Words matter in political speeches

Obama has two standards to copy: Clinton and Kennedy

[e-mail this page to a friend]

The Gazette, Wednesday, August 27, 2008

In the modern annals of acceptance speeches for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party in the United States, there are two standards of excellence: John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Bill Clinton in 1992.

As Barack Obama accepts the Democratic nomination tomorrow night, his address will be compared to another outstanding convention speech - his own.

For the next two days leading up to his appearance at a Denver football stadium at 10 tomorrow night, the television networks will be running clips of Obama's keynote address to the Democratic convention four years ago, when he famously said there weren't red states or blue states, only the United States of America. Then a state senator from Illinois running for the U.S. Senate, Obama electrified the Democratic convention in Boston. A star was born that night, as anyone could see, with the possible exception of the Clintons, who must have been out of town.

Now the headliner rather the opening act, Obama will be expected to surpass expectations that he has established for himself. First, he has to deliver on what the first George Bush called "the vision thing." Then, the speech represents Obama's best opportunity to tell his story to those Americans who haven't heard it. Finally, he must clearly confront the nagging doubts of whether America is ready for a black president.

Three rhetorical themes, three ideas. That's about as much as anyone can cram into a speech.

As Obama and his writers prepared this speech, they could have done much worse than consider those two models of excellence, Kennedy and Clinton. Kennedy's speech is remembered for a big idea, the New Frontier. Clinton's is memorable for a single concluding sentence: "I still believe in a place called Hope."

As it happens, Kennedy's speech was the last occasion on which an acceptance address was moved from the main convention hall to an outdoor venue - the Los Angeles Coliseum. And he used it to establish his rhetorical framework: "I stand here tonight, facing West, on what was once the last frontier." And then: "The New Frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises, it is a set of challenges."

But JFK also squarely addressed the nagging question of the day - whether America was prepared to elect a Catholic president. And he did so right up front, after the usual salutations and grace notes to his vanquished opponents for the nomination:

"I am fully aware of the fact that the Democratic Party, by nominating someone of my faith, has taken on what many regard as a new and hazardous risk. ... The Democratic Party has once again placed its confidence in the American people, and in their ability to render a free and fair judgment and in my ability to render a free and fair judgment. ... I hope that no American, considering the really critical issues facing this country, will waste his franchise and throw away his vote by voting either for me or against me because of my religious affiliation."

As for Clinton, he introduced the personal narrative in his acceptance address at Madison Square Garden in New York. Consider:

"Tonight, as plainly as I can, I want to tell you who I am, what I believe, and where I want to lead America. I never met my father. He was killed in a car wreck on a rainy road three months before I was born, driving home from Chicago to Arkansas to see my mother.

"After that, my mother had to support us. So we lived with my grandparents while she went back to Louisiana to study nursing. I can still see her clearly tonight through the eyes of a three-year-old: Kneeling at the railroad station and weeping as she put me back on the train to Arkansas with my grandmother. She endured her pain because she knew her sacrifice was the only way she could support me and give me a better life."

It worked. Until then, the only thing most Americans knew about Clinton was that he had evaded the draft and fooled around on his wife. The personal narrative was corny, but compelling. And today it's a rhetorical requirement for any presidential candidate.

Obama can draw on both lessons, confronting an issue that must be faced, and telling a story that needs to be told, without neglecting his core message of hope and change.

Hillary Clinton once dismissively said of Obama's oratorical gifts that "words are cheap." She was wrong about that. Words matter.

Or as Kennedy's speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, puts it in his new memoir, the right message, delivered by the right messenger, "can ignite a fire, change men's minds, open their eyes, alter their votes, bring hope to their lives and, in all these ways, change the world. I know. I saw it happen."

  © Copyright 2006-2012 L. Ian MacDonald. All Rights Reserved. Site managed by Jeremy Leonard