Former Speechwriters On Message

Host Michel Martin has been checking in with two former speechwriters throughout the election season to sort through the rhetoric, and find out what messages struck a chord with voters. She reviews campaign messaging, and Tuesday night's victory and concession speeches with former presidential speechwriters Mary Kate Cary and Paul Orzulak.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We are continuing with our wide-ranging discussions with many of our regulars as we consider yesterday's election news. In a few minutes, we'll talk about what last night's election meant in the international arena with Abderrahim Foukara of Al Jazeera International.

But first, elections are won or lost on a lot of things, organization, ideology, personality. Right now, though, we want to talk about which messages struck a chord with the American people. Both campaigns spent huge sums of money communicating their visions for America, so we wanted to know what worked and, more importantly, what didn't work.

Back with us again, as they've been throughout this last phase of the election, are Mary Kate Cary. She's a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. Now she blogs for U.S. News and World Report. Also with us is Paul Orzulak. He was a speechwriter for President Clinton and he worked with Al Gore during the 2000 election, and he is the founder and one of the principles at the speechwriting firm West Wing Writers.

Welcome back to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us. Congratulations...

PAUL ORZULAK: Glad to be back.

MARTIN: ...to one, condolences to the other.

MARY KATE CARY: Thank you.

ORZULAK: Thank you.

MARTIN: So, Paul, let's start with the speeches, and then we'll sort of broaden it out to more of the messaging - actually, this morning's speeches. In the president's victory speech, he talked about his vision for the country, and we'll play a chunk of the president's speech. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We believe in a generous America, in a compassionate America, in a tolerant America, open to the dreams of an immigrant's daughter who studies in our schools and pledges to our flag, to the young boy on the South Side of Chicago who sees a life beyond the nearest street corner, to the furniture worker's child in North Carolina who wants to become a doctor or a scientist, an engineer or an entrepreneur, a diplomat or even a president, that's the - that's the future we hope for. That's the vision we share. That's where we need to go: forward.

MARTIN: Paul, did he strike the right tone? Big themes, certainly, but of course, one of the criticisms has been - in this last phase of the campaign, particularly - OK, we get the big vision. But where's the substance? Where is the specific forward? Where, specifically, are we going?

ORZULAK: Well, that was the - he's been dying to give that speech, I think, for a year now. This is the Obama that we fell in love with in 2008, who inspired us, who made us believe in hope. He couldn't give that speech during the campaign because it was about substance. It was about results. He knew - people knew that he could inspire. He ran on his record. And what I found - well, he won arguing his record.

And, you know, Governor Romney - who also gave a beautiful speech last night, a short, but very, very nice speech - he made the whole election about the economy. And yet, last night, six in 10 voters said the economy was their top issue, of them, 47 percent voted for the president. They said this was a vote to let the president finish the job he began four years ago.

Now, the president did touch on some issues last night. I found it interesting that the four he mentioned specifically were: let's work together to reduce our deficit, reform the tax code, fix the immigration system, free ourselves from foreign oil. Also priorities of the governors' during the campaign, but I think the tonal point last night: Let's reach across the aisle. Let's find a way to work together to do these things.

MARTIN: OK. Mary Kate, Mitt Romney's speech was brief. We'll play a short clip of that. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MITT ROMNEY: I so wish - I so wish that I had been able to fulfill your hopes to lead the country in a different direction, but the nation chose another leader, and so Ann and I join with you to earnestly pray for him and for this great nation. Thank you, and God bless America. You guys are the best. Thank you so much.

MARTIN: Mary Kate, what did you think of his speech? And, actually, we are told - there's a rumor that he actually didn't write a concession speech. He said he only had that...

CARY: Yeah. I heard that last night, too.

MARTIN: What did you think of it?

CARY: Well, I should start by saying I'm from the old school, that you congratulate your opponents on their win. So, congratulations to the Obama team first. As far as Romney's concession speech went, I thought it was very gracious. The classic thing to do is to thank your staff profusely, and then take the blame yourself, which was what he did. And I thought it was very gracious to say that he was praying for the president to succeed in his second term.

The line that jumped out at me the most is that this election is over, but our principles endure. And I think that's what's going to happen for the next two years. It will be a great debate on the right of which principles are most important to us going forward. If I could just say one thing about Obama's speech, since we were just talking about that...

MARTIN: Yeah.

CARY: ...I thought his was also very gracious, especially to the Romney family and mentioning Romney's father, and all that. And it was almost word-for-word from his 2008 Iowa victory speech, which was also almost word-for-word from the 2004 Democratic National Convention address, when he talks about we're not red states. We're not blue states. We're the United States.

My problem, as a Republican, is even though he said he's going to reach out and work across the aisle - we're not red states, we're not blue states - I really don't believe him anymore. I felt like it was kind of Ground Hog Day. The last four years have been a repudiation of we're not red states, we're not blue states. He doesn't work across the aisle. And I'm hoping that he's going to change that, but to me, it didn't ring true. I couldn't really believe him.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of not believing him anymore...

CARY: Yeah.

MARTIN: Was that also a Mitt Romney problem? You'll note that the New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg, in making his endorsement of President Obama, a lot of people, you know, talked about climate change. But the bigger message was - what he said was Mitt Romney walked away from every reasonable position that he previously had, and that is why he said he was endorsing President Obama.

And so the question I have for you, Mary Kate, is - in your view, as a Republican: Is that true? Whether you want to move aside the modifier of reasonable, because one person's reasonable is another person's ridiculous.

CARY: Right, right.

MARTIN: So there's that. But just - is that part of the problem with it? His messaging was too much all over the place, and he couldn't pivot back to the center fast enough.

CARY: What struck me last night - you know, I was so shocked, because part of my shock is - I think that the status quo right now is so bad in terms of the high unemployment, the spending through the roof, the taxmaggedon that we're facing, that he didn't endorse Simpson-Bowles. He has no plan for the fiscal cliff.

And so for the status quo to have been, you know, reelected, validated on so many different levels, to me, I didn't vote for a single incumbent yesterday because I'm so upset about the status quo. And so Romney - what you're asking about Bloomberg is Romney did not present himself well enough as a better alternative to the status quo. And we can sit here all day and decide all the reasons why he was not considered a better alternative, but to me, that's where he fell short, was he's not better than the status quo right now to a lot of people, and that's a disappointment. And it's a disappointment to the markets. The Dow Jones today is already quite bad, and I think a lot of people...

MARTIN: OK.

CARY: ...are disappointed in that.

MARTIN: OK. All right. Paul Orzulak?

ORZULAK: I think the question of the governor was less the party that - the person he was and the party that he's part of. Look, 2008 was an historic election for a lot of reasons. I think last night was an election that showed us the difference between the America that we've been and the America that we're becoming. And I think a Republican Party nationally that is dangerously close to being on the wrong side of history on issues like - on women's issues, on immigration, on a lot of these issues about the economy and the middle class and who they're really representing.

So, I mean, to me, this is more about what the parties stand for and what Governor Romney felt like he had to become in order to win the nomination. And he tacked back too late because people had already seen who he really was. But, you know, we're a country that wants to work together, that we want to come together. And, actually, I mean, I actually - I don't share Mary Kate's pessimism on this. I think that they will find a way to come back together, because it's in the interest of both parties now.

MARTIN: Well, I thank you both so much again for your contributions throughout our conversations. It's been interesting to talk about the business of words, and how words and why words matter. Obviously, we are in the words business. But for you to - each of you articulate in your own way. And, once again, I thank you for the cordial conversations that we've had here, and hope that they will continue. Try not to fight when you go out of the studio. OK?

(LAUGHTER)

CARY: Well, thank you for saying that. And...

MARTIN: I don't need to have a producer to separate you two.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: That was Paul Orzulak. He was a speechwriter for President Clinton and worked with Al Gore during the 2000 election. He's the founder and principle in the speechwriting firm West Wing Writers. He was here in Washington, D.C., along with, once again, Mary Kate Cary. She was a speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. She's now a blogger for U.S. News and World Report.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

CARY: Thank you.

ORZULAK: Thank you, Michel.

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