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.
My wife—and her sister, and their mother—claim to have misophonia, the so-called disorder that makes little noises intolerable.
"First-world problems," says Hellen Keller.
But I've got to say, I really do despise jagoffs who sit in tight quarters at conferences clicking and clacking out notes on their laptops. And as a conference organizer, I have half a mind to ban these impolite percussionists from my events.
I'm all for note-taking, as I believe it helps keep the note-taker's mind from drifting off into sexual fantasies.
I also know it seems hopelessly old-school to scribble notes in a notebook, even though sensible-sounding studies say hand-writing notes is better for retention than typing.
Mr. and Mrs. Tappy-Tap will no doubt protest that they're going to take those notes that they're typing into their computer and put them on some fancy knowledge-wiki somewhere and someone is going to read them and benefit from stunning insights like,
the ancient power of story
management versus leadership
But you know and I know and the poor patsy beside you who is putting up with your pernicious pecking knows that pretty much every pint of knowledge that's soaked up at a conference will be of benefit to the soaker-upper and no one else. And further more, that your attempts, back at the office, to pass on the knowledge you took in will be about as well received as burping up the beer. Politely, at best.
"How was the conference?" may be the least sincerely curious question in the human communication. If we could glean anything significant or interesting out of conferences from hearing about them, we would send our assistants to conferences and let them put up with Click and Clack, the Tap-It Brothers.
Reader, all of the above is an effort to motivate someone to prove me wrong: Show us something you produced from a conference that another person might actually wish to consume over a cup of coffee in the fading wake of the event. An event like the PSA World Conference last week in Washington.
I prepared myself physically and spiritually to direct the 2016 World Conference of the Professional Speechwriters Association last week with a run along the Potomac, from Georgetown to the Jefferson Memorial, on what simply must have been the most beautiful Washington morning of the year.
After the PSA's Speechwriting School, a presidential debate party at an undisclosed location. (In other words, at the home of a prominent Washington speechwriter.)
Day One of the PSA World Conference at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business. Just as last year, the house was brought down unexpectedly in a bust-out breakout session. In this case, freelance speechwriter and professional cabaret singer Karen Gross showed speechwriters how to make speeches sing.
Terry Edmonds was the first African-American White House speechwriter, rising to Director of White House Speechwriting late in the Clinton administration. As he gently noted in a conversation with Society for Human Resource Management's director of organizational communication Larae Booker and me, twenty years later he believes he is still the only black White House speechwriter. As a profession, speechwriters are even less diverse than their powerful clients, and we're going to work on that.
It was sad to leave, for me and PSA COO Benjamine Knight ...
... and all the speechwriters, including one of the best-known in attendance, who was heard to tell an participant that when she goes home, she's just another person. "But when I'm here, I'm a star!"
No wonder we're already looking forward to next year.
Consensus is she won. But it's not overwhelming. Uber time. Discuss amongst yourselves.
"And constantly interrupts women."
Stamina. China. Stamina. China.
Hillary just stung with that jab about bullies at home or abroad. (Most of her other canned lines have been flaccid.)
The European speechwriters are genuinely pleased to hear that America's word is good.
Speechwriter: "If you're explaining, you're losing."
Now "The Secretary" is "her."
People are congratulating me on not being a racist.
"The last politician who sniffed this much was Marion Barry."
"This is Roy Cohn. Don't give any ground."
Five hundred murders is not a lot of murders by the way.
Two Gore speechwriters are debating whether Trump's eye-rolling is hurting him like Gore's sighing did.
"I think he's scoring here."
"A very against police judge."
The host's 12-year-old son is listening to the debate on the radio in his bedroom.
The freaked-out speechwriter quietly slipped out and drove off without saying goodbye to anybody but the host.
This wise room seems divided on how the debate is going.
"Take advantage! That should be ad. Are you kidding me?"
"Who's speaking to the middle class. The one who says 'bragadocious' or the one who says 'stiffed'?"
Sez the Netherlands speechwriter, "Pay your taxes darling!"
The bigshot Washington speechwriter host is making his teacher wife's lunch.
He's got the Mussolini thing going on.
I think I feared that he would be able to control himself. My fear is subsiding.
"No wonder you've been fighting ISIS your entire adult life"?
The freaked-out speechwriter is now morose, and pacing around the kitchen and scratching at his hair.
Who is crunching chips in here? And now a debate erupts about whether Clinton actually signed NAFTA, or whether he only introduced it.
Gerstein notes that she hasn't yet mentioned President Obama.
The freaked-out speechwriter is on his phone. No, he's up to get another drink.
My man Trump seems to be having a Rubio drymouth moment.
But it's quiet in here.
"Donald, it's good to be with you." The room giggles.
The candidates are Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Speechwriter: "Oh."
Me and Dan Gerstein, boss of Gotham Ghostwriters.
Lester Holt is killing.
I'm with a dozen professional speechwriters, from the U.S., Canada and a couple countries in Europe. One invited scribe didn't come, another is almost petrified in dread, and is conspicuously sitting off to the side. The Europeans have told me they are afraid this campaign's level of discourse could spread to Europe, where politicians take their cues from Americans.
Read in Howard Cosell voice: Not since the undefeated Muhammad Ali challenged the undefeated Joe Frazier on March 8, 1971 in Madison. Square. Garden. Never since that night, lit so brilliantly by the attendance of a galaxy of superstars that included Frank Sinatra. Norman Mailer. Carol Channing. And everybody else who was anybody from New York to Hollywood has the nation. Anticipated. So breathlessly. A clash of two titans with such differing styles. Such different stories. Such perfectly opposed points of view ...
You could write the rest. I'll be live blogging the debate tonight, but this time a bottle of liquor won't be my only company. This being the eve of the 2016 World Conference of the Professional Speechwriters Association, I'll be in the home of a D.C. speechwriter, at a gathering of professional speechwriters who will remain as anonymous in this account as they do in their daily work. But I do expect to quote some of their remarks and insights here. I also expect my point of view will be affected by being so speechwriter-surrounded. But that might make it fun. And frankly, I'd be afraid to watch this debate alone.
Tomorrow I fly to D.C. to run the 2016 World Conference of the Professional Speechwriters Association.
See that dark smudge on the spine? That's from palm sweat generated from the pressure of talking to one person while worrying over the satisfaction of a hundred more. I don't call my wife from these conferences. I don't eat, and I don't even drink like normal. I hardly go to the bathroom. I just listen. And talk. And worry. And laugh. And sweat. For days straight, until at one point on the last day, someone is standing in front of me—I think it's a he—and his lips are moving and it sounds like he's saying something, but I'll be damned if I can figure out what.
Afterward it takes a few days to recover. Today I'm getting lots of fluids and rest, trying to recover ahead of time. To precover.
Running a good conference is intellectually and emotionally exhilarating. The days actually go by faster than I wish, leaving me full of regret for conversations cut short or not had at all. In fact, I'm already regretting some of those conversations. Pregretting them.
And I always return home feeling much better about a career that's based largely on human relationships—for having communicated with these communicators, looking them in the eye, tossing words back and forth, pressing flesh—and exchanging a little palm sweat.
See you in Washington next week—or back here, the week after.
Back in May, I did a blog post floating the idea of a professional political protest called, "Professional Communicators Against Trump." The post itself went on a bit, asking communicators to judge the Trump campaign against long-established ethical tenets, like, "Professional communicators are honest not only with others but also, and most importantly, with themselves as individuals; for a professional communicator seeks the truth and speaks that truth first to the self."
Here's a slightly edited version of my original rationale for Professional Communicators Against Trump:
If there is any constant message Trump's candidacy has sent, it is that consistent, coherent, careful communication is for chumps.
And yet these are values that communicators have devoted their work lives, however successfully, to upholding, in the difficult context of organizations full of people who don't.
If Trump wins, communicators lose. And it's worse than that, because it's more immediate than that: As long as Trump is winning, communicators are losing their essential argument that sincere communication is effective communication.
Every day that Trump has permission to occupy the public stage, communicators lose our collective claim—and it has always been tenuous!—to ethical virtue and social usefulness. Maybe that's why I get heart palpitations while watching "The Morning Joe."
Maybe I think that it's not just our country whose soul is eroded by this man's vulgar lies. Maybe I think our livelihood is at stake, and maybe even the particular meaning of our life, as communicators.
And maybe we ought to do something about it.
Our communication associations—IABC and PRSA—have talked over the years about creating "advocacy" arms, that would argue for the interests of communicators. But the problem has always been defining issues that all communicators can get behind. Maybe we've finally found one.
Maybe some of us ought to form Professional Communicators Against Trump. And use our considerable communication skills, while those skills are still salient. Use those skills to point out to our fellow Americans that, whatever we think of Donald Trump's policies, he is destroying our ability to communicate with one another.
Maybe we will say: American communicators will not stand by and watch as a political candidate destroys the concept of truth in our country, and thus destroys the country itself.
It's not May anymore, and it shouldn't be maybe anymore. It's time for each American citizen to consider what we can contribute in this moment—or at the very least, take a stand we'll be proud of, against a campaign that that we know has gone several orders of magnitude beyond any definable ethical line. For professional communicators, maybe this is what we can contribute.
I've lent the Professional Speechwriters Association's logo endorsement to a new set of presidential debate standards put out by the National Institute for Civil Discourse. But Professional Communicators Against Trump is something people would each have to sign onto individually.
Communicator, we'll see the debate Monday, I'll bend some ears at the PSA World Conference next week, and we'll discuss the wisdom such a petition back here the first week of October.
"I personally have no idea who my parents were. I am a bastard," wrote communication pro and Writing Boots regular Peter Dean on Facebook yesterday. "My children are part Jewish and part Middle European. My grandchildren are part Chinese. I get pretty tired of ethnic quarrels, as you might imagine."