A Super Speaker On Speeches

I don’t get out much, maybe once a week. On Jan. 19, for example, I decided to pass on opening day of the Hawaii State Legislature. For a certified political scribbler and babbler, this constitutes a severe professional breach.

But I’ve heard more than my share of opening-day speeches, so I chose instead to journey to the East-West Center to hear Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a woman who knows something about speeches. She’s a professor of communication and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Her 15 books on political communication, including Presidents Creating the Presidency, Echo Chamber: Rush Limbaugh and the Conservative Media Establishment, and The Obama Victory: How Media, Money, and Messages Shaped the 2008 Election, and her own appearances all over the media speaking on political speech qualify her as an uber-super certified scribbler and babbler.

Jamieson did not disappoint – first, because she never babbles, and second, because she introduced me to a new term: “the digestive moment of a speech.”

It is, she explained, “the eloquent moment by which we remember a speech.” Thus, practically every line of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

For more mortal presidential speech-makers it is, for example, Franklin Roosevelt’s “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” from his first Inaugural Address in 1933. Or “Ask not what your country can do for you, but rather what you can do for your country,” from John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address in 1961. Or “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” from Ronald Reagan’s first Inaugural Address in 1981.

For the life of me, I can’t think of a single “digestive moment” from any speech on the opening day of any Hawaii Legislature for the past 30 years. Indeed, I can think of only one rhetorical “digestive moment” in the modern history of Hawaii: “In the controversy of child versus money, the child comes first,” from John A. Burns’first Inaugural Address as governor in 1962.

Jamieson didn’t limit her discussion to “digestive moments.” The topic of her lecture was “the nature of presidential discourse and what it reveals and conceals.” She noted Barack Obama’s genius for the rhetoric of unification rather than division, citing his e pluribus unum speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention that launched his national political career, and his recent Tucson speech that jumped his own approval ratings and quieted – at least briefly – the partisan rhetoric that followed the shooting.

Jamieson noted that not all presidents have demonstrated “the ability to deliver such effective messages.” Reagan, she argued, was among those who could, most notably following the shuttle disaster that so shook the nation in January 1986.

“Rhetoric matters,” Jamieson insists, noting that often political “promises don’t always translate into performance.” She took George Herbert Walker Bush’s “Read my lips: no new taxes,” in his acceptance speech at the 1988 Republican Convention as an example. He had to raise taxes, and his rhetoric “came back to haunt him,” weakening him with his Republican Party base and contributing to his loss to challenger Bill Clinton in 1992.

Speaking of Clinton, Jamieson also spoke of the presidential practice of “concealing details.” When Clinton looked so sincerely at the television camera and said, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,” he was, of course, concealing his definition of sexual relations.

Jamieson finished with praise for Obama’s comments on the planned mosque near the site of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center – “We are not at war against Islam, but against terrorist organizations that have distorted Islam” – and stressed that Americans of the Islamic faith are in our armed forces in Afghanistan and sitting in our classrooms.

“Obama’s turning exclusion into inclusion is his fundamental rhetorical tendency,” she said. “He did it at the 2004 Democratic Convention and he did it in Tucson, where he was bringing the values of these islands and this state to the nation.”

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