A passing BBC journalist called me to ask for some quotes on why President Obama and his wife Michelle are such great public speakers. A lively discussion ensued on what in fact makes someone a ‘great public speaker’. Are the Obamas excellent speakers who too often give poor speeches?
She sounded unhappy when I opined that the problem with so many speechwriters is that they are young and so can’t bring wisdom to bear on the speech support task. “I disagree,” she said, “young people have wisdom!”
There’s a novel thought. Do they? Or do they have some wisdom, but not as much as older people? That one is answered conclusively here.
Let’s carefully frame the question for our immediate purpose. It’s not “do people (necessarily) get wiser as they get older”? That debate rumbles on. Rather it is this: “can young people (let’s say under 35) have the wisdom needed to write a great speech?”
President Obama’s speechwriter Jon Favreau was very young (24) when he first started writing speeches for then Senator Obama in 2005. He went on to achieve speechwriting glory, being named one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World by Time magazine in 2009. Yowza. I wonder whether it ever occurs to Time to explore the world of President Putin’s speechwriters – maybe there is someone there who also should be on that list?
There’s no doubt that J Favreau can write a fine speech. Above all he won the full confidence of President Obama and so got close enough to him to tune in to President Obama’s ‘voice’ and write speeches given by using teleprompters. This is an art in itself. Here’s an extract from a chapter in Speeches for Leaders devoted to just this:
The idea seems sound. The leader maintains far better eye contact with the audience instead of repeatedly looking down at notes. However, what the teleprompter (or iPad) giveth in enhanced eye contact, it taketh away in the form of hugely reduced spontaneity and conversation. By using a teleprompter, a leader is trapped with the words served up as they scroll down the small screen. The leader is reading out a speech, not speaking directly to an audience from the heart.
If the leader starts any improvising, departing from the prepared script, a mess can quickly ensue. Once it all gets out of synch, it’s difficult for the teleprompter operator and leader to re–find the right place, quickly and together, and get the speech back on track. While that is happening, the leader is horribly exposed like a fish gasping for air. This is all the more obvious if the speaker is fiddling with a scrolling iPad screen. Long seconds spent peering down at the screen to get the text back to the right place are seconds not spent engaging with the audience. The audience suddenly finds itself ignoring the speech and enjoying the mess: everyone likes to see an important person making a fool of themselves. Any hope the leader has of controlling the room accordingly frays or collapses, and perhaps is never recovered.
Obama utterly relies on teleprompters to maintain contact with the audience on the day and so sound ‘authentic’. Of course that is dangerous – he crashes completely when the teleprompter freezes or he otherwise gets out of synch. But when it works well the results can be outstanding.
Writing for a speaker using teleprompters so that the words flow naturally requires extra skill. The speaker also needs a skilled teleprompter operator able to adjust the flow of words down the screen and maybe even pause the flow completely, depending on audience reaction.
In short, teleprompters work only for speakers with the money to afford a team of experts used to making teleprompted speeches a success. Thinking about using an iPad or iPhone app so that you have your own teleprompter for delivering your speech? DON’T.
Be all that as it may, what about Wisdom?
The problem with anyone young is that they have all sorts of positive qualities: energy, fresh thinking, ambition, confidence and so on. But they (necessarily) don’t have the experience that comes from knowing lots of things. From seeing how things play out over time. For grasping the deeper dynamics of any negotiation. From understanding relationships in all their baffling complexity. From grasping what the Serbs call duh situaciji – the spirit of the situation.
Take US/Russia relations. It’s safe to say that neither J Favreau nor President Obama knew anything much about Russia before the President visited Moscow a few months after his election in 2009. Why should they? Russia is an enigma wrapped in a conundrum surrounded by a mystery, or something like that. Above all it’s BIG. It has big attitudes. Big grudges. Big ‘intensity’. Russia really likes being Russia. Nowhere else does Russia like Russia does.
Thus along comes President Obama armed with his sassy speechwriters to deliver a major speech! To Russia! It comes just weeks after his majorly flawed Cairo speech to the ‘Muslim world’. The text of his Moscow speech is here.
First thing. The speech is delivered (like his Cairo speech) to a University audience of economics graduates. Hurrah. Young people! The future!
Is this the right choice? Maybe there’s something just a whiff patronising in a country like Russia using a young audience for a front-rank US foreign policy speech – as if he’s speaking ‘over the heads’ of all the frumpy old people who actually run the country? It also seems to take it for granted that young Russians are ‘cool’, progressive-minded thoughtful people who basically share universal Obamaesque social democrat values. But what if they don’t?
The speech itself starts with all the usual laboured Obama faux-rhetoric:
Russian writers have helped us understand the complexity of the human experience, and recognize eternal truths. Russian painters, composers, and dancers have introduced us to new forms of beauty. Russian scientists have cured disease, sought new frontiers of progress, and helped us go to space. These are contributions that are not contained by Russia’s borders, as vast as those borders are. Indeed, Russia’s heritage has touched every corner of the world, and speaks to the humanity that we share.
This sort of thing is condescending padding. We then have the obligatory rent-a-quote, dumped in to add ‘connection’ even though everyone there on the day knows that neither Obama nor his speechwriters have read much if anything of Pushkin:
Here at NES, you have inherited this great cultural legacy, but your focus on economics is no less fundamental to the future of humanity. As Pushkin said, “Inspiration is needed in geometry just as much as poetry.”
Why not take that unexpected idea and make a theme of the speech from it? Balance Art v Science – Subjective v Objective as an idea in international relations. Nope. Too complicated.
Like President Medvedev and myself, you’re not old enough to have witnessed the darkest hours of the Cold War, when hydrogen bombs were tested in the atmosphere, and children drilled in fallout shelters, and we reached the brink of nuclear catastrophe. But you are the last generation born when the world was divided. At that time, the American and Soviet armies were still massed in Europe, trained and ready to fight. The ideological trenches of the last century were roughly in place. Competition in everything from astrophysics to athletics was treated as a zero-sum game. If one person won, then the other person had to lose.
Ah – *wakes up*. I win – you lose. That sounds like something Russians understand.
And then, within a few short years, the world as it was ceased to be. Now, make no mistake: This change did not come from any one nation. The Cold War reached a conclusion because of the actions of many nations over many years, and because the people of Russia and Eastern Europe stood up and decided that its end would be peaceful.
What a weird and wrong way to summarise the end of communism in the USSR. Nothing about Soviet communism as a catastrophic idea?
Over two tumultuous decades, that truth has been borne out around the world. Great wealth has been created, but it has not eliminated vast pockets of crushing poverty. Poverty exists here, it exists in the United States, and it exists all around the world. More people have gone to the ballot box, but too many governments still fail to protect the rights of their people. Ideological struggles have diminished, but they’ve been replaced by conflicts over tribe and ethnicity and religion. A human being with a computer can hold the same amount of information stored in the Russian State Library, but that technology can also be used to do great harm.
Again, there’s something exasperatingly condescending about these platitudes. Maybe they make sense somewhere else? But to an audience of highly educated tough young Russians? No.
And so it rambles on, for some 40 minutes. The key philosophical weakness of the speech comes here:
Yet unfortunately, there is sometimes a sense that old assumptions must prevail, old ways of thinking; a conception of power that is rooted in the past rather than in the future. There is the 20th century view that the United States and Russia are destined to be antagonists, and that a strong Russia or a strong America can only assert themselves in opposition to one another. And there is a 19th century view that we are destined to vie for spheres of influence, and that great powers must forge competing blocs to balance one another. These assumptions are wrong.
Really? Look at Russia now studiously peeling off Crimea from Ukraine in blatant defiance of international law. That looks impressively like a major success for a very old assumption, namely that if you’re big and brutish enough and grab part of someone else’s land, who’s going to stop you?
As I said in Prague, rules must be binding, violations must be punished, and words must mean something.
Ah, our old friend musty speechwriting. When you want to sound tough without actually committing to anything, throw in musty phrases. This speech has a grim 19 musts. Its mustiness reaches an oddly incoherent crescendo in the key passage referring to Russia and Ukraine:
And that leads me to the final area that I will discuss, which is America’s interest in an international system that advances cooperation while respecting the sovereignty of all nations.
State sovereignty must be a cornerstone of international order. Just as all states should have the right to choose their leaders, states must have the right to borders that are secure, and to their own foreign policies. That is true for Russia, just as it is true for the United States. Any system that cedes those rights will lead to anarchy.
That’s why we must apply this principle to all nations — and that includes nations like Georgia and Ukraine. America will never impose a security arrangement on another country. For any country to become a member of an organization like NATO, for example, a majority of its people must choose to; they must undertake reforms; they must be able to contribute to the Alliance’s mission. And let me be clear: NATO should be seeking collaboration with Russia, not confrontation.
No doubt. But what if Russia under current management does not trust NATO?
You get to decide what comes next. You get to choose where change will take us, because the future does not belong to those who gather armies on a field of battle or bury missiles in the ground; the future belongs to young people with an education and the imagination to create. That is the source of power in this century.
Hmm. Power comes all sorts of things. Including from a willingness to use force to achieve specific ends. Plus not all young people want to create the sorts of things that Obama has in mind.
The speech finishes in a veritable torrent of mixed metaphors:
Every country charts its own course. Russia has cut its way through time like a mighty river through a canyon, leaving an indelible mark on human history as it goes. As you move this story forward, look to the future that can be built if we refuse to be burdened by the old obstacles and old suspicions.
A river charts a course that leaves an indelible mark on a future than can be built unburdened by obstacles/suspicions. Hurrah!
* * * * *
This is what I mean by a speech lacking Wisdom. It’s mainly not badly written. Maybe it even sounded pretty good on the day.
But the tone is all wrong for a keynote speech in Moscow. Its didactic style grates. Its messages are flabby, its homilies patronising. It reasonably extends a Hand of Friendship but has much too little to say what will happen if that hand is spurned.
Neither Jon Favreau nor President Obama knew enough about the subject, and above all about the highly specific psychological approach of President Putin and his elite. This explains why the most basic failure of this speech (ie the place where the absence of Wisdom was most acute) lay in its failure to address the key foreign policy dilemma in US/Russia relations:
Hence if Russia can not be in practice a real partner for the USA, it seeks its global political market niche in behaving awkwardly towards US policies at the UN and elsewhere, as this at least marks out some sort of continuing Big Power status even if in a negative way.
Basically, this Obama speech in Moscow did not do much more than rehash the famous line from the doomed but sly President in Mars Attacks as he addresses the Martian invaders: Why can’t we all just … get along?
That sounds and is weak.
Hence the Obama Syria red line fiasco some 220 weeks later. And Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. Assad must go! Oops. Looks like thanks to Putin he’ll still be around after I step down early next year…
Wisdom? Hard to define it. But you notice when it’s absent. As do a tough-minded audience.
+++ UPDATE +++
The BBC article about the Obamas’ public speaking is here (in Spanish).