Head of the Class

This speech could have turned mawkish at just about every paragraph. That it did not attests to solid speechwriting craft.

Speech by Jill Biden, August 18, 2020.

Democratic National Convention, Second Night.

As a format, the convention speech for a would-be First Lady generally confines the speechwriter and speaker to off-policy grounds. Yes, once in office First Ladies often adopt a cause as a quasi-policy concern, from Lady Bird Johnson’s beautification through Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” to Michelle Obama’s exercise and gardening endeavors. (Wow, has she moved on.) But during the convention, the spouse of the challenger has no such territory to claim. Except in this case, Jill Biden—Dr. Jill Biden, as the campaign prefers to call her—has a property lien on pre-college education. It is her profession. She prepares lessons. She grades papers.

And so it was no surprise to see her deliver the final address last night from an empty classroom at Brandywine High School in Wilmington DE, where she had taught English for many years. (Earlier, her husband accepted the nomination from the school’s library.)   

Biden opened with a tone poem of sorts, limning the sounds of classrooms when they are full and, as now, empty. That was calibrated to one of the biggest issues of the day, the struggle in thousands of school districts to figure out whether and how to open safely while the pandemic rages. Dr. Biden spoke not of funding and protocols, but to the emotions of the near-universal ordeal of students, teachers, and parents.

She followed with a scrapbook account of the story of her marriage, a familiar up-from-tragedy tale that was fresher for being delivered just in words and not with actual pictures and music, as is the case in other segments of the convention program.        

Then Biden made a logical pivot from their family to America as a family.

How do you make a broken family whole? The same way you make a nation whole. With love and understanding—and with small acts of kindness. With bravery. With unwavering faith.

You show up for each other, in big ways and small ones, again and again. It’s what so many of you are doing right now. For your loved ones. For complete strangers. For your communities.

Following near-obligatory accounts of her family’s recovery from Beau Biden’s death and testimony to her husband’s resilience and kindness, Dr. Biden concluded by returning to the nation as family metaphor with an upbeat evocation of Americans behaving similarly:

Across the country, educators, parents, first responders—Americans of all walks of life are putting their shoulders back, fighting for each other. We haven’t given up…. And with Joe as president, these classrooms will ring out with laughter and possibility once again.

This speech could have turned mawkish at just about every paragraph. That it did not attests to solid speechwriting craft, well suited to and well delivered by its speaker.

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