Speeches these days are noisy and pitiful.
I struggle to recall a contemporaneous speech that seemed relevant for more than a day. Yet, President Clinton’s DNC speech came up over and over last week. I overheard a discussion about it in the elevator on the way to my office the next morning. Albeit predictably, snippets of it were on the 24-hour news networks every time I walked by a television in the lobby. I went out to lunch and the group at the next table over were talking about it. I went to a fundraiser for State Senator David Johnson and you better believe I heard about it there.
Not so for any other speech these last two weeks (and there was no shortage of speeches at the DNC and RNC).
So why was Clinton’s speech so good? In short, he filled a vacuum in political discourse. He dared to do what is lacking in most speeches. Here’s what I noticed.
For three reasons, speeches from members of both parties are little more than a gloss. One reason is intentional. Walking step by step with listeners through the details of an idea or a policy exposes the idea to greater scrutiny, potentially exposing the speaker to stinging criticism. Sprinkling even a little substance into your speech then takes courage.
Second, and perhaps most often, many who have stumbled upon the opportunity to project their voice to the public are insufficiently knowledgeable about the content of their message to do otherwise. They may be passionate about what they believe, but have failed to understand both the details of their idea or the arguments on the other side. So instead of getting an informative and persuasive speech, you get a lot of yelling.
Third, most people who actually are knowledgeable about a subject lack the ability to cross the bridge to those who are not. Bringing your listeners where you are by beginning where they are is an enormously difficult task. It requires understanding the understanding and assumptions of your audience, building a new foundational understanding if necessary, and then, and only then, paving the way forward to where you want your audience to be.
Few people do this well. Instead, I generally observe one of two outcomes from knowledgeable speakers. Either they lose their listeners early and forever or they punt it and educate worse than the noise makers.
Clinton is a master at educating the public on the big stage. On Wednesday, his attention to wonkish details about public policy, while still remaining interesting and understandable was a display of true oratory genius. It demonstrated that he understood (1) his subject matter and (2) his listeners.
As said, the first step is laying (and often fixing) the foundation. For many voters, this foundation consisted of Ryan’s, Rubio’s, and Romney’s speeches at the RNC. Viewers listening to their speeches received the traditional caricature of the Democratic party, a collection of trite beliefs that, while not new, have dominated the national discussion for the last three-and-a-half years. So, for the heart of Clinton’s speech to register, Clinton had to start with the traditional Republican narrative.
“In Tampa a few days ago, we heard a lot of talk,” began Clinton, “oh about how the President and the Democrats don’t believe in free enterprise and individual initiative, how we want everyone to be dependent on the government, how bad we are for the economy.”
Then, Clinton made perhaps his most memorable statement of the night. According to Clinton, in the last 52 years, 24 million private-sector jobs were created under Republican administrations while 42 million private-sector jobs were create under Democratic administrations.
This is an astounding statement, blowing the doors off the traditional notions about the Democratic Party and the economy.
We all filter every message through our assumptions and stereotypes. Therefore, if Clinton had not addressed these basic foundational issues at the outset, even though he could have said all the right words about President Obama’s very reasonable policies, many people who had just watched the RNC would basically hear Clinton talk and words would register: “PRESIDENT OBAMA AND THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY ARE COMMUNISTS.”
Clinton went further. The discrepancy in private-sector job creation is no accident, but the predictable result of the Democratic Party’s modern emphasis on the middle class. A strong middle class, according to Clinton, is a good thing for every economic class.
One more false notion about President Obama and the Democratic Party had to be changed—the notion that Obama is the cause of the political gridlock and division we see today. Clinton with little effort wasted no time placing the blame on the “faction that now controls the Republican party.”
Just in the last couple of elections, they defeated two distinguished Republican senators because they dared to cooperate with Democrats on issues important to the country, even national security. They beat a Republican congressman with almost a hundred percent voting record on every conservative score, because he said he realized he did not have to hate the president to disagree with him. Boy, that was a nonstarter, and they threw him out.
This was an effective way of driving the point home. At this point, Clinton had squarely addressed the two false assumptions that were the bedrock of the RNC and which would all but block receipt of his entire message. The listeners now had a proper foundation for an in-depth discussion of how President Obama’s policies were aligned with those goals and his spirit of cooperation.
And by the end of Clinton’s speech, they got it.
One irony of the information age is that, while information not only is available but virtually rains on us, we struggle to place information in context. We have mountains of facts but little meaning.
8.1 percent of adults who are looking for work have none. Even higher is the percentage underemployed. Jobs hard to find and are uncertain to remain. These conditions, bad for everyone but the challenger to an incumbent president, dominate the news. So Clinton in his folksy, yet incisive way, summarized the Republican position, but with a little context: “We left him a total mess. He hasn’t cleaned it up fast enough, so fire him and put us back in.“
Then a humble but crucial statement: “No president — not me, not any of my predecessors — no one could have fully repaired all the damage that he found in just four years.” We are used to recessions coming and going; those that have lingered, such as in the Carter years, were easily traceable to poor policies.
So it’s natural to assume the same thing here. Especially when Romney and Co. insist that they would have ended the recession earlier than Obama. What Clinton was able to do was (1) impress on the listener the scale of the problem inherited by Obama and (2) connect the would-be policies of Romney with those of his most recent Republican predecessor, those policies that caused the problems in the first place.
Obama, in all fairness, has been attempting to do this for four years. However, Clinton has a little more credibility in saying it because he’s not running for reelection. And Clinton is simply better at saying it.
I already know where some of your minds are going when I mention truthfulness and Bill Clinton together. So let’s get right down to it.
Bill Clinton lied about the Monica Lewinsky affair. It was wrong.
Let’s now move on.
Clinton gave the fact checkers their easiest night. His speech was long, dense, and full of assertions that were overwhelmingly favorable to the Democratic position. Too much of this and one is likely to get a “Pants-On-Fire” score from Politifact. Yet, Clinton’s factual assertions—even his most damning ones—overwhelmingly check out.
I’m glad to live in an age of fact checkers. Certainly a speaker can ignore them and still entertain a crowd. But you’re not going to persuade people to change their minds about anything without satisfying the fact checkers.
Every once in a blue moon, the fact checkers get it wrong. But show me a politician with a better record.
Of the four things I highlight here, three are primarily substantive. This is intentional. Speeches that lack substance, even the most well-delivered ones, will never ever be important or meaningful. Simply put, substance is more important than form.
But form is important.
Clinton can flat out work a crowd. The man had the audience laughing out of their seats within a minute of speaking. He came prepared with his teleprompter, but strayed from it and ad libbed on several occasions.
Clinton was confident and perfectly willing to attack the challenging side. But a Clinton attack is different from most. A Clinton attack is less inflamed, less rhetorical, and more of a “no duh” kind of attack — a this-is-such-simple-arithmetic kind of attack. You’re aren’t necessarily mad at the other side; you just find yourself laughing at them. Tirades have their place, but only when people will actually be affected by the tirade. A discussion on tax policy will never be one of those times.
Further, if you listen to Clinton in an interview, in a candid conversation, in a speech to a local charitable association, or to the DNC, the tone basically sounds the same. In other words, when Clinton gives a speech, he doesn’t suddenly begin to sound like a political robot. He sounds like a human being, albeit a very intelligent and highly informed one. Good speeches should be clear, efficient, and polished–but not much more. Otherwise, just talk to people and enjoy the spotlight!