Top Speechwriters Grade Conventions

President Obama's acceptance of the Democratic nomination capped two weeks of speeches at the political conventions. Host Michel Martin discusses hits and misses with Mary Kate Cary, former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush; and Paul Orzulak, former speechwriter for President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, the economy remains front and center in this election, so we'll talk about the latest unemployment numbers that came out today. We'll ask our NPR senior business editor Marilyn Geewax to interpret them for us.

But first, as you know, President Obama formally accepted the nomination of his party yesterday. Here's a clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: America, I never said this journey would be easy, and I won't promise that now. Yes, our path is harder, but it leads to a better place. Yes, our road is longer, but we travel it together. We don't turn back.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MARTIN: President Obama's speech capped two weeks of political speeches at the Democratic and Republican conventions. Millions of people tuned in to watch both of them. So we wanted to take a closer look at those speeches, what hit, what missed. And to have that conversation we've called upon two people who have participated in crafting these kinds of speeches.

Mary Kate Cary is a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. She's now a blogger and columnist for U.S. News & World Report. Also with us, Paul Orzulak. He served as a speechwriter for President Clinton and for Vice President Al Gore during the 2000 election, and members of his firm were heavily involved in crafting the speeches for this year's convention. Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us once again.

PAUL ORZULAK: Hi, Michel.

MARY KATE CARY: Great to be here.

MARTIN: So we just heard the clip of President Obama's address last night. The speech has been said that it was going to be one of the most important of his career. Paul, this is your team, so let me get your thoughts first.

ORZULAK: You know, it sort of started as the first State of the Union address that we've ever heard in September. It was a litany of the things that he has made a priority of, the progress we've made over the past four years, and the way he saw the world. And I feel like the last five minutes had a rousing call to action that reminded everyone why we love Barack Obama in the first place.

And the goal for Democrats this week was to say it's not about the last four years as much as it's a choice between our vision and their vision for the next four years and where we're going as a country, whether we're going to continue the progress, whether we're going to go back. That was the message I think that carried through all three nights and set up a really important choice for the fall.

And I think it was an effective night, and the whole week was just spectacular.

MARTIN: Mary Kate Cary, what's your assessment?

CARY: It didn't have that same feel to me as 2008 did. He made promises that, you know, people wonder if he's going to keep again. But he did get into a few specifics, and I think he - he didn't quite make the sale for me, though, at the end. I just was left saying eh, OK, I get it, you know. But he's good.

MARTIN: You're a Republican.

(LAUGHTER)

CARY: Yeah, it's true, I'm biased, but I just was - I just had my hopes up, like we're going to hear it again, like he's going to be fired up, ready to roll, yes we can, you know, that kind of stuff. And that wasn't there.

MARTIN: Now for many people who have been sort of looking at the whole arc of the last two weeks, one of the standouts was President Clinton's speech. I'll just play a short clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: Now people ask me all the time how we got four surplus budgets in a row. What new ideas did we bring to Washington? I always give a one-word answer: arithmetic.

MARTIN: Now this is a very short excerpt from a very long speech, Paul. So tell me why this was one of your favorites, and why are so many people saying that this really was the highlight of the convention.

ORZULAK: Well, there's still no politician, I think, on the planet, and certainly in America, that connects with middle-class voters and that can put public policy in real flesh-and-blood terms that people can relate to and understand - why things are important to them and why all these things that people talk about in Washington relate to their daily lives and how.

I think President Clinton, a few years after he left office, was sitting with a number of his writers. And he said that in this era that we're living in, if elections are about symbols, and if they're about labels, then the Republicans will win every time, because they do that really well. But if we can get people to consider what brought us to this moment and the choices that we have ahead, then Democrats will win.

And I think he sees his audience as adults, and he speaks to them as adults. And the level of detail was more than any State of the Union address that I've ever heard.

MARTIN: Mary Kate, you actually thought that President Clinton's speech was a missed opportunity. Now, it's interesting because he's getting raves on both sides of the aisle, and you actually differ, you disagree with a lot of people about that. Tell me more.

CARY: Yeah, I thought, you know, on the positive side, it was classic Bill Clinton: engaging, humorous, generous to Republicans, we like that. But I saw somewhere that the as-prepared version was 3,000 words, as-delivered was 5,000 words. He's just kind of undisciplined. He can't help himself, you know. And as he goes longer and longer, I thought oh, what are you doing.

And the speech I wanted to hear from him was Teddy Kennedy's from 1980, the cause endures, the dream lives, that sort of thing. That through all Obama's been through, here's why we're still Democrats. And instead he was kind of drilling down, rebutting this assertion or that assertion on voter ID laws or welfare reform proposals and - which I think is good in the contest of ideas, but I think he needed to be at 30,000 feet, and he was getting really micro.

ORZULAK: Can I add to that? The beauty in his language and his speeches always came in the substance of what he was working on. You know, people say you campaign in poetry, and you govern in prose. He finds the poetry in the prose. And he made a better case for the president's re-election than I think the administration really has over the last two years.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with Paul Orzulak, he's a former speechwriter for President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. His firm was heavily involved in shaping the speeches at this year's Democratic National Convention, which just concluded in Charlotte last night. Also with us, Mary Kate Cary, she's a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush, and she's now a columnist and blogger for U.S. News & World Report.

So let's look back at the Republican National Convention. I want to get your perspective on those speeches and how effective they were or not. So Mary Kate, that was your party. What was the most important speech for you or the most effective speech for you?

CARY: I'd say the most effective was Condi Rice. I...

MARTIN: The former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

CARY: Former secretary of state. She got up there and began with foreign policy but then used her credibility on foreign policy to segue into free trade, energy independence, immigration, education. She talked about being a little girl, growing up in Jim Crow Birmingham, believing she could be the president of the United States, and of course that planted the idea in everyone's head that well, maybe she should be the president of the United States.

MARTIN: OK, Mary Kate, let me just stop you right there and play a short clip from former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's speech from the Republican National Convention last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: The world knows that when a nation loses control of its finances, it eventually loses control of its destiny. That is not the America that has inspired people to follow our lead.

CARY: I thought she was right in there with the contest of ideas. The thing mechanically I liked about it was it worked in the hall. Apparently, you could hear a pin drop in the hall. But it worked very well on TV, as well, which is how I saw it. In contrast to the Democratic convention, I thought some of their speakers were just too hot for television.

Jennifer Granholm, Ted Strickland, even Joe Biden, I thought. There were a couple times where I had to turn down the volume and say holy cow, their hair's going to light on fire. And I think in the hall it worked, but Condi Rice worked both in the hall and on TV and I thought (unintelligible)...

MARTIN: Well, what about the nominee? What about Mitt Romney, his acceptance speech, which is generally the speech that gets the most attention? I do want to say one thing: Earlier this week I misspoke when I mentioned that the RNC had low ratings. According to the Post, actually, the closing night of the Republican convention, which is of course when the nominee speaks, was the second-most-watched TV program last week. And we'll be interested to see - the Democrats apparently, the first night of the Democratic convention had even higher ratings than the last night of the Republican convention. So we'll see if that continues.

CARY: But you had the football game, too, and the Video Music Awards, very big with the young voters.

MARTIN: Yes, exactly. So tell me how you think Mitt Romney's speech went.

CARY: An A for Mitt Romney for his delivery. I think he's not comfortable in things like that. He's not a natural politician. He's a businessman, and he did as well as he possibly could of - clearly there was a strategic decision made by the campaign to go for the likeability gap. And they did make him very likeable. I think they accomplished that but at the expense of people like me, who wanted to hear what's the plan for the future. So I'm left waiting for the debates, and hopefully we'll hear it there.

MARTIN: Paul Orzulak, what about you?

ORZULAK: You know, the invisible man at the Republican convention was actually George W. Bush. Nobody at the convention mentioned him. For good reason, I think nobody wanted to remind people of, you know, his administration and what he had not accomplished or the hole that he had left the country in when Obama took office.

But that would suggest, then, that Mitt Romney would be at the center of every narrative that was presented. And I think Mrs. Romney did a fantastic job humanizing her husband, talking about all the things that she loves about him, why people should trust him and believe in him.

It presented him the opportunity to then expand on it and talk about where he was going to take the country. And as Mary Kate said, I think if you're making your whole argument on the economy, you need to say something different about where you're going to take the country than your opponent. He didn't take the opportunity to do that, and I think that was a missed opportunity.

CARY: He did have his five steps. I mean, it wasn't a total (unintelligible).

ORZULAK: Yeah, but it wasn't - five steps in one sentence.

CARY: Well, I counted; it was 10.

(LAUGHTER)

CARY: Two sentences per step.

MARTIN: Arithmetic again. So before we let each of you go, we did mention that the ratings for Republican National Convention, those are all in, lower than in 2008 but the second-most-watched TV program last week, and we can anticipate that the ratings that the Democratic National Convention will be equally strong and probably stronger since the first night.

But it does still beg the question I wanted to ask each of you, as both of you have been so intimately involved in this process: Does this still matter? I mean, one of the things we've demonstrated is that the conventions can be substantially pared down. I mean, both of them were only three nights for all kinds of reasons. Do they still matter in your view? Paul?

ORZULAK: Yes, absolutely. What this comes down to is: What's your ground game in November? You need people who are going to be energized, who are going to get people out to vote, who are going to volunteer in their communities and do the things that happened four years ago to help President Obama win.

This provided the arguments, how you talk about Medicare, Medicaid or any of these other issues.

MARTIN: OK, Mary Kate Cary, do they still matter?

CARY: Yeah, I think for two reasons. What Paul is saying for the Democrats, it matters to them because it's all about turnout and activating the base. And like you're saying there was a lot of references to phone banks and give money and all that sort of thing. The people that made the case for the Democrats were activists like Lilly Ledbetter and Sandra Fluke; union leaders like Trumpka; even TV commentators like Jennifer Granholm, former governor but now a TV commentator; Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren. And those...

MARTIN: Also some CEOs like the former CEO of Costco...

CARY: Yeah, you had the Costco guy, yeah.

MARTIN: And Car Max.

CARY: So these were people that could fire up that crowd. So that accomplished, I think, that goal for the Democrats. Republicans had a different goal, which was in my mind to showcase the future of the party, these reformist governors from all over the States: Nikki Haley; Marco Rubio; Susana Martinez hit it out of the ballpark. They're laying the groundwork for the next generation.

Paul Ryan - if Mitt Romney loses, Paul Ryan's going to be just fine, and that's a different goal, and I think they very much accomplished that, laying the groundwork for the next two or three elections.

MARTIN: Mary Kate Cary is a former speechwriter for George H.W. Bush. She's now a blogger and columnist for U.S. News & World Report. Paul Orzulak served as speechwriter for President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. And his team also was very much involved in shaping speeches for this year's Democratic National Convention, which just concluded in Charlotte, North Carolina. And they were both kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C., studios. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

CARY: Our pleasure.

ORZULAK: (Unintelligible).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Coming up, the new unemployment numbers released today show weaker-than-expected job growth. NPR's Marilyn Geewax tells us what the numbers mean for the economy. That's ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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