Political Rhetoric, From Energizing To Outrageous

The recent Conservative Political Action Conference featured a stream of political zingers. Two former presidential speechwriters weigh in on the rhetoric there and in other political news last week.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now we turn to some of the latest political news. Conservatives recently got together for what some call a political pep rally. The annual Conservative Political Action Conference - or CPAC - that's where conservative leaders and potential presidential candidates test their best applause lines and build grassroots support. Before winning the event's presidential straw poll, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul energized the crowd with a speech on Friday.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SENATOR RAND PAUL: I will be as harsh as truth and as uncompromising as justice. I will be an earnest. I will not equivocate, and I will not excuse. I will not retreat an inch and I will be heard.

(APPLAUSE)

MARTIN: We wanted to talk more about CPAC and other recent high or perhaps low points in political rhetoric. Joining us are two of our seasoned contributors who understand the style and substance of political language - Paul Orzulak was a speechwriter for President Clinton, as well as Al Gore during the 2000 election. He's the founder and principal of the communications firm West Wing Writers. Welcome back, Paul. Thanks for joining us again.

PAUL ORZULAK: Thanks for having me again, Michel.

MARTIN: Mary Kate Cary was a speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush. She's now a columnist and blogger for U.S News & World Report. Mary Kate Cary, welcome back to you. Thank you so much for joining us.

MARY KATE CARY: Great to be here.

MARTIN: So I wanted to ask you, Mary Kate - you know, we mentioned that Rand Paul ended up winning the event's presidential straw poll at the CPAC - and I wanted to ask how reliable a measure is that of a candidate's potential strength in 2016?

CARY: I'm not surprised that he won it. I think we could've all predicted it. He has certainly done well in the past. I think his father has won the straw poll there as well. But this event, if you look at the crowd who's there, it was 10,000 people. And a lot of them were very young libertarians, presumably on spring break. I think this is a young libertarian's idea of a good time, is to go to the CPAC convention instead of Fort Lauderdale. So I don't think it's that reliable for the long run. But the person that I thought was the biggest surprise rhetorically was Rick Perry. I'm surprised he didn't higher on the poll.

MARTIN: OK, well, let me play a clip from his remarks, and it got a standing ovation after his speech. Let me just play that for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: Get out of the health care business. Get out of the education business. Stop hammering industry. Let the sleeping giant of American enterprise create prosperity again. My fellow conservatives, the future of this nation is upon you.

MARTIN: You were saying you were surprised that he was that much of a hit. Tell us a little bit more about that.

CARY: Yeah, it was a little bit of a rebrand. He's got new glasses, I don't know if you saw them. He stopped wearing cowboy boots 'cause his feet hurt. And maybe that's why he had that smile on his face all the time. He looked so happy. I think he really had a good time. And I think - you know, I've said for years I think that the left needs a similar showcase for their talent. And some of it's entertainment, as we see it. This last year, there was a lot more sideshow, a lot more entertainment. This year, they had a much heavier lineup of elected officials who actually - I mean, Rick Perry is the longest-serving governor in Texas history, and there's a reason.

I mean, he's good at this stuff. And there was one panel discussion I wish had gotten more press, which was Bob Woodson and Elroy Sailor had a panel discussion on free-market approaches to solving poverty. And I think that's where the action is. I think that's with the future of the party is. And I hope they spend some more time on that next year.

MARTIN: So I think what I hear you saying is that a lot of this kind of rhetoric - fiery rhetoric gets the headlines, but that's not necessarily where the intellectual energy is, where the center of gravity is.

CARY: Right.

MARTIN: And, Paul, you actually have a point to make about that, about, like, who wins the straw polls and who gets the headlines and what relationship that actually has to governing. So...

ORZULAK: Well, in truth, a party that gave us three responses to the State of the Union had 26 candidates on the ballot at the straw poll. It's wide open right now. Nobody's a front-runner. Rand Paul won last year. He won again this year. It doesn't mean anything. So the candidates that can throw the most red meat, who can say the most outrageous things, usually vault ahead. And I think that independent voters, if you get outside the room, might find it interesting that, you know, Rick Perry's talking about government getting out of health care and the sleeping giant of American enterprise. Well, in Texas, it's created a market where 1 in 4 residents have no health care, and he doesn't seem to want to do anything about that.

MARTIN: You're saying that...

ORZULAK: So that's a disparity...

MARTIN: Yeah.

ORZULAK: ...Between the red meat and the actual substance of what government's supposed to do.

MARTIN: Do you feel that the tone was - and this is such a subjective issue. But do you feel that it was harsh or overly harsh or kind of negative in a way that will prove to be a turn off later on? I mean, you were one of the people who says that ratings are won when you say what you are against in the most colorful way possible, but elections are won when you are able to say what you are for in the most convincing way possible. This is - I'm quoting Paul Ozulak here. So do you feel that anybody essentially took himself out of the game with - or herself with the kind of rhetoric that they delivered?

ORZULAK: No, I don't think so. And I think at something like CPAC, we see the line between politics as entertainment and politics as politics more clearly than ever. When you have elected officials like Chris Christie getting on stage and Sarah Palin able to say anything, there's a tendency to want to raise your rhetoric to match hers to win. Why we get someone like Dr. Carson comparing Obamacare to the worst - saying that it's the worst thing that's happened to the country since slavery, which is outrageous on its face and why one of the most respected neurosurgeons in the world would stoop to that it's because - it's for that reason. You're on stage. You're, you know - you're competing with people that are willing to say anything and to get noticed and not just a yawn. You got to be there, too.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the latest in politics with former presidential speechwriters Paul Orzulak and Mary Kate Cary. Well, you know, speaking of rhetoric that causes a stir that some people think kind of crossed the line to outrageous, Hillary Clinton, presumptive candidate in 2016, compared Russian leader Vladimir Putin's intervention in Ukraine to Adolf Hitler's tactics. Now her critics say that's going to haunt her campaign. Some people think, you know, she's already kind of walking it back. I wanted to ask - well, Paul, I'll start with you on that just because it - she's your side of the aisle. What do you think? Did she cross the line?

ORZULAK: She didn't cross the line in that if you read it as a historical analogy, she said, you know - Vladimir Putin saying that he had to go into Crimea to defend ethnic Russians was similar to Adolf Hitler saying he had to go into Czechoslovakia and Poland to defend ethnic Germans at the time. There's a lot of nuance in that. But of course, we don't live in a political world that has nuance. And Hitler's been used so many times at conferences like these to demonize the views of another side that of course you can't walk near that. I think she was right on the history of it. But on the rhetoric of it, you know, Hitler doesn't play.

MARTIN: Mary Kate?

CARY: Yeah, I have to agree with Paul that she was making a nuanced argument. But I give my speech writing clients the advice all the time never to talk about Hitler in a speech, the Unabomber, the antichrist. There's just a list that you stay away from. Much safer - Will Rogers, Mark Twain, Yogi Berra.

MARTIN: What about - What about slavery? I mean, Paul made the point that slavery's become kind of the new...

CARY: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...The new Hitler. People keep throwing that out - Dr. Carson being the latest but not the only. What's your take on that?

CARY: I feel the same way.

MARTIN: Sarah Palin used that.

CARY: It's very inflammatory. It's like Nazi. It's like slavery, it's racism. Words like that are a hot button. They tend to take the oxygen out of the room, and they distract. They get away - we're sitting here talking about Hitler instead of what Putin's really doing. And they serve to create a sideshow. And you're smarter to stay - she's too smart to have done that I think. She's - I was surprised she went there because she's a seasoned politician who would know not to use Hitler.

MARTIN: And - well, all right. Well, what if she really meant it? What if she really believes that? What if that's true? Should she not say it, Paul? I mean, what if she really believes that this is that alarming, it is that important? What do you - what would you say? Should she not say it?

ORZULAK: I think on the history of it, she's right. And, you know, there is a concern that what Putin really wants in the region is to create a regional bloc to compete with the E.U. So could it lead to that? Sure. And I think that if you listen to rhetoric on both sides - when Sarah Palin's not talking about him wrestling a bear and the president's mom jeans - that it's an honest debate. But there's not a lot of room for nuance in any of these, which I give Marco Rubio credit for talking about formal policy at CPAC - lost on everybody because unless he's attacking the president, nobody responds. But, yeah, I mean, we - I mean, being a leader means being aware of the past and what led to, you know, problems or wars in the past.

MARTIN: Well, let's switch gears just for a couple of minutes to talk about another criticism of the president. I don't know if we want to call it an attack. It was that Janet Murguia is leader of the civil rights organization, the National Council of La Raza, called President Obama deporter-in-chief last week. And this is - she's not the first either to use this term. But I think she may be, perhaps, the most prominent person to use this term. And I wonder how you respond to it yourself and how you - whether you think it was fair. I mean, yeah, Paul.

ORZULAK: Well, it's...

MARTIN: I mean, on the numbers, he has deported - more people have been deported under his administration than in any previous.

ORZULAK: It's precisely the kind of rhetoric that creates no middle ground and makes to, like, there's no truth that we can share to actually find compromise around things. I understand why she said it. I know Janet. I worked with her in the Clinton administration. She's - nobody's more committed to this. But she's a person that I think was advocating on behalf of a, you know, a population that is frustrated because of the immigration reform being blocked in Congress. I thought the New Mexican governor, Susana Martinez, said it best. She said political opponents should tone down their harsh rhetoric and critics to President Obama - still need to respect his office despite political differences. To me that was the most - best wisdom spoken last week from somebody who wasn't at CPAC.

CARY: Yeah.

MARTIN: Mary Kate?

CARY: I thought she was - a gaping hole at CPAC was where is Susana Martinez and Jeb Bush. I thought both of them should have been there. But anyway...

MARTIN: What about on this question?

CARY: Yeah. On deporter-in-chief...

MARTIN: How do you respond to that?

CARY: My feeling was it was a very clever line. But it points out that fact that this same organization was cheering when the DREAM Act kids did not get deported. And so it seems to me that you got to have it one way or the other. And it points out Obama's selective enforcement of the laws. And...

MARTIN: Explain that.

CARY: That he went by executive action to qualify the children of illegal immigrants to stay in the United States and not be deported, which La Raza cheered, I believe, at the time. And now all of a sudden, he is choosing to enforce other laws and deport as many people as he can. So he's...

MARTIN: So you feel it reflects - the use of that term reflects poorly on the organization, highlights divisions or, perhaps, hypocrisy within the organization as opposed to...

CARY: Right.

MARTIN: ...Because some might argue that this is an example of where this group wishes to see itself as an honest broker as opposed to always being on the side of criticizing Republicans versus Democrats. You don't see it that way.

CARY: Yeah, I think the president would be smarter to enforce all laws equally and then work with Congress to reform the ones he doesn't like. And I don't think he's willing to do that.

MARTIN: Do you feel that the term itself crosses the line or do you think it's within the - it's fair even if...

CARY: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...It's within the realm of appropriate discourse?

CARY: That's not an inflammatory thing to say, no.

MARTIN: No.

CARY: I think that was a legitimate, honest broker type of thing to say.

MARTIN: Do you?

ORZULAK: It's meant to be incendiary. On the facts, the administration's deported 2 million people the last five years. So on the facts it's true. But it's not meant to just point out a fact.

MARTIN: Well, a lot more to talk about here. Glad to have you both back with us. Paul Orzulak was a speechwriter for President Clinton. He's the founder and principal of West Ring Writers. Mary Kate Cary was a speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush, now a blogger and columnist U.S. News and World Report working on an important documentary, which we hope to hear more about.

CARY: Can't wait.

MARTIN: Both with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you both so much.

ORZULAK: Thanks, Michel.

CARY: Thanks.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.