Studs Terkel would be 100 in May. Studs Terkel will be 100 in May.
Studs Terkel would be 100 in May. Studs Terkel will be 100 in May.
Andrew Kaye writes speeches for Vince Cable, the Business Minister of Britain. Kaye also likes to tweet about Brits, too. For instance, according to a report in The Sun, he called U.K. "grey" and a "shit heap," full of people "yakking on their fucking phones."
Naturally, I like Kaye's style, and a Department of Business spokesman defended him, saying, "These are private tweets, made in a private capacity."
But U.K. Speechwriters Guild founder Brian Jenner gently suggests to his speechwriting colleagues that Kaye is in the wrong: "Shouldn't our attitude be: I only express the opinions that I'm paid to."
Should a professional race car driver confine herself to public transportation?
Should a farmer not grow a garden?
Should a prostitute never have sex with his wife?
Not that speechwriters are prostitutes. Most aren't, actually. Most marry their ethics and their intellects—though not always passionately—with the institution and the speaker they serve. That's good.
But retaining one's own voice requires using it now and then—straight and loud and true.
At your own risk, of course. And with the hope that your honest opinions don't directly contradict the positions you professionally promote. In which case you would, in fact, be a prostitute.
Anyway: A.K., I've got your back. And B.J., upon reflection, I'm sure you do too.
From my Facebook friend, Mitt Romney:
Mitt has traveled thousands of miles on the road the last six months, visiting with Americans across the country. And now you have the chance to join him for Patriots’ Day in Boston.
Two lucky supporters will get to join Mitt in Boston to attend an opening homestand baseball game.
Now, far too much is made of the presidential test, "Is he someone you want to have a beer with?"
First of all, I always wonder if they really mean a beer, or do they mean—as I usually mean when I say a beer—six beers? It matters, because the guy with whom I want to have a beer with is not the same guy with whom I want to have six. And the guy who would pound six beers with me probably isn't presidential material, whereas the one-beer guy ... anyway, the whole thing is very confusing for me.
But here you have Mitt Romney, who doesn't drink beer at all, and yet expects us to vie for a chance to go to a baseball game with him. Can you imagine? You'd be doing real good through the fourth or fifth inning—maybe you're only on your third Budweiser tall boy. But then the conversation hits another lull and, nervously, you reach between your legs for your sack of peanuts and you pour half your beer into the Mormon's lap, soaking his magic underpants on national TV.
At least, that's what would happen to me. Exactly what would happen to me.
Thanks, Governor, but I'll take a raincheck.
Yesterday we talked about why adolescents despise adults. Why do I think I'm an authority the issue? Not because I've ever been an adult, but because I am still an adolescent.
But I am a parent, and I have found myself—more and more—wanting to protect the eight-year-old Scout from things that she must inevitably go through as a person. Things that make people people.
"I just don't want you to make the same mistakes I made," says a parent.
"You lived through the mistakes you made," the kid should reply. "You want me to take my chances with other mistakes?"
But it's not just negotiable risk-taking behavior. It's inevitabilities: Scout, if she is to live a full human life as her own father defines it, will: Have her heart broken violently at least once (so she knows what love is like), work in at least one job she despises (so she knows what agreeable work feels like), know and be plagued by some terrible human beings (so she appreciates good ones), and fail spectacularly or routinely in a heartfelt endeavor (so she knows what courage is).
And listen to me, trying to limit these traumas and tuck them into a nifty Emotional Education Kit that will fit into her school backpack.
Is there a more universal folly than parents trying to guide their kids toward a tidy, untroubled life?
Mantra: My job is not to protect her from life, it's to maintain her physical health long enough and help build her heart strong enough and her brain thirsty enough to take in all available joy and endure the rest with good humor.
And that's all.
And to the extent I try to achieve more than that, I'll fail—and earn the pity of a wise young girl.
I gotta cut that mantra down, it's too long.
My late paramedic pal Ed Reardon said there is no such thing as parenting. "For 18 years, your kid gets you. If you're good, that's good. If you're bad, that's bad."
1. You are an asshole: An alcoholic, tight-assed, cowardly, mean, selfish and/or dishonest person who the child sensed from a very early age was bad news. Not much you can do about this.
2. Your child is a creep. Every parent knows it's not nurture vs. nature that makes a personality, it's nurture vs. nature. Children have trackable, consistent personalities from birth, and siblings are born as different from one another as Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. Some kids are Messrs Hyde. Send them to military school.
3. You are a kind, smart, sensible person, and your child turned out very much the same way. And the child, now 14 and 15 and 16 and 17, can't figure out why it is that you still think you know so much more. You tell the kid, "I've forgotten more than you ever knew." The kid says, "No Dad, you've forgotten more than you ever knew." And the kid really does have about 97 percent of the knowledge, the wits, the moral clarity to required to make so-called "adult" decisions. (Even as an adult, don't big decisions feel exactly like it felt when you decided to take your first hit of grass? Equal parts thrilling and crazy?)
What you know is that the remaining three percent of knowledge acquisition is crucial intellectual and emotional sanding and fine sanding and rubbing and polish and varnish, and it takes years and years and years. You get some of it in college and more of it in your twenties and some of it in your thirties, too.
But how could an adolescent understand that? It's a really weird fact of life, and there's really no way for the kid to use the information. My dad used to say, good judgement comes from experience, and experience comes from using bad judgment. But of course I had to learn it for myself, over his dead body.
And it's self-serving and mean-sounding for an adult to claim or imply (as adults usually do): Yeah, you've built quite a crackerjack mind for yourself in 15 years, squirt. I bet you think you're really clever. But it'll be another 15 years before anyone in their right mind would put you in charge of anything more complicated than a lemonade stand.
I remember laughing when my old boss Larry Ragan scrawled on a card at a company party celebrating my wedding, at 25, "Wait 40 years. Then you'll know something about love."
Seventeen years later, I'm not laughing anymore. I'm waiting impatiently for more knowledge to reveal itself.
I live in dread of the moment Scout looks at me with those contemptuous eyes that say, "I don't believe you. You're a hypocrite. You're pathetic. I'm smarter and stronger and more honest than you. How dare you tell me what to do?"
Maybe I'll sigh, and tell her to read my blog. And she'll roll her eyes. And so on.
So we can stipulate that Ezra Klein is a magificent grasper of the obvious—attempts at communication often fail to yield results—and his main source, Professor Propeller Headwards, is a master at locating intellectual imbeciles who are easy to debunk, because they were never bunked in the first place.
But why do the editors of The New Yorker think there's a gullible audience for an article announcing the rediscovery that the earth is not the center of the solar system?
They must think people just don't understand just how mysterious communication is. Notice, I don't say "complex," because "complex" implies that with enough concentration, all the dynamics can be coralled and accounted for. Not with communication.
Klein and Propeller Headwards go so far as to show that in some cases a presidential speech actually has the opposite of its intended effect. As if this never happens in their marital arguments!
And as with a beleaguered spouse, a president's audience usually knows full well what he is trying to achieve with his words ... simultaneously suspects the speech is really about something else ... has developed infinite conflicting and yet deep-seated attitudes about the issue at hand ... is comparing the speech to everything else the spouse has ever said ... will compare the speech to everything the spouse ever says in the future. Or, on the other hand, may not be listening at all because she thinks she's heard it all a million times before.
A president giving a speech is a quarterback throwing into very tight coverage.
He knows it. His speechwriters know it. And most of the listeners know it.
But the ball must be thrown, mustn't it? "If you don't try it at all," political strategist Paul Begala tells Klein, "it guarantees you won't persuade anybody."
A welder welds, a teacher teaches, a writer writes and a president leads—partly, through public proclamation.
Could President Obama spend less time giving ceremonial remarks and more time making personal relationships with legislators in private negotiations, as President Johnson did? I have wondered that myself. As an editor of a magazine of called Vital Speeches of the Day, I can tell you that precious few speeches, presidential or otherwise, qualify as being "vital" communications. No one wishes more fervently than I for fewer symbolic speeches and more strategic ass-crackers. No one, except maybe the White House speechwriting team, and President Obama himself.
Are all these speeches really necessary? Could we be better spending our time in another way? I bet these questions have occurred to the White House people over and over again. I will someday put it to them.
But to point to presidential speeches that were ineffective and to suggest that speeches don't do any good in general ...
"Who listens to a president?" Ezra Klein asks. More people, I hope, than listen to a New Yorker writer who takes four thousand words to tell us what we already know.
Yesterday we established that New Yorker writer Ezra Klein's four-thousand-word observation that individual presidential speeches don't change the world was little more than a magnificent grasp of the obvious.
Today, let's be a little more generous to Klein, who was only reporting the "insights" of a George Edwards, director of the Center for Presidential Studies at Texas A&M University. "Like many political scientists, Edwards is an empiricist," Klein writes. "He deals in numbers and tables and charts ...."
Propeller Headwards once delivered a presentation titled, "Presidential Rhetoric: What Difference Does It Make?" In it, he made a study of President Reagan's rhetoric, and found that it wasn't Reagan's speeches that convinced everyone that tax cuts were a good idea. No, Reagan was merely the beneficiary of trends in public opinion, "rather than their instigator."
"As one could imagine," Klein quotes Edwards as writing, "I was a big hit with the auditorium full of dedicated scholars of rhetoric."
Now it may be true that rhetoric scholars make unsupportable claims about the wonders that rhetoric can work. I don't know. I drink with practitioners of rhetoric, who can and must keep things in perspective, if only to manage the expectations of their client.
In fact, among speechwriters and other professional communicators, the problem isn't their overestimation of the power of rhetoric, but that of their clients, who need to be reminded endlessly that their having said a thing doesn't equal the audience having heard it, let alone believed it.
"Edwards' views are no longer considered radical in political-science circles, in part because he has marshalled so much evidence in support of them."
But mostly, I reckon, because he has presented such "evidence" as a flash of blinding insight—and gotten a fancy New Yorker writer to do the same.
They can't fool us. But their ability to impress others—at least, the editors of The New Yorker—should teach us something about how people misperceive the purpose and the power of speeches and other communication.
But what? I'll think about that tonight and get back to you in the morning.
In his March 19 essay in The New Yorker, writer Ezra Klein asks, "Who listens to a president?"
To paraphrase a president, the answer depends on what the meaning of "listen" is.
As his first angry shot at the supposed power of presidential speeches, Klein offers President Obama's speech to Congress last September, on the American Jobs Act. You remember, Speaker Boehner put the president off for a day and POTUS had to compete with a compelling opening game of the NFL. His ratings were good nevertheless, and the speech was as persuasive as Obama and his speechwriting team could make it.
"But, in the days following the speech, Obama's approval rating was essentially unchanged," Klein writes. "The audience, apparently, had not been won over. Neither had Congress: the American Jobs Act was filibustered in the Senate and ignored in the House. ... The President's effort at persuasion failed. The question is, could it have succeeded."
Klein must hope we imagine a White House Speechwriting Office full of shock, anger and recrimination. If only we would have used my elephant-in-the-living room metaphor! The bill would have passed, and President Obama would have gained three points in the Gallup poll!
The idea is absurd, because no one knows more than the people whose value Klein is questioning, just how limited their own power is. Speechwriters know, because of all the speeches they have written, the direct results they can point to are few and desolate between.
All communicators know the percentages. All writers do. Including Klein.
You don't think he's wondering this morning why his well-written, widely read New Yorker piece didn't precipitate a mass firing of White House speechwriters and a reordering of the president's calendar to include fewer speeches and more tee times.
No, he knows that his piece, however good, will disappear into a trillion other words on the subject, into a vast cosmic wash that sways Americans in mysterious ways.
"The world will little note nor long remember what we say here," said President Lincoln once during yet another throwaway ceremonial address in a field in Gettysburg, Pa. And no one would have been more surprised to see the words of a speech that did nothing for the president's approval ratings and failed to hasten the end of a bloody war, chiseled into marble in a monument to himself.
He would be surprised, however, to see an American scholar, seven score and nine years later, lauded in a national magazine for his discovery of the limits of the power of a single attempt at communication, presidential or otherwise.
As for Perfesser George Edwards, we'll deal with him tomorrow.
To publish his New Yorker piece "The Unpersuaded: Who Listens to a President?" writer Ezra Klein smartly waited until last week, when he knew every speechwriter in the world would be in Washington, cavorting in a mad drinking and drug binge in every conference room, hallway, bathroom and broom closet at the historic Mayflower Hotel.
I was with the speechwriters, of course, as sort of a chaperone, in assless chaps.
We had ourselves a time. The hotel will be closed until further notice.
Meanwhile, Klein's piece went unanswered—and it will continue to go unanswered until tomorrow, when I'll begin my own weeklong reply to his piece, which I'll acknowledge right now, is thoughtful enough to deserve our attention. The piece, and the reaction to it of all communicators, not just speechwriters, is a chance to do some good thinking.
So read Klein's piece today if you haven't already.
And then let's talk tomorrow.