Reading a Fox News piece last week headlined “Biden’s Afghanistan speech written poorly with even worse delivery, experts say,” I was taken back to a formative moment very early in my career.
I was 22 years old, sitting around a table in what I remember as a dimly lit room in Chicago with members of the now long-defunct Chicago Speechwriters Forum.
The members of the Forum were almost all men, and almost all middle-aged, almost all highly educated. The luncheon topic was a discussion of the effectiveness of President Clinton’s first State of the Union Address.
My immaculate young mind was disappointed and appalled at the lack of intellectual discipline of these supposed communication professionals, as they “analyzed” Clinton’s speech. Almost everything they said offered far less rhetorical insight on the speech than partisan revelation of their views of the speaker.
This was most offensively the case with one of very most exalted intellects in the room, a distinguished-looking, silver-bearded libertarian linguistics Ph.D. who insisted on that designation frequently, despite (or because of) the fact that he made his living writing not-very-compelling speeches for the CEO of a cheese company.
While this speechwriter spent our precious meeting time attacking Clinton’s politics (forcing others to spend even more time defending them), I objected that it was not policy that we were here to discuss; it was oratory and rhetoric.
When the Ph.D. did it several times more, I did my passable imitation of Ronald Reagan’s favorite debate line: “There you go again.” The room when up for grabs, but you can imagine the look I got from the speechwriter.
In the intervening thirty years, Americans haven’t gotten a lot better at separating their intellects from their political feelings—communicators, included.
The “experts” quoted in the Fox News piece, of course, were all former Republican speechwriters and communication people.
Former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleisher said, “The delivery, especially the first half, was too hot. The President almost shouted every word, to the point where it was too much, too hot, and too defensive.”
He undercut the legitimacy of that criticism by adding, “More fundamentally, he’s stuck with a big problem that no speech can solve: he bungled the withdrawal and left Americans behind. He gave his word and broke it. The speech and his policies show his judgment remains deeply flawed.”
So Biden’s speech was bad because he is a liar and a bastard. Got it.
Media coach Beverly Hallberg, a longtime consultant to the Heritage Foundation, also objected to the president’s delivery—his “angry facial expressions and raised voice”—then added: “His words were offensive—praising himself for the ‘biggest airlift in history’ … That this president was trying to defend the unforgiveable.”
Again boiling down to, Biden’s speech was bad because he is a liar and a bastard.
But Biden came in for the most detailed criticism by Dr. Jonathan Bronitsky, former chief speechwriter to U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr. Dr. Bronitsky also found the speech “abrasive and defensive,” and then went on to add:
As a nation, we’re mourning, we’re seeking leadership, and, frankly, we’re even embarrassed by the aimlessness of the White House and the visceral display of decaying American power. Biden, the alleged ‘Consoler-in-Chief,’ had more than enough time to prepare for yesterday’s speech, and he still failed to begin our collective process of healing and rebuilding.
In a public oration such as this one, it’s critical to concede failure in full, to clearly outline next steps, and then to conclude by providing an optimistic, forward-looking vision for improvement. Biden offered none of that.
To sum up, Biden’s speech was bad because he is a liar and a bastard, and he didn’t use the speech to admit it.
Now, maybe by now it is I who am revealing my partisan leanings.
What did I think of the Biden speech? I thought the delivery was little shouty, yes; but of course they criticized the last Democratic president for being too professorial. As opposed to the last Republican president, whose delivery was always perfectly polished and suited to the occasion.
I thought Biden’s speech was mostly a workmanlike defense of a policy you either disagree with, or don’t. I found the speech generally not worthy of comment, rhetorically speaking, and—like most speeches, in fact—more significant for who said them and why, rather how they said them, exactly.
Look, separating rhetoric from policy is hard—even for professional speechwriters. But at the very least, I expect speechwriters and other students of rhetoric to try. The motto of my company, Pro Rhetoric, LLC, is “Professional leadership communication, to promote greater social understanding.”
The first best way to do that is to not squander your credibility as a communicator—to squander all our credibility, tenuous as it already is!—just to make the same points as any other partisan with an opinion.