TOPICS > Politics

William Safire: Weaving Words

August 15, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now what actually makes a great speech and how do you really measure it? David Gergen, editor-at-large of U.S. News & World Report, talks to William Safire about that. Safire is a New York Times columnist, a former speech writer, and the author/editor of a book published last year, Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History.

DAVID GERGEN: Thanks, Jim.

DAVID GERGEN: Bill, you have published a book of great speeches, and you’ve written a few of them yourself over the years. Judging from the past, where do the convention speeches fit into American politics?

WILLIAM SAFIRE, Author, Lend Me Your Ears: Now, they have emerged, the acceptance speech, as the one element of suspense at a convention. There’s no longer a contest. Nobody’s slipping in–you know–counterfeit tickets to get a crowd in to root for their guy, so all the focus has been this week on will Bob Dole succeed in redefining himself in his defining moment, or will he fall on his face, will he be the Bob Dole everybody in the Democratic Party hopes he’ll be?

DAVID GERGEN: Phrases have been very important to these great speeches in the past.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: Well, FDR’s acceptance speech in ’32 was the launching of the phrase “The New Deal,” and J.F.K., who studied history, decided to go with the “New Frontier” in his acceptance speech. Now it doesn’t always work. As you recall, Bill Clinton nine times used the phrase “The New Covenant” in his speech. Now, “The New Covenant” never got off the ground, but in this one, you can just hear the build up toward the American dream.


WILLIAM SAFIRE: This I think will be the “American Dream” speech.

DAVID GERGEN: So you as a writer for the New York Times, as a columnist, will be looking for that kind of phrase, that catch phrase that could be repeated in the campaign that we’ll see over and over again on television.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: Well, look, you and I are both old speech writers.


WILLIAM SAFIRE: Which is the great training ground for columnists. And we salivate at the construction of a good acceptance speech, which is like a symphony.


WILLIAM SAFIRE: And which has an introduction where he says this is me, and I remember in Clinton’s speech, the grabbing line to me was “I never met my father.” That was a powerful line, and so that’s allowed in an acceptance speech. Then you move to where I’m going to take the country.


WILLIAM SAFIRE: And then it’s never a slashing speech. It’s always an uplifting one.

DAVID GERGEN: Bob Dole has been practicing on this more than probably any speech in his life, hour after hour. How important is the delivery?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: I remember working with Nixon, and after Nixon’s acceptance speech, he went down to the hotel room, and he couldn’t sleep, and so Dwight Chapin called me up and said the old man can’t sleep, somebody has to sit up with him, he wants to talk. So I went up and talked. And he said, you know how on that–toward the end of that speech, where I got off the issues, and I got to the railroad train in the night, you noticed how my voice changed, and my face changed, and he said, an actor can do that. He says, now, there’s nobody else in the Republican Party who’s capable of doing that, with one exception, and he said, Ronald Reagan might be able to do it sometime. And of course, we’ve seen how in terms of delivery, a speech writer can hand in a mediocre speech, or a workmanlike speech, and Reagan could lift it up by his delivery.

DAVID GERGEN: I sometimes thought Reagan could make a telephone book sing from a podium.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: We’ll have to watch tonight to see if, if Bob Dole has learned the techniques of delivery and not looking shifty-eyed at one Teleprompter screen and then the other because if you try to do that, you look shifty and untrustworthy.

DAVID GERGEN: What is the role that the Jack Kemp speech plays here tonight?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: Jack Kemp has to avoid building himself up, and he has to direct his speech to Dole.

DAVID GERGEN: To be a witness for Dole.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: That’s a good way of putting it. You ought to be a speech writer.

DAVID GERGEN: (laughing)

WILLIAM SAFIRE: And he’s got to do some of the things that it would be unseemly for Dole to do for himself.


WILLIAM SAFIRE: And the gem of this speech so far at the convention has been John McCain’s nomination last night. That was a beauty, constructed well and delivered with extraordinary authority, and modesty.

DAVID GERGEN: For Bob Dole’s speech to make your anthology of great speeches, is it the quality of the speech or the political effectiveness that’s more important?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: He’s got to win first, so in structuring a speech you have to say what will persuade people to vote for him? And you don’t think in terms of 100 years from now what will they remember about this speech. You want to think on November 5th, what will they remember about this speech.

DAVID GERGEN: We’ll be looking for you later tonight to talk about both the quality of the speech and its effectiveness. Thanks very much.