"That poor bastard doesn't know whether to pick the low-hanging fruit or leverage his core competencies."
"That poor bastard doesn't know whether to pick the low-hanging fruit or leverage his core competencies."
It used to be called charm school, or finishing school. Some girls probably enjoyed attending it and other girls no doubt did not.
These days, charm school is called "overcoming the gender divide," and men with Master's degrees presume to publicly administer it to 68-year-old women who have won and lost hundreds of battles in public life beginning right around the time the men were born.
Men like "leadership author Louis Carter," whose article on how Hillary Clinton should prepare for the last presidential debate was pitched to me this week for possible publication at Vital Speeches' website.
Some of Mr. Carter's modern insights sound like just the sorts of things girls were taught in the 1940s:
Interruptions – Trump has an even greater risk of coming across as a bully if he interrupts. Clinton also risks seeming domineering and masculine if she interrupts too much. ...
Body language – Clinton will be seen as masculine if she uses extreme or excessive body language. Her body needs to be tightly controlled. Trump’s body language will be used to increase his dominance of the space. As he has at other debates, he will widen his arms, increasing his physical presence on the stage to broadcast his dominance.
Tone and pitch – Clinton cannot shift her pitch much, without risking sounding shrill. She must use a clear tone (no breathiness). Trump will use his full pitch range to sound engaged and passionate.
Sentences – Clinton must use clear, crisp sentences. She cannot use any women’s speech markers. ... If she sounds too long-winded, she’ll lose points. Trump can use as many feminine speech markers as he likes because if he is using them, they will be coded as masculine. His sentences will be short and repetitive.
Compassion – At some point, female politicians must exhibit compassion or be judged as unfeeling. Clinton must show that although she is a politician, she remains, at heart, an idealized woman. Trump does not have to worry about this marker at all.
To be fair, the publicist who pitched Carter's piece to me called the gender gap unfair. But like so many political advisors and pundits we've listened to during this never-ending year, Louis Carter comes off as altogether too accepting of the most hopelessly conventional and old-fashioned range of acceptable women's behavior, as if he has not ever heard of Barbara Jordan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Oprah Winfrey, Billie Jean King, Condoleeza Rice, Meryl Streep, Michelle Obama, Maya Angelou, Clare Boothe Luce, Lady Gaga or Elizabeth Warren.
Or Hillary Clinton, who after a 47-year career spent contending with the "gender gap"—a career launched by a fine college graduation speech in 1969 about "the art of making what appears to be impossible possible"—finds herself debating a man who likes to grab women by the pussy.
What she oughta do is kick him in the balls.
(But she doesn't need my advice either.)
My dad's best friend Carl Ally, a Mad Men-era skirt chaser, liked to hang around a filthy-mouthed womanizer who talked about women like Donald Trump talks about women.
My dad didn't swear, let alone hit on women. But occasionally he'd find himself in social situations with Carl's filthy friend.
"Carl," my dad finally said by way of telling Carl to keep the guy away from him, "when he walks in the room, all the air goes out of it for me."
That's how I've felt on occasions when a friend of a friend shows up at the bachelor party talking in ways that separate tits and asses from brains and souls.
The subject must be changed.
You don't want to hurt your friend's feelings—or, really, even the feelings of the poor bastard who thinks of women that way. Or worse, who thinks you'll think he is cool if he acts like he thinks of women that way.
So you smile politely and you find the first chance to switch the conversation to something, anything, else. Not in high moral dudgeon or righteous defense of your revered mother and sister and daughter, but because you don't want to spend another 30 seconds pretending this shit is normal, let alone fun or interesting.
To your relief, you find that changing the subject is not that hard to do. And the poor bastard usually understands what's happening, because it happens to him a lot. Because most men don't like to talk like this. So you're gentle with him, as you would be with anyone with something seriously wrong with him.
But you're firm—because you do have to breathe after all.
Donald, how 'bout these Cubs?
"Content" is a backroom term that should never be used in front of the customers, to whom it does not appeal.
We look forward to reading the Sunday paper while we watch the political shows. But we don't want to think of ourselves consuming print and video "content" any more than we want to think we are ingesting dietary macronutrients for breakfast.
This seems like such an obvious point to me that I'm always astonished when a video ad tells me, "Your content will resume shortly." And I laughed last week when the journalists Chicago's alternative paper, The Reader, were marching for a new contract, and thought they'd dictate these terms:
"Hey, Honey! Did you hear the Reader reporters got a new contract?! You know what that means, right?"
"More money can only mean ... MORE CONTENT. Huzzah!"
I hope the Reader folks do get their new contract, which is why I showed up at their march. But even if they do, I won't pick up the paper expecting "more content." Honestly, I'd settle for better shit.
David Kusnet is the onetime chief speechwriter for the Clinton administration. He's also a smart guy. So when I landed him to keynote a Ragan speechwriting conference that I was planning back in 2006, I likely told him to simply say whatever was on his mind.
"When David Murray ... invited me to speak to this conference," he began, "he asked me to be provocative—so let me apologize in advance for anything that I will say that will provoke you. ... Please think of me like the local president of a bricklayers union talking to his fellow craft-workers about how they can keep working even if masonry were to become mechanized."
So what did Kusnet, now a principal and senior writer at the Podesta Group, say that was so provocative pre-YouTube, pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter? What did he discuss that was as dangerous to the livelihood of speechwriters as mechanization would be to bricklayers? “The rise of the new media; the death of the common culture; the decline of dialogue and debate; and the growing demand for authenticity.”
Let’s take them one by one:
Rise of the New Media
Just as radio and television encouraged leaders like FDR and Ronald Reagan to adopt less formal and more conversational speaking styles, “the cable news networks and the Internet … are making communications even more instantaneous, individualistic and informal.”
As Donald Trump would tweet, “Sad!”
The Death of the Common Culture
“Americans used to know a few basic texts,” Kusnet pointed out. “The Bible, the works of Shakespeare and the basic documents of our history. It wasn’t only the elites. The tribunes of the dispossessed knew that their constituents knew the Old Testament, with its struggles for freedom and the New Testament, with its promise of redemption.”
To prove it, Kusnet quoted speeches from labor leaders that quoted scripture.
“Now imagine how a presidential candidate would be ridiculed if he or she spoke in as elevated a fashion as the leaders of coal miners and sleeping car porters spoke in the last century,” Kusnet said.
Now, “the only common cultural reference is popular culture—TV, movies, music and commercials. And so Walter Mondale criticized Gary Hart by quoting an ad for hamburgers—‘Where’s the beef?’ The elder George Bush quoted Clint Eastwood: ‘Go ahead, make my day.’ And Arnold Schwarzenegger quotes his own films. And now, in the era of hundreds of cable channels, even the popular culture will not be a common culture for much longer.”
The Decline of Dialogue and Debate
Martin Luther King spoke to white moderates, Reagan spoke to working class Democrats, Bill Clinton won some of those same Reagan Democrats back, telling them he wanted “no more something for nothing.”
But now, Kusnet said, “it’s rare for any segment of society to try to engage its adversaries or even try to speak seriously to the common good. … Instead of persuasion, we have assertion.”
Authenticity is the New Eloquence
“There is a hunger for public figures like Josiah Bartlett of the ‘West Wing’ or John McCain in real life whose public voices are distinctive and who sound like they are speaking difficult truths. In a sense, authenticity is the new eloquence.”
Kusnet went on to advise speechwriters, in light of these four trends, to try harder to capture the speaker’s real voice, to grab listeners immediately with bold speech openings, and to “use simple, muscular American English.”
“And we can all perform a public service,” Kusnet concluded, “by helping public figures give speeches that say what they mean—and say it clearly.
When you come down to it, that is what our work is all about. Not producing pretty language, or even snappy soundbites, for their own sake. But helping leaders, from every viewpoint and walk of life, find their best voices so that they can participate in the national conversation and advance new ideas which our fellow citizens can evaluate and engage.
If we make that voice conversational and convincing, if we grab listeners’ attention early and hold it with the sound of surprise, and if we write American as it is spoken in this century, then we will do our jobs better.
Kusnet’s speech might as well have been delivered last week. Its advice should have been heeded by speechwriters ever since—because it's their reality now.
Clad in his usual air travel garb—a knit tie and corduroy blazer—my old man sniffed at people in tank tops and flip flops at Midway Airport and muttered nostalgically, "You know, it used to be that not just anybody could fly."
Not cool, Dad.
Yet, I admit that I find myself missing the days when I could ask my barber his opinion on an election without being lectured to about "narratives," "soundbites" and "staying on message."
Pro tip, mate: When a hurricane is blistering Haiti and killing people and destroying homes, three Facebook posts is probably two too many regarding your concern for the welfare your sailboat moored in the Bahamas. (And I love sailboats!)
"Looks like Haiti didn't change Matthew's course," you lament in a victim-blaming sentence of Biblical proportions.