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Speech Therapy

Former presidential speechwriters explain the history and proper usage of the many tried-and-true devices you’ll hear in Bush’s speech tonight, along with one that the president’s team hopes you won’t.

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The Opener
I’m John Kerry, and I’m reporting for duty.
John Kerry, 2004 Democratic convention
“There’s nothing wrong with showmanship,” says former Clinton speechwriter Ted Widmer. “That’s part of speechwriting. It’s a funny mixture of historical information and summary of complicated current events and carnivalesque showmanship.”

The Joke
I feel great. And I am heartened by the polls, the ones that say that I look better in my jogging shorts than the governor of Arkansas.
George H.W. Bush, 1992 Republican convention
“Humor is the quickest way to establish community, and it says something about the character of the man,” says Peter Robinson, who’s most famous for penning “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” for Reagan. “It’s really hard to tell a joke well if you are, in your soul, pompous, uptight, or a stuffed shirt. It says the man is enjoying the job. Whatever dangers he sees, whatever worries, it says he’s able to rise above it and enjoy his work.”

The Inspirational Personal Story
I see another child tonight. He hears the train go by at night and he dreams of faraway places where he’d like to go. It seems like an impossible dream. But he is helped on his journey through life [inspirational details omitted]. And tonight he stands before you—nominated for president of the United States of America.
Richard Nixon, 1968 Republican convention
“Acceptance speeches didn’t used to be at all autobiographical,” says former Clinton speechwriter David Kusnet. “Roosevelt didn’t talk about recovering from polio. John F. Kennedy didn’t talk about PT-109 or being Catholic or being the grandson of Irish immigrants. Eisenhower didn’t talk about WWII. The first candidate to be autobiographical in a convention speech was Richard Nixon. And after Nixon, every candidate from an unprivileged background talked about how he came up from poverty, and every candidate from a privileged background went searching for something in his background that would humanize him.”

The Applause Line
The incumbent president says that unemployment always goes up a little before a recovery begins, but unemployment only has to go up by one more person before a real recovery can begin. And Mr. President, you are that man.
Bill Clinton, 1992 Democratic convention
“For a speech to a live audience, you need to have applause lines, in part because that’s one of the things that the press, for better or for worse, tend to judge it on,” says Ray Price, who wrote “inaugurals, States of the Union, and resignations” for Nixon. “So you would have to put the interruptions in even though they were lousy for the speech because of the way the correspondents would handle it—stupidly.”

The Meaningful Pause
I'll confess that I’ve been a little afraid to suggest what I’m going to suggest— I’m more afraid not to—that we begin our crusade joined together in a moment of silent prayer. [Brief silence.] God bless America.
Ronald Reagan, 1980 Republican convention
“With George H.W., you’d actually put into the script ‘pause’ when you wanted him to pause for effect,” says Robinson. “With a seasoned professional like Ronald Reagan, you’d never direct him like that. He knew better than we where to pause for effect.”

The Sound Bite
I believe it is clear our federal government is overgrown and overweight. Indeed, it is time for our government to go on a diet.
Ronald Reagan, 1980 Republican convention
“A longtime ABC correspondent, was on our White House staff, and I remember him trying to educate people about the need to capsulize things into a sound bite,” says Ray Price. “He said that you had to get things across in 45 seconds. Now you’d have to do it in five seconds.”

The Closing Flourish
Americans live on the sunrise side of the mountain, the night is passing, and we’re ready for the day to come.
George W. Bush, 2000 Republican convention
“We always strive for a tone of polished conversation,” explains W. speechwriter Matthew Scully. “There certainly have to be moments of elevation, but you have to earn moments of more elevated rhetoric by being very plain and direct elsewhere in the speech.”

[but beware of … ]
The Miscalculation
Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice ... Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.
Barry Goldwater, 1964 Republican convention
“Almost every acceptance speech gets good reviews the day after. You have the candidate talking for 45 minutes to thousands of his strongest supporters. Every line he says gets thunderous applause. There are balloons in the air, he’s in his best oratorical form in a lifetime, it’s a dream come true for him. But a lot of convention speeches have one or two lines that turn out to be absolute suicide. The classic instance is Barry Goldwater,” says David Kusnet, referring to the speech in which the Arizona senator famously played into the hands of critics who labeled him a radical. “I mean, you didn’t have to be a political genius to know that was going to get him in trouble.”

Additional Reporting by Jed Heyman


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