“Just words? How do they think a president operates? It was ‘just words’ and ‘mere rhetoric’ that enabled President Kennedy to go before the United Nations General Assembly and win the kind of support and respect for American leadership and values that has been sadly lacking these last several years.” —Ted Sorensen (with hat tip to speechwriter Rod Thorn)
"You don't earn trust back with one speech," said David Axelrod after Mayor Rahm Emanuel's Hail Mary address last week before Chicago's City Council. "You earn trust back with actions."
Really, David Axelrod?
The adviser to Barack Obama knows as well as anyone that the right speech is an action. Remember "A More Perfect Union," Obama's speech in Philadelphia about race? It singlehandedly diffused a crisis just as dangerous to his political career as the Laquan McDonald shooting is to Emanuel's, saving Obama's candidacy by delivering something of such substance that it qualified as an act.
In that speech, Obama shared concrete, as-yet-unheard details from his past, revealing the racial complexity of his growing up, for which he offered material evidence: "my white grandmother—a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed her by on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe."
And in the course of that speech, he revealed—he showed—that he thinks deeper and better and truer on the subject of race in America than any one of his screaming critics. He demonstrated he understands the problem better than you or you or you. And he offered his own candidacy as an incontrovertible example the progress can be made.
"The profound mistake of Reverend Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society," Obama said. "It's that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress had been made; as if this country—a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black, Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old—is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know—what we have seen—is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope—the audacity to hope—for what we can and must achieve tomorrow."
And here—with enough sad irony to fill a Russian novel—we introduce Rahm Emanuel, eight racially troubled years later.
In his rhetorical moment of truth, Emanuel offered an empty apology. "I'm sorry," he said. For what, exactly? For hiding the tape for 400 days? For lying about not having seen it? For knowing all along that the Laquan McDonald incident was just the tip of the dick of a police department that's been impossibly corrupt since Capone was bootlegging Shirley Temples?
"I take responsibility for what happened because it happened on my watch." Ah, yes—the oldest dodge in the book. When the furnace goes out, does Dad call the family together in the kitchen and take responsibility because the buck stops here? No, because he doesn't feel responsible for the furnace going out. He swears, he shrugs, and he calls the (fucking) furnace guy.
During his speech, Emanuel pretended he felt responsible for the furnace going out, but the family didn't buy it. He screeched and shouted and imitated mammal friends whose voices he has heard crack when they are in distress. But the speech was forgettable and thus regrettable because it offered nothing new—not even new platitudes! "This time it will and must be different," he said. "It will be a bumpy road, a painful process and a long journey …" What—not a trying time, an uphill battle, a daunting challenge?
"This is not the Chicago we know and love," Emanuel concluded. "This is not the police department we believe in and trust to protect our families and neighborhoods. This is not who we are. And this will not stand."
Here's what a speech would sound like if a mayor was actually trying to come to new terms. It would go something like this: "Like all Chicagoans, I am tempted to say, 'This is not the Chicago we know and love. This is not the police department we believe in and trust to protect our families and neighborhoods. This is not who we are.' In fact, I was so tempted to believe this that I used every rationale I could find to avoid seeing the Laquan McDonald video—and to keep you from seeing it, too. But now that we all have seen it, I'm afraid we are forced to finally confront the fact that, actually, this is the Chicago we say we love. This atrocity and others have been committed by the police officers who we supposedly trust to protect our families and neighborhoods. I know this isn't who we want to be, but today is time to acknowledge the extent to which this is who we are. The question is—and it starts with me but lives with all of us, and it starts today—what are we willing to do to make our city the kind of place we wish it to be?"
That speech, David Axelrod, would be an action, because it would be a communication—the act, of one leader attempting to share a new piece of information, an acquired insight, a truly new commitment in forthright language and matching physical presence that audience cannot possibly mistake for "just a speech."
Emanuel didn't show up with a speech like that, because Emanuel isn't a guy like that. It's not the fault of speeches—just that speech, and the bloodless mayor who delivered it.
The distinction may be lost on some people, but communicators, at least, ought to keep track. —DM