WORDS TO WIN BY
AUGUST 15, 1996
The NewsHour's team of historians banter the connection between past convention acceptance speeches and election success, and the changing levels of rhetoric over the years.
A RealAudio version of this NewsHour segment is available here.
Aug. 15:William Safire, the New York Times columnist and former Nixon speech writer, talks about the art of crafting a political speech.
Presidential historian Michael Beschloss discusses memorable speeches from past conventions.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And we'll get that from our NewsHour regulars, Presidential Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, and Author and Journalist Haynes Johnson, joined tonight, as they have been throughout this convention week, by William Kristol, editor and publisher of "The Weekly Standard." And starting with you, Michael, rhetoric, rhetoric has a bad name, doesn't it, I mean when you hear people say, oh, that's just so much rhetoric, that's something negative?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: It does. Rhetoric really has gotten a bad name, especially in recent times, and that is because especially in this age of TV, particularly, speeches that are rhetorically elegant sometimes are seen as politically ineffective. If you go back to 1960, Adlai Stevenson campaigning for John Kennedy very graciously recycled an old Greek quotation to say, of "I"--in other words, Stevenson said of himself people would say how well he spoke, he said of Kennedy, people would say after hearing him let us march. And that's sort of the distinction. Many of the most effective acceptance speeches in history have been rather inelegant. Truman in ‘48 began by saying to Sen. Barkley, his running mate, and I will win this election and make these Republicans like it, made a rather morbid convention think they had a chance to win. Gerald Ford the same in ‘76 with his promise to debate Jimmy Carter. George Bush in 1988, "Read my lips, no new taxes," that was not exactly the most elegant language in human history, but it was effective. And I think last night when Mrs. Dole strolled the floor of the Republican Convention, we may have seen an even wider gap between rhetoric and effectiveness. It was a speech that no one would nominate for one of William Safire's anthologies but could have done it's job.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Doris, I've read that speeches are rhetorical things that are needed to make people, certain people do certain things at certain times.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: Well, I think that's the most important thing about a speech. It's not a literary composition. It's not a thing in itself. It's how does it move the audience, and it's got different purposes. For example, you talk about ‘52 and Stevenson, he gave an elegant speech at his acceptance speech but Eisenhower, sitting there listening to it in his home said it's over the people's head, it'll never work, and similarly, the interesting thing about J.F.K's New Frontier speech in 1960, as good as that speech was, J.F.K. was tired, he was exhausted, he was so fast in his delivery that Nixon sitting in his house said, I can debate that guy, he's not really very good after all, and then he said, I will debate him. So it's got a whole series of different purposes. HST, Harry Truman's purpose was to fire up that convention. He was so far behind in the polls; it wasn't the words he used, it was that it showed that he was a man who believed he could win, and he injected that confidence into that convention, and then to the country at large.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Any good rhetoric?
HAYNES JOHNSON, Author/Journalist: At this convention? (laughter) Well, no. I mean the art of rhetoric has declined enormously. I think what both Doris and Mike were saying, though, is the key. One thing this convention has all been all week long is scripted, and when you script by a committee, you're not going to get great rhetoric. So what happened last night with Liddy Dole and with one other moment, Nancy Reagan, was a really remarkable moment because there it was personal, it told a story. You could feel it, you connected with it. You identified with the person, and it recalled the past. It recalled the Reagan era. It brought tears to the audience, and for most people watching genuine, not fake, not synthetic stuff, and I think that's the difference, and it's--it's giving a speech in a political convention like this that's just not only for the hall, it's obviously for the country, you want to do the same thing to an audience. You want to make them feel that you are with them and that they know you and can trust and believe in you.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: William Kristol, what's your assessment of the rhetoric, past and present, in convention speeches?
WILLIAM KRISTOL, The Weekly Standard: I do think John McCain gave a very eloquent speech nominating Bob Dole last night. It would compare well with other speeches in previous conventions, but as we've all said, I mean, it's very important to remember that the point here isn't to make people going away saying that was a nice speech; the point here is to get people going away wanting to vote for you. Now part of that--those two overlap but they don't entirely coincide. I think the temptation of these kinds of speeches is to be awfully nice, to be simply kind and gentle. And you do need to do some of that, especially if you're Bob Dole and you have a reputation as something of a sour puss, even if it's undoubtedly undeserved. Bush did well in ‘88, for example, by talking about a kinder, gentler America and talking about some of his life experiences. But you also need to give people out there to lay the groundwork for a campaign for the next 12 weeks, to lay out two or three issues that divide you from the other party, especially when you're the challenger, which is what Bob Dole is. So he really needs to lay down a couple of markers that he then builds on over the next ten, eleven, twelve weeks.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Michael, they've talked about this convention being a turning point in the history of conventions. We talked about it. Do you think there's a turning point here in the history of rhetoric and speeches?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, if it's a turning point, I think it's one more nail probably pounded into the coffin of elegant presidential rhetoric. And you know, one other problem is the rise of the speech writer, not their existence, most recent Presidents and national leaders in our country have had them, but for most of them, the 20th century, most Americans were not aware of the fact that Presidents had ghost writers. As late as Richard Nixon when Richard Nixon gave a speech written by Bill Safire, people were not sitting in front of their televisions saying, gee, Nixon did a very good delivery of a Bill Safire speech. In recent years, speech writers have become so prominent and even posing for personality profiles before the speech is delivered, that oftentimes there's even more of a gap between the person who is delivering it and the person who's writing it, and that really destroys what you want to have, which is a sense that the candidate or the President is speaking from his heart.
WILLIAM KRISTOL: After Bob Dole's resignation speech from the Senate, which Mark Halperin, the novelist, is widely reported to have written, and, indeed, acknowledged that he wrote, and he did interviews about how--someone suggested that an acceptance speech tonight Mark Halperin should just get up and give the speech, Bob Dole could watch in his hotel room, a wave at the crowd, you know, and--
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: It's almost like the emperor's new clothes. I think there's so much attention now on how these speeches are crafted that some of the mystery is lost. Under L.B.J., if these speech writers ever said, I wrote it, he would have cut their heads off. Everybody knew that people helped him with speeches, but in the end, it's that person's own authentic emotions that have to come out. That's why the Nancy Reagan speech worked so well.
HAYNES JOHNSON: That's right.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: She spoke from the heart, and it was her authenticity. That's why Colin Powell worked, and that's why many of these other speeches didn't work this week. I think they were scripted.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Ordinary people--you thought they were scripted?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: A lot of the ordinary people up there felt like they were scripted by committees to make a point, rather than speaking from the heart of the people.
HAYNES JOHNSON: You know, we were looking at speeches all this week as they come in, hot, before they speak. You read them. You knew there was a committee behind them. There wasn't just one person. It was not that author, that one speaker who put down his or her soul. It was the--you could tell the difference.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And you think--
WILLIAM KRISTOL: I think actually this convention, actually, if you compare it to the last three or four, has had more memorable and more actually personal speeches than most, and we've already mentioned Colin Powell, Nancy Reagan, John McCain, and Elizabeth Dole. That's four in three nights. That's a heck of a lot more than there were in 1992 and in 1988, in 1984, I think, so I agree that a lot of the routine two, and three and five minute speeches are produced by speech writers sitting in the bowels underneath the platform churning out pablum, Republican rhetoric, and they'll be churning out the old routine Democratic rhetoric two weeks from now, but we've actually had pretty interesting speeches at this convention.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Getting back to tonight, it does raise the bar for Mr. Dole because these have been tremendous speeches, memorable, and now he's on the line, isn't he?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: And, in fact, Elizabeth Dole raised the bar for him too--
HAYNES JOHNSON: Yes.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: --by doing such an effective performance, although I must say in the end, I still think her performance outshone what she said. If her larger purpose was to create Bob Dole in the audience's mind, we looked at her, rather than what she said about Bob Dole.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, he seemed to like it, at least in the clip we showed. Thank you all.