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A Tale of Two Speeches


Of all the media critiques I saw this week of the two speeches last Tuesday night, Newsweek senior editor Jonathan Alter nailed it the best, IMHO, in his Hardblogger post at soon after the speeches were over:

Something unprecedented happened tonight, beyond the doorkeeper announcing, “Madame Speaker.” For the first time ever, the response to the State of the Union overshadowed the president’s big speech. Virginia Sen. James Webb, in office only three weeks, managed to convey a muscular liberalism-with personal touches-that left President Bush’s ordinary address in the dust. In the past, the Democratic response has been anemic—remember Washington State Governor Gary Locke? This time it pointed the way to a revival for national Democrats.
Webb is seen as a moderate or even conservative Democrat, but this was a populist speech that quoted Andrew Jackson, founder of the Democratic Party and champion of the common man. The speech represented a return to the tough-minded liberalism of Scoop Jackson and Hubert Humphrey, but by quoting Republicans Teddy Roosevelt (on “improper corporate influence”) and Dwight D. Eisenhower (on ending the Korean War), he reinforced the argument that President Bush had taken the GOP away from its roots.
Webb was given a speech to read by the Democratic leadership. He threw it out and wrote his own.

I have no idea what was in the draft speech that Webb was given. My guess would be that Webb's objection to it was not so much over what was said (though that may have been part of it), but about how it sounded. He didn't want to sound like someone else, or — even worse — sound like he was reading a committee report of a focus group, or — worst of all — sound like someone trying to sound like Jim Webb. He wanted to sound like himself.

That was Bush's problem: he generally sounded like someone else, delivering a speech written by committee. (OK, he had other problems, like Iraq, the environment, the budget . . . but I digress.) Webb sounded like himself, giving his own take on "why I am a Democrat." It's not that another Democrat couldn't have given a similar speech – but Webb's could only have come from him. It added to the authority of his speech, and made it even more hard-hitting. As someone interested in language and persuasive speech, I hope the democratic candidates for the presidential nomination in 2008 were paying attention. The most authentic voice a speaker has is his or her own.

I've done some ghostwriting myself, and I certainly don't want to knock speechwriters. Speechwriting isn't easy, whether you are writing for yourself or for someone else. But when it's done right, the voice of the speaker — not the speechwriter — resonates in every phrase. That's the real gift of speechwriters. It's not the crafting of eloquent phrases or the pithy slogans – it's the ability to help the speakers connect with their hearers by sounding like themselves, while you get the hell out of the way.

Webb did the Democratic party proud last Tuesday night. He laid out the general difference between progressive democrats and regressive republicans. He laid out the difference between thoughtful patriotic support for our nation's leaders and blind loyalty to a directionless administration. He held out a vision of the country that embraced everyone, not just those with money, political connections, or clout.

He also didn't do a lot of things, thank goodness. He didn't bore us, he didn't pander to us, and he certainly didn't talk down to us. He didn't ask for forgiveness for disagreeing with the president, he didn't apologize for his beliefs, and he certainly didn't hold back. (Well, not so much that I could tell, anyway.)

To paraphrase Dickens, you could say of the two speeches by Webb and Bush, "They were the best of lines; they were the worst of lines." As I said in the setup to the SOTU thread:

I'm really hungry for a president who can weave metaphors that grab hold of the hearers, who can inspire a nation with thoughtful reflection and insight, who can . . .

Oh, who am I kidding? I'm hungry for a president who can speak in complete sentences that actually mean something. *Sigh* My bar has really gotten low over the last six years, and I'm guessing that I'm not the only one feeling that way. Tonight's State of the Union Address will likely only add to that hunger.

Bush added to the hunger all right, but Webb fed me. The more I thought about it, I realized he's not alone: when Al Gore talks about the environment, when John Edwards talks about poverty, or when Bill Richardson talks about energy and international affairs (just to hit three names and topics off the top of my head), I hear the same kind of strength, vision, and appeal that reaches out beyond their hardcore supporters. Steve Porter did it in the letter to Pelosi that Howie Klein posted on the last thread, as did lots of our Blue America candidates did last year right here at FDL in their BA chats, when they shared not just their soundbites but their passions.

Jim Webb reminded me that there are Democratic leaders who can provide a verbal banquet capable of feeding a hungry nation, and he's not alone. Who's feeding you? A presidential hopeful, a senator, or a representative? A governor or state legislator? A mayor or city councilperson? Better still: who are you feeding, and how are you doing it?

Christy gave us an example this morning in the Pull Up a Chair thread of how she's doing it. When asked about how the FDL coverage of the trial might be historically significant, here's what she said:

One of the things that has been most interesting is to see the shifting perspectives of the media about this blog in particular as we’ve been at the courthouse. A number of the reporters told me they had already been reading here — for the legal analysis and the media dissection that Jane and I have been doing on this case…well, since this blog got started, really. But a lot more of them had not, and they had no concept of why we were really there or how we would be acting in terms of coverage, because they had no context for us. Pach started things off on a very professional footing from the get go the first week, and we have now evolved into a sort of “one of the media crew” feeling with them, mainly because of the depth of knowledge that all of us had about varying aspects of the case. They realized, I think, that this isn’t some sort of play acting at being reporters, but that we have a genuine interest in the details and the analysis on this, and that we do it as well as we can.

So there is a grudging level of respect, for the most part. And the most amusing thing was that by the end of the week, I became a sort of legal resource for a lot of folks in terms of what the motions were and the bench arguments were about and the implications of various rulings over the long term court process, etc. — and it was pissing Barbara Comstock off royally as she sat in the bench in front of me every day that people were asking me in stead of her (at least, that’s how it seemed, because I wasn’t spinning them, I was just teling them the law flat out and leaving them to consider whatever political implications there might be on their own).

She speaks with the authority of someone who knows what's she's talking about; she lets her values, her genuine interest, and her passion show; she doesn't play-act; and she lets the spinners stew in their own juices. In short, she speaks with authority, and it earns respect in return.

Jim Webb did it Tuesday on television with the nation. Christy's been doing it at the Libby trial with the journalists. How about you – who are you feeding? 

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I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

And Preview is my friend.