A speechwriter’s speech

What kinds of speeches get jaded professional speechwriters out of their seats? Speeches that don’t sound as if they were written by jaded speechwriters.

Every week I have to choose the Vital Speech of the Week. Some weeks, I’m hard pressed. Most weeks, I’m on my own.

Not this week, boy.

This week, my email box was bursting with speechwriters recommending one speech—a speech that didn’t make much national news. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s speech was delivered in the middle of a Trumpstorm in D.C. last Friday, and it was of mainly regional interest, about the removal of some Confederate monuments in New Orleans.

And over the weekend and early this week, as the world analyzed the meaning of President Trump’s speech in Saudi Arabia, speechwriters kept peppering me with the Landrieu speech.

“Wow—what a speech,” was the median comment from a group of professionals who don’t say “wow” very often.

What wowed speechwriters about this speech? I read it, listened to it, and read it again to find out.

One thing that was notable about the speech was what it was not: It was not TED-like, it was not off the cuff and it was not full of pop-culture anecdotes or light, personal humor. In short, it was old-school.

It was erudite. Do you see a lot of Alexander Stephens quotes in speeches these days? Landrieu quoted him appropriately:

Should you have further doubt about the true goals of the Confederacy, in the very weeks before the war broke out, the Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, made it clear that the Confederate cause was about maintaining slavery and white supremacy. He said in his now famous “corner-stone speech” that the Confederacy’s “cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

It was urgent, passionate, heartfelt. Watch it jump off the page:

Indivisibility is our essence. Isn’t this the gift that the people of New Orleans have given to the world? We radiate beauty and grace in our food, in our music, in our architecture, in our joy of life, in our celebration of death; in everything that we do. We gave the world this funky thing called jazz, the most uniquely American art form that is developed across the ages from different cultures. Think about second lines, think about Mardi Gras, think about muffaletta, think about the Saints, gumbo, red beans and rice. By God, just think.

Think, hell. Let’s go to New Orleans.

Rigorous research revealed new facts, rather than Wikipedia regurgitations. Did you know, for instance, when the monuments to the Confederacy were built, and why? I didn’t, until I heard this speech. (Hint: It wasn’t very soon after the war ended, and it wasn’t out of pure Southern sentimentality.) New information: Audiences appreciate it, because they don’t expect it.

It was imaginative, coming at its argument from many angles, and with many lines that reveal someone really trying to get a thing across in the most persuasive way. For instance:

Instead of revering a 4-year brief historical aberration that was called the Confederacy we can celebrate all 300 years of our rich, diverse history as a place named New Orleans and set the tone for the next 300 years.

Most of all, it was communicative. A speechwriter said to me, “Too often, speeches fail to persuade people—especially in this era where more people than ever seem to start with their conclusions and then interpret events to fit.  But I really think Landrieu got through to a lot of people on the other side.”

Landrieu told of his own journey to his point of view:

As clear as it is for me today … for a long time, even though I grew up in one of New Orleans’ most diverse neighborhoods, even with my family’s long proud history of fighting for civil rights … I must have passed by those monuments a million times without giving them a second thought. So I am not judging anybody, I am not judging people. We all take our own journey on race.

I just hope people listen like I did when my dear friend Wynton Marsalis helped me see the truth. He asked me to think about all the people who have left New Orleans because of our exclusionary attitudes. Another friend asked me to consider these four monuments from the perspective of an African American mother or father trying to explain to their fifth grade daughter who Robert E. Lee is and why he stands atop of our beautiful city. Can you do it? Can you look into that young girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her?

That is the sound not of a person trying to justify a position or pander to people who already agree. It’s the sound of someone trying to reach out and communicate.

And whether or not you agree with Landrieu’s view or with the removal of the monuments, the sound is striking. The sound is different.

Speechwriters can hear it.

Audiences can, too.

Even journalists can hear it.

“I didn’t realize how starved I was for talk like this until Landrieu fed me,” wrote New York Times columnist Frank Bruni. “It’s the stuff of solace, the grist for hope. We subsist now on a meager vocabulary of winners and ‘losers,’ of ‘sad’ naysayers and ‘nut job’ adversaries. We’re asked to see an absence of eloquence as the presence of authenticity.”

Bruni credited Landrieu with “putting some poetry back in public life and demonstrating afresh that in language beautifully rendered, we find our humanity fully acknowledged.”

I speak for lots of speechwriters who stand ready to do more of the same, if only their speakers will stand and deliver. —DM

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