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Speech Reach

What do politicians do? They talk . . . to constituents, to contributors, to lobbyists, to each other. So why are they such bad public speakers? The proof is in the podium.

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The most primitive form of political manipulation, the speech, has made it big again. "Didn't she give a good talk?" Clinton asked, patronizingly, about Hillary's mostly unsuccessful effort. "Didn't Joe Lieberman give a great speech last night?" Chris Dodd added, against the backdrop of just about everybody saying these speeches were do-or-die.

This is quite a revival. For a generation, television, the cool medium, has been turning the speech, in its best incarnation a highly emotional form, into a media anachronism. The speech was the chaff of the sound bite. It couldn't compare to a 30-second "Morning in America" spot, or a Willie Horton, or a good photo op. The strategic use of media was supposed to have become, insidiously or not, the way to deliver a complex, multi-targeted, finely shaded political message. Whereas speech-making was just, plainly, bad television. A repudiation of television, almost. So hopelessly linear. Noninteractive. Beginning-middle-and-end-ish. Recitation rather than performance. No visualizations. And requiring, in this fractured age, on the part of an information-sated and -weary audience, a dogged attention span.

Now the speech, in this era of facilitators and motivators and presenters and preachers and talking heads, returns as the pure test of a candidate's character and vision -- just at the moment when there is hardly a politician who can give a proper speech. There are no orators. There is no school of oratory. This is a seriously lost political art. There is really not even an accepted form for a good and rousing speech (the current form for a speech is the bullet-point corporate model). And, possibly most important, there is no audience for a speech. ("Hey dude, let's go hear a guy give a speech.")

Possibly we no longer even have the subject matter for a good speech. Speech-making begs for large themes. The fate of nations, for instance. Some excuse for a hint of outrage and demagoguery. It is not easy -- and even harder without PowerPoint -- to make a compelling speech out of the administrative themes of the age: health care, education, campaign-finance reform.

Of course, political discourse itself has become, in the inner circles of both parties, almost entirely subverbal wonk talk and, in public, a list of painful and ritualized clichés. "Twenty-first-century jobs need twenty-first-century schools . . . Progress, not partisanship . . . Honor is not just a word but an obligation . . . The hard right over the easy wrong . . . I remember a child . . ." These are some random jottings from the Democrats' convention, phrases that are interchangeable in any of the speeches delivered in Los Angeles (they would have worked as well in Philadelphia). Speechwriters are politicians before they are writers (i.e., speech-writing is to writing what military music is to music).

Gore does not give an appreciably lower order of speech than Clinton. They are both verbal wimps. But Gore has lacked the existential moment (he has lacked the Clinton unwritten stuff too: the lip, the pout, the eyes).

Oh, and then there is the TelePrompTer. Almost nobody but a television professional, or a sitting president, can use a TelePrompTer. It cuts your sentences in some typographical tyranny, and though theoretically it follows you, you're almost always running after it -- grabbed by the throat. The TelePrompTer also makes the speech-maker believe he can avoid a fundamental of speech-making, which is memorization. The best speech at the Democratic convention was Jesse Jackson's (and, really, he's been phoning in his speeches for years). He and Kweisi Mfume were the only speakers not to use the TelePrompTer. Not just, I suspect in Jackson's case, because he hates the thing (and he's been giving the same speech so long that he has memorized it anyway), but because he didn't want to show the speech ahead of time and have it nitpicked. ("We passed it by the VP and he just wondered if you could tone down the paragraph where you say . . .")

White men, it would seem, just can't give good speeches (Mario Cuomo's ability to give a speech made him seem unusual, foreign even). Their speeches are -- and the expectation is they will all be -- trite, insincere, forced, remote, dull. Within that framework, the speech will achieve, with luck and professional attention, a level of acceptability if it is also coherent, earnest, tempered, and brief. It is the perfection of banality. And by national agreement, no one listens. Is there a politician anyone looks forward to hearing?

Well, yes. Bill Clinton.

It is Clinton, as trite, insincere, forced, remote, and dull in his speech-making as anyone else, who has most of all helped return the speech to its place at the center of political media.

At the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, in 1988, Clinton, the young governor, delivered among the worst speeches ever given. It was so bad that it highlighted the power of speech-making. His speech, going on endlessly in a prime-time spot, provoking gestures of desperation in the audience and incredulity on the part of commentators, earned him national notoriety. Clinton became famous because the speech was so clumsy -- but not a little charming and human in its clumsiness. Something to hang his head and apologize for. But attention, however achieved, is attention.

And then there is Clinton's series of personal-drama speeches. In those instances, it was not so much the speech itself but his own nakedness that was, with a little critical interpretation, inspiring. I stand before you . . . Judge me . . . Do with me what you will . . . The speeches -- after he loses both houses of Congress; his State of the Union after he is accused of, and denies, Monica; his next State of the Union, after he becomes the second president to be impeached; and now his farewell convention speech (would he really go?) -- took on an exaggerated importance not because of his eloquence but because of his shamelessness. The sheer guts of appearing in public. The fact of being able to say anything at all -- of even making the effort to talk himself out of trouble. These speeches save him. This is good stuff.

It is Clinton who, while doing little for the form itself, restores the existential element to speech-making. Speech-making becomes not just a campaign convention, not just a corporate presentation, but a person alone, with no defenses but his own words. Will he survive?

That was the gore setup. was survival even possible for Gore, who, we all know, could not give a speech to save his life? The Gore people gladly collaborated in this pre-finale promotion -- Gore, against all odds, writing the speech himself. (As it turned out, he cut and pasted it, selecting his favorite 12,000 words or so from the bilge of the past year and passing it on to aides and fixers for cutting and reformatting -- word processing has not been good for the art of speech-making.)

It was the drama. What kind of speech would Gore deliver -- as though there were another kind of speech than the cobbled-together (the political speech committee writes in blocks, divvying out the assignments: You take health care; you take vouchers; you take bio; you assemble), long-list-of-virtues-and-initiatives kind?

Gore, in fact, does not give an appreciably lower order of speech than Clinton. They are both verbal wimps. But Gore, in the particular predicament of a vice-president, has lacked the existential moment (he has lacked the Clinton unwritten stuff too: the lip, the pout, the eyes). For eight years, Gore was just talking -- filling the space. He wasn't ever near the precipice.

Until now. The media wisdom on this point was clear.

His fate would go in one of two directions: ignominy and dismissal for having given an unsatisfactory address, or a hardy pat on the back and the necessary momentum ("This gives him momentum," various commentators offered, which is pretty much what it takes to get momentum) to gain the ground that Gore did in fact take in last week's polls.

Indeed, the Gore speech, whether for its pace or for its themes -- or the Tipper Kiss -- is now in contention for the thing-that-turned-it-all-around.

He passed the test.

But what was the test? What was the relative difference in this instance between failure, mediocrity, and superb performance?

There was no utterance here that surprised or moved anyone -- either in the actual audience of political functionaries and media types at the convention ("What did you think of the speech?" we kept querying each other, hoping someone would have some unexpected point of view; "Good? Bad? Quick, what do you think?" asked an on-air commentator, in headset, seconds before having to critique the speech from the floor) or in the more important audience of independent and undecided voters in the bedrooms of America.

The weird thing is that most politicians are pretty good speakers. This is what they do for a living, after all. They love their voices (if not necessarily their words), and they love the attention. They're probably most at home and most enjoying themselves when they're speaking before one or another of the thousands of groups, eating salmon in meeting rooms at a Marriott or Sheraton, they speak in front of every year. Nita Lowey, the congresswoman from Westchester, who gave an uninteresting and perfunctory speech to the convention, sauntered to the podium at the Santa Monica Sheraton and spent twenty minutes entertaining, cajoling, informing, and having a fine time with her audience of 50 or 60 friends of the American Jewish Committee in a talk entitled "Jewish Voters, Jewish Candidates, and the Democratic Party." No doubt, this commuting between one odd and parochial group and another, the lot in life of most politicians, has something to do with why politicians have lost the knack of synthesis, why the big picture seems so foreign to them, why they are so unable to articulate why they bother doing what they do, why they invariably fail to become larger than they are.

The speech, or the speech, is a fantasy. It's a desire, certainly on the part of media types, but perhaps on the part of people in their bedrooms, too, for something real -- spontaneous, ad-libbed, funny, moving, truthful -- and something large. There must be something important, after all. What if one of these guys could talk? What if he liked the words he said? And understood them? And could use them? People might start to listen. Ratings would go up. Politics would be a decent sport again. The speech is both the symbol of some unrequited thing in politics and the instrument for the potential deep connection of candidate to populace. This is a quaint, noble, and pitiful yearning. We really would like someone to say something grand. A little poetry and exhortation.


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