Monday, May 2, 2011

From Insider Humor to Human History: Obama's Last 24 Hours

By Cynthia Starks

Saturday night President Obama had a lot of fun with his humorous remarks at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner. Then, on a quiet Sunday, history arrived. The killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. troops at a compound in Pakistan stunned and surprised us, and called forth both strong and heartfelt remarks by our President. The New York Times reports he wrote the speech himself.

He did a beautiful job. He began in a straightforward manner: “Tonight I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden…”

Next, he drew a picture of the dark day for which bin Laden was responsible: “It was nearly 10 years ago that a bright September day was darkened by the worst attack on the American people in our history.”

Then, in elegiac prose, the President recalled the lingering pain of the deaths on that day, “the empty seat at the dinner table. Children who were forced to grow up without their mother or their father. Parents who would never know the feeling of their child’s embrace. Nearly 3,000 citizens taken from us.”

He thanked the military: “Over the past 10 years, thanks to the tireless and heroic work of our military and our counterterrorism professionals, we’ve made great strides in that effort” -- referring to the war against Al Qaeda to “protect our citizens, our friends, and our allies.”

And throughout his remarks, Obama wove in the “American Story” -- who we are as a people, what we stand for. He said, “In our time of grief, the American people came together. We offered our neighbors a hand, and we offered the wounded our blood. We reaffirmed our ties to each other, and our love of community and country. On that day, no matter where we came from, what God we prayed to, or what race or ethnicity we were, we were united as one American family.”

He continued, “The American people did not choose this fight. It came to our shores and started with the senseless slaughter of our citizens.” And later, “Americans understand the cost of war. Yet as a country, we will never tolerate our security being threatened, nor stand idly by when our people have been killed. We will be relentless in defense of our citizens and our friends and our allies. We will be true to the values that make us who we are…”

Near the conclusion of his remarks, he said, “Today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people. Tonight we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to. That is the story of our history…”

Finally, “Let us remember that we can do these things not just because of wealth or power, but because of who we are: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

A beautiful, beautiful speech. At its heart, it told a story. Not just the story of the killing of Osama bin Laden, but our story -- the story of the American people. We are a peaceful people. We suffered a vicious, unprovoked attack. Because we are a good and great nation, committed to justice and protecting our people, we pursued Osama bin Laden. Even though it took 10 years, we did not give up. This is who we are. We can do anything we set our minds to do. And we are this way because we are one nation, indivisible, under God, with liberty and justice for all.

Speechwriters may live for events like the White House Correspondents Dinner remarks -- where they can let their hair down, and write funny stories and anecdotes based on popular culture, current news and newsmakers.

But on a more regular basis, speechwriters also live to tell stories like this one -- not specifically about Osama bin Laden’s death, of course -- but stories that should be at the heart of every speech. Why we do what we do. Why we care. Who benefits. Why it uplifts us and calls upon the “better angels” of our nature.

A speaker’s audience, no matter who it is -- employees, customers, industry peers -- wants to be reminded that they can make a difference in the world. That they are part of something larger than themselves. It is the speaker’s job -- and the speechwriter’s -- to articulate this through the stories they tell. 

Starks is a freelance speechwriter based in Indiana


Gotham Ghostwriters said...

Not surprisingly, Obama's speech, much like everything he says and does, has evoked strong reactions, positive and negative.

Over at Ragan, PR consultant and NYU prof Fraser Seitel was even more effusive than Cindy in his praise, calling the speech Obama's understated finest hour.

On the other extreme, conservative writer Mark Steyn was openly contemptuous of the president's address, calling it "overwrought and generic" in a blog post for National Review.

We're curious to hear where our fellow speech junkies came down.

jdobrian said...

Achievement? One man killed?

Does this mean the troops can all go home? Didn't think so. With this cynical, hypocritical, canting speech, Obama has proven once again that he can say nothing of value and still have people swooning because he's soooooo dreamy. And the reaction to bin Laden's death from all points on the political spectrum ("a great day for America," "justice has been done," "closure") just indicates to me the utter fatuity, the contemptible stupidity, of a large percentage of the American people.

Anonymous said...

Did you have the same reaction when Bush sent all of the troops overseas...saying that it was for the safety of America? When he said that bin Laden was the #1 threat to our country?

Did you note him for the same hypocritical speech? I hope so.

You are right about the stupidity of the American people, though. I assume that you held this belief back when Bush was elected in 2000 and 2004...right?

jdobrian said...

Anonymous, yes, I did have a similar reaction. I'm no fan of Bush. I'm a Libertarian.

Anonymous said...

@jdobrian Keep on spittin' the words!

Rena Silverman said...

Great piece, Cynthia.

In addition to everything mentioned here, I also I admired Obama's clarification that, "Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims." He went on to say, "Indeed, al Qaeda has slaughtered scores of Muslims in many countries, including our own. So his demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity."

He writes his own speeches quite well.

Bill Dunne said...

I'm with the Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter: "Any joy one might feel in the intelligence of our analysts and the bravery of our door kickers was significantly diminished by Obama’s malignant narcissism. The first part of the announcement, evoking 9/11, was vulgarly overwritten as per Obama’s view of himself as some kind of gifted orator. The adjective bloated compote was unworthy of the subject, banal and self-indulgent."

Charles Crawford said...

The key point is that both arguments are correct (enough).

Parts of the speech were, of course, badly overwritten, in a pseudo-lyrical way arguably 100% inappropriate for what had just taken place (a military raid using massive force to kill a number of lightly armed terrorist suspects).

But on the other hand, the speech showed just what can be done even with mawkish material when the dramatic news being conveyed is just what huge numbers of people want to hear - the not-so-subliminal message people of all political persuasions 'heard' was 'America is the Champ Yet Again'.

My take: