Political Speeches And The Art Of The Jab

Weekend Edition Sunday guest host Linda Wertheimer talks with speechwriter Eli Attie about the art of crafting little jabs for politicians to pull, such as those used by the presidential campaigns this past week: "Obamaloney" and "Romneyhood."

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Back to the presidential campaign for a second. Last week, the presidential candidates tried to crack wise. Here's President Obama on Monday, attacking his opponent...

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: He'd ask the middle class to pay more in taxes so that he could give another $250,000 tax cut to people making more than $3 million a year.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOING)

OBAMA: It's like Robin Hood in reverse.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: It's Romney Hood.

(APPLAUSE)

WERTHEIMER: Mitt Romney fired back in an interview a day later on Fox News.

MITT ROMNEY: Now, we've been watching the president say a lot of things about me and about my policies, and they're just not right. And if I were to coin a term it would be Obamaloney. He's serving up a dish which is simply in contradiction of the truth.

WERTHEIMER: Now, there's a pretty good chance those one-liners weren't exactly off the cuff. There's also a good chance the candidates did not write the lines. That's the job of a political speechwriter, and it can be gut-wrenching.

ELI ATTIE: I hated watching my speeches delivered.

WERTHEIMER: That's Eli Attie. He was a speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore.

ATTIE: Not only was there the occasional, you know, flubbed line, but it just never matches the sound and rhythm in your head.

WERTHEIMER: Today Attie writes on TV shows like "House" and "The West Wing." But actors are different from politicians. Politicians have nowhere to hone their jokes.

ATTIE: To do something like Romney Hood or Obamaloney or even in the year 1984, you know, the age and inexperience joke that Reagan used, I mean you can't test your material in advance.

(LAUGHTER)

ATTIE: It's basically comedy without a net, which no comedian would do.

WERTHEIMER: That Reagan joke was a response to concerns that he would be the oldest president ever. This was in a candidate debate.

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: Now, everybody laughed at that, including Walter Mondale.

ATTIE: Right, that's right, probably - he wasn't going to win anyway, but that was probably the moment he lost the election.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: So do you think a joke can do that? Do you think a joke can...

ATTIE: Absolutely.

WERTHEIMER: But Eli Attie is not convinced that the ability to sell a joke is an indicator of a great president.

ATTIE: Maybe there's more authenticity to a person who has more trouble selling things that are actually inauthentic; a line somebody stuck in his hand five minutes earlier. What does it mean, you know, when a politician has an incredible natural gift for insincerity? You have to wonder.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: That's former speechwriter Eli Attie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News.

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