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Barbershop: Speechwriters Speak On The RNC And DNC


Now it's time for our trip to the Barbershop. That's where we gather a group of interesting folks to talk about what's in the news and what's on our minds. So what's on our minds today is that the political conventions are now over. So we thought this would be a good time to think about the messages we heard from both stages and how they were delivered. So in for a shape-up are Mary Kate Cary. She's a former speechwriter for George H. W. Bush. Hi, Mary Kate.


MARTIN: Also here with us, Jeff Nussbaum. He's a former speechwriter for vice presidents Joe Biden and Al Gore. He's now a partner at West Wing Writers. We hear he specializes in humor. So, Jeff, you know, we're hoping you'll perk us up at some point today.

JEFF NUSSBAUM: I'll do my best.

MARTIN: OK. And from the Virginia Heritage Foundation studio, Barbara Perry. She's director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia's Miller Center. Welcome to you, Barbara Perry.

BARBARA PERRY: Great to be with you.

MARTIN: So it's good to have all of you. So one of the things that many people have already commented on is the stark difference in tone between the Republicans and the Democrats this year, that the Democrats focused more on optimistic message, while the RNC took a much darker view of where the country is right now. Hillary Clinton's speech on Thursday night sort of stuck to this message, and we're going to play a little clip from that.


HILLARY CLINTON: Now, we are clear-eyed about what our country is up against, but we are not afraid. We will rise to the challenge just as we always have. We will not build a wall. Instead, we will build an economy where everyone who wants a good job can get one.

MARTIN: So, Jeff, I'm going to start with you because you were just in Philly. And I don't even know if you got a chance to drop your bag, so thanks so much for coming in. Tell me about the tone that the Democrats were trying to strike here. What was the intention? Do you think they achieved it?

NUSSBAUM: Sure. The goal was to do several things. And Hillary Clinton's speech brought them all together in the final speech on the final night. The first was to paint Donald Trump as risky. The second was to describe who Hillary was before her public life, and then the final night really brought it all together with this theme of stronger together. And that's what you heard in her speech.

MARTIN: OK. Mary Kate, what do you think?

CARY: I agree that Donald Trump - that last night at the Republican convention - gave a very dark speech. My critique was not so much about his assessment of where the United States is right now. Everything he said was well-documented. The darkness to me came with him saying I alone can fix it and some of the other statements like that. The crime rate will go down. That was what was frightening to me.

So I did think it was smart for Hillary Clinton to do the opposite and go in a different direction because if she's not painting herself as a change-maker, which I don't think she did, then the next alternative is to take down Donald Trump and make him the scary alternative. And she was able to do that.

NUSSBAUM: And, by the way, I alone can fix it teed up exactly what Democrats wanted to say because it provided such a clear contrast between we the people versus I alone.

MARTIN: Let me play a little bit of Donald Trump's speech for people who may not have heard it. I'll just play a clip.


DONALD TRUMP: The irresponsible rhetoric of our president who has used the pulpit of the presidency to divide us by race and color has made America a more dangerous environment than, frankly, I have ever seen and anybody in this room has ever watched or seen. This administration...

MARTIN: Barbara, what about you? And as the historian of the group, I was wondering if that tonal difference also struck you or is this something that tends to happen, we just don't notice it as much because stylistically they were so different? Is it that the party in power tends to make the case that, you know, things are pretty good and that the party that's not in power tends to make the case that things are terrible, and you have to change it?

PERRY: Well, that typically is a way to go about this. But I think what struck people so much, and I noticed a lot of the commentators were pointing out as well, that the Democrats were able to take this territory that was seated by the Republican convention - and maybe the Republican Party at this time if it is indeed being led by Donald Trump - and that is the patriotism and optimism element that the Democrats have not really able been able to hold onto since about 1960 when President Kennedy ran and in his speech talked about the new frontier in Los Angeles.

So this kind of uplifting, upbeat view that might've seemed corny for sophisticated Democrats to take on and the fact that Ronald Reagan had so captured that element for the Republican Party meant that it was sort of hard for Democrats or maybe it just didn't feel second nature to them to take up that cause. But now everything - it's like a perfect storm has formed for them to take up that theme. And I thought they did a superb job at expanding on it in Philadelphia.

MARTIN: Mary Kate, I know that people talked about Hillary Clinton's tone some, you know, particularly conservative commentators talked about her tone as they have in the past. They say, you know - they find her shrill, etc. I was just curious about his tone and his presentation.

CARY: You know, the thing that, as a speechwriter, sort of speech writing 101 would be tell a lot of stories, make it a speech that no one else could possibly deliver because it is full of stories from your life and your view capturing your voice in time. And none of the Trump family speeches, I thought, necessarily did that. There weren't a lot of stories about Donald Trump. That was one of the problems with Melania's speech - a lot of platitudes, a lot of generalities.

And, in his case, he didn't really talk about his journey and how he got to this place and he - and when he said I alone can fix it and things like that, that wasn't a policy solution. That wasn't details that people wanted to hear, which I think would have been very comforting to Republicans like me. And that's where I think he missed the opportunity to reassure people and grow the tent.

MARTIN: We mentioned President Obama. So I did want to ask that this was a - an important moment for both Obama that many people - the speeches given by both the first lady and the president really struck a lot of people. And this was their last hurrah, if you will, on a big stage. I think it's fair to say. I mean - I wanted to ask all of you, what do you think their legacy is as orators? What do you think that - when we think back to the Obama era what - do you think that they had an impact? And I apologize for putting them both together, but we heard both of them this week, and you can talk about either or both. Mary Kate, I'm going to ask you.

CARY: Let's do one each. The Michelle Obama, I thought, hit it out of the ballpark. I didn't agree with everything she said, but it was well-written, well-delivered, and it was the best speech I think she's ever given in her life. And sort of like Cal Ripken going out on top there, you know (laughter). I think she was terrific.

For Barack Obama, his rhetorical legacy to me is a mixed bag. In some ways, when he gets fired up and ready to roll, I think it is spectacular. He sounds like no other president in American history. It's highly motivating to the people who are listening to him, and he's - that's his A-game.

The flipside is for eight years now my pet peeve has been when he says in America that's not who we are. And to me, that means anybody who disagrees with him on a policy is somehow un-American. And that is very divisive to me in a very subtle way, and he's continued to do it all eight years. And I think that's - I'm glad to see that part ending. I thought his speech Thursday night was probably one of the best he's ever given, and it was his attempt to define his legacy. He'd probably deny that. But I think he did a good job with what he had to work with.

MARTIN: Jeff, what do you think?

NUSSBAUM: He has this interesting combination where he is able to be a inspirer-in-chief, while also being an educator-in-chief. And I would actually disagree with Mary Kate a little bit because I think that he, more than most actually, has what I think is almost - I almost don't want to see him do it as much where he actually explains the other side's argument to you. And I think he does it relatively honestly before making his argument. So there is a little bit of that law professor, too.

So I think if you're weaving together the strands of sort of the pulpit plus the law professor plus the, you know - plus being able to concede an argument to make an argument, you have this really unique rhetorical braid that he's mastered. And then I will just say about Michelle - her speech was masterful, and I think it will be a master class in how to deliver a speech in an arena.

MARTIN: Want me to play a little of it? I'll play a little. Here you go.


MICHELLE OBAMA: You see, Hillary understands that the president is about one thing and one thing only. It's about leaving something better for our kids. That's how we've always moved this country forward by all of us coming together on behalf of our children. Folks who volunteer to coach that team, to teach that Sunday school class because they know it takes a village.

MARTIN: What is it that struck you about that? What is it that you think was so effective?

NUSSBAUM: Well, I think, first of all, she got up there, and she's not a politician. And she didn't try to be a politician. She spoke as a mother, a friend, you know, she spoke as a parent. She spoke as someone who's passionate about America's children. And I will say, although we are hearing applause in that, when she was going through the meat of her speech, that was one where you could just hear a pin drop throughout.

MARTIN: Barbara, what about you? How would you describe Barack Obama's impact on or to you? How would you - and know, I hate to sort of comparison because that's, like, irrelevant. I mean, everybody is in their own historical moment, right? And so, you know, comparing Barack Obama to Woodrow Wilson, you know, what's the purpose of that? But just - how would you sort of describe this president's legacy and it's - particularly from a rhetorical standpoint?

PERRY: I thought it was so fascinating that he was speaking this past week at the convention exactly 12 years to the day that he burst on to the scene at the 2004 Democratic National Convention with his speech about having a United States of America. And so I think to Mary Kate's point about when he says that's not who we are in America, I think that that's what he's trying to say. He's trying to think in terms of a United States of America, and that's a theme throughout our history, that because we all come from someplace else except for those natives who are here, we have always tried to create an American creed that everyone can espouse and believe in.

So I think he was attempting to do that 12 years ago. I think he has been attempting to do that throughout his presidency. But the fact that Donald Trump has come so far indicates that he's not always been successful, but in terms of looking at him over the history of the presidency, I think he will go down in presidential history with the great orators of John Kennedy, of Franklin Roosevelt, of Ronald Reagan and maybe there even some touches of Lincoln. I think he's really lived up to that heritage.

MARTIN: That was from the Virginia Heritage Foundation studio Barbara Perry. She's director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia's Miller Center. Here with us in our studios in Washington, D.C., Jeff Nussbaum. He's a principal at West Wing Writers, a former speechwriter for vice presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden. And Mary Kate Cary, former speechwriter for George H. W. Bush and a columnist for U.S. News and World Report. Thank you all so much for joining us.

CARY: Thanks.


PERRY: Great to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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