Why Presidents Give Speeches Anyway (Part Three of Three)

So we can stipulate that Ezra Klein is a magificent grasper of the obvious and his main source is a master at locating and debunking intellectual imbeciles in the field of rhetoric.

But why do the editors of The New Yorker think there’s a gullible audience for the rediscovery that the earth is not the center of the solar system?

They must think people just don’t understand just how mysterious communication is. Notice, I don’t say “complex,” because “complex” implies that with enough concentration, all the dynamics can be coralled and accounted for. Not with communication.

Klein and his professors go so far as to show that in some cases a presidential speech actually has the opposite of its intended effect. Gadzooks! As if this never happens in their marital arguments!

And as with a beleaguered spouse, a president’s audience usually knows full well what he is trying to achieve with his words … simultaneously suspects the speech is really about something else … has developed infinite conflicting attitudes about the issue at hand … is comparing the speech to everything else the spouse has ever said … and will compare it with everything the spouse ever says in the future … or, on the other hand, may not be listening at all because she thinks she’s heard it all a million times before.

A president giving a speech is a quarterback throwing into very tight coverage.

He knows it. His speechwriters know it. And most of the listeners know it.

But the ball must be thrown, mustn’t it? “If you don’t try it at all,” political strategist Paul Begala tells Klein, “it guarantees you won’t persuade anybody.”

A welder welds, a teacher teaches, a writer writes and a president leads—partly, through public proclamation.

Could President Obama spend less time giving ceremonial remarks and more time making personal relationships with legislators in private negotiations, as President Johnson did? I have wondered that myself. As an editor of a magazine of called Vital Speeches of the Day, I can tell you that precious few speeches, presidential or otherwise, qualify as being “vital” communications. No one wishes more fervently than I for fewer symbolic speeches and more strategic ass-crackers. No one, except maybe the White House speechwriting team.

“Who listens to a president?” Ezra Klein asks. More people, I hope, than listen to a New Yorker writer who takes four thousand words to tell us what we already know. —DM

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