortunately for them, they cannot. Acceptance speeches may not tend to offer history-defining moments, but they occupy a unique and important place in the modern American political tradition ... and they are not easy to write. They must be campaign speeches designed to invigorate like-minded supporters and introductions that must appeal to the wider electorate. They must encompass both political attacks and positive images of the future. They must be about policy and about votes. They are mishmashes and tightropes, and the pitfalls are as real as the opportunities.
In fact, by comparison, a high-minded speech—like an inaugural address—is a far easier one to write. A new president striding forward amid celebration, pomp, and circumstance and speaking for the first time to a nation that is usually willing, at least for a little while, to set aside its differences, is a speechwriter’s dream. Inaugurals are tailor-made for the soaring rhetoric that every writer puts to page with a smile on his face and the anticipation of reading fawning reviews in the days to follow.
But to get there, that speechwriter needs the convention speech first. And ultimately, he will not know if he was successful until Election Day. The analysts will have their say. The polls will move up and down. But the acceptance speech does not exist in isolation. It is like a late-season baseball game against a division rival. It alone cannot guarantee a championship weeks or months down the road. But a victory can add to or change a team’s momentum, give a pitcher or a batter crucial confidence, or even provide that one extra win that makes the difference in a tight race to make the postseason.
That is the approach the McCain and Obama speechwriters should be taking. They need momentum and confidence and a little extra edge. They need an enthusiastic base and a willing-to-listen middle. They need clear lines of attack against their opponents and policy pronouncements that sound like promises but aren’t. Most of all, they need to set aside the greatest speech compilations. The time for poetry is January 20. The time for a careful, grind-it-out, measure-every-word juggling act is now.
Masters is a former Bush Administration speechwriter
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