Inspirational Messages Key to '08 Elections

While political analysts study voting trends leading up to November, many wonder what it really takes to inspire a nation. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, and Kenneth Baer, former vice presidential speech writer, discuss the politics of inspiration.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

It's Monday, February 18th. I'm Michel Martin from NPR News. It's TELL ME MORE.

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MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, this President's Day, the movies. We've called in a couple of film critics to tell us about the Commander in Chief with the most commanding presence on the silver screen. But first, we're marking President's Day by taking a look at the men and women vying to be the nation's next president.

We're going to talk about what they're talking about. Nothing usual issues like health care, the economy, national security, although those are certainly important too. But there is another issue that candidates are stomping on. Inspiration and we wonder just what does it takes to inspire and how important is inspiration to winning the White House. Joining me now to talk about the politics of inspiration are, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. She joins us from member station WXPN in Philadelphia and speech writer Kenneth Baer is in our Washington studio. He was a senior speech writer for former vice president, Al Gore's campaign and is co-founder of Baer Communications. Welcome to you both. Thanks for speaking with us.

Ms. KENNETH BAER (Founder, Baer Communications): Thanks for having me.

Ms. KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON (Professor, University of Pennsylvania): It's good to be here.

MARTIN: Let's start with the Democrats. Senator Barack Obama is — I think it's all right to say he is known for his inspirational speeches. That's a word that you just often hear attached to his name. In fact there was a speech at the Democratic National Convention that first captured national attention. This is the speech he gave this past Tuesday in Madison, Wisconsin after sweeping the primaries in Maryland, Virginia and D.C.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Presidential Candidate): We know that the status quo in Washington just won't do. Not this time. Not this year. We can't keep playing the same Washington game with the same Washington players and somehow expect a different result, because it's a game that ordinary Americans are losing. We are going to put this game to an end.

MARTIN: Professor Jamieson, when people say that Obama is inspiring, what is it that they are saying? What do you think they are responding to?

MS. JAMIESON: They're saying that he delivers with a sense of conviction and that the audience is hearing in the process, some subtle sense that they can become part of this message. And the speaker brings a form of credibility to it that gives what, in the case of the words you just played, are fairly straightforward pedestrian campaign speak, so the special meaning to the audience.

MARTIN: So it's not content, it's style?

Ms. JAIMESON: Ordinarily, when people describe a speech as eloquent, they are talking about the meeting of content and a moment in which that message has special resonance. They remember speeches that happened in special moments, President Clinton's speech after the Oklahoma bombing, President George W. Bush's speech at the National Cathedral after September 11th, Lincoln's speech at Gettysburg. Those kinds of moments call for a kind of discourse that the nation pays attention to, first prerequisite of calling it eloquent. And secondly, the audience is prepared to invest the moment with special meaning if the speaker can rise to the occasion.

MARTIN: Kenneth Baer what's your take?

Mr. KENNETH BAER: I think Professor Jamieson is right. It's the man meets the moment, meets the medium, which is a third part of it. Obama, he's actually uniquely situated, not only to deliver this message of change and hope and he wraps his personal biography on it, but he's a very talented speaker and he's able to do it. And so his campaign very smartly, creates events which enables him to do that.

He does you know, two or three events a day of 10,000 people in a stadium and almost no one could actually pack those type of halls but also deliver an orate type of, these type of addresses.

MARTIN: Senator Hillary Clinton has been criticized sometimes for not inspiring enough, being too focused on details. But there are moment that people have considered inspiring from her. Now here's a speech that she gave, also last Tuesday, speaking from El Paso, Texas looking ahead to the Texas primary after she lost Maryland, D.C. and Virginia. Here it is.

SENATOR HILLARY CLINTON (Democratic Presidential Candidate): What we need in America, the kind of president that will be required on day one, to be Commander in Chief, to turn the economy around. I'm tested. I'm ready. Let's make it happen.

Mr. BAER: Well that speech in particular struck me was, it actually took her out of the weeds of policy and I'm going to alter this title and section of this bill in order to deliver to 20,000 people in your state, which is in some ways, a very Clinton/Gore White House to speechwriting, something we did in the White House a lot - which is heavily research driven, statistics driven speeches. In this speech Hillary Clinton does that. At the very end she has this very eloquent allusion as she talks about what is inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty and sort of connected that to our American ethos. And I think for a moment, she really is very inspiring.

MARTIN: Professor Jamieson, when does Hillary Clinton succeed and when does she fail to inspire?

Ms. JAIMESON: The best moments in her speech, if you just ask what is inspiring, are the moments in which she recalls Seneca Falls. She goes back to the moments in the women's rights movement. She talks about the elderly women who have come to see her, who want to live long enough to see a woman be president. She talks about grandmothers bringing their granddaughters to see her. The reason those moments raise the speech up a notch and create the possibility of inspiration, is they set you back in a moment when she gains special ethos because of who she is in that moment, seeking that nomination. Speeches that inspire are generally delivered at a fairly high level of abstraction. They're speeches of unification. They are trying to find resonant symbols that permit us to invest ourselves in the moment and think of ourselves as one, as a nation. And to the extent that a speech starts to move into specifics, it has more trouble inspiring.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are speaking with Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Professor at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania; and speech writer Kenneth Baer of Baer Communications, about inspiration on the campaign trail, who has it and who doesn't. Let's talk about the Republicans. John McCain, his mode of rhetoric is part of his calling card. He calls himself a straight talker. Let's talk about whether he has the capacity to inspire and whether that matters. Here's a clip from his speech on the night of the Potomac Primary when he swept the three states, Maryland, D.C. and Virginia. Here it is.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN (GOP Presidential Candidate): I don't seek the presidency on the presumption that I am blessed with such personal greatness that history has anointed me to save my country in its hour of need. I seek the presidency with the humility of a man who cannot forget that my country saved me.

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: Now Professor Jamieson, here is something that he doesn't do very often, talking about his history as a former POW. But he does often talk about the fact that he is a veteran. Do you feel that John McCain has the (unintelligible) capacity to inspire and if so, how? or does it matter, because his biography is so compelling?

Ms. JAIMESON: Because the nature of communication is such that you never separate a speaker from who the speaker is, that biography infuses speeches. And as a result, just as Senator Obama says you know, mother from Kansas, father from Kenya, Senator McCain can telegraph because he's been better known. He's been on the national stage for a longer period of time. A part of biography that everyone respects, heroic behavior in the face of torture. The problem that Senator McCain has, is that unlike Senator Obama, who delivers from teleprompter and you don't hear the speech being read. When Senator McCain delivers from teleprompter or from text, you hear a sense, it's not terribly obvious but it's nonetheless there, that he's reading these words. These aren't his natural vocabulary.

MARTIN: Kenneth?

Mr. BAER: John McCain is the living symbol. He's walked on stage and you know, the steeliness, he's about virtue and character and if you read the speech, it's a beautiful speech and it really does communicates a lot in a humble way. He doesn't need to say, and by the way let me tell you remind you of all that I was a POW in Viet Nam and tortured et cetera, et cetera. He just has to allude to it in those ways and he has a great line about understanding, seeing men's hopes crushed and understand that it will only take you so far. But I think Professor Jamieson is entirely correct. You watch him give a speech and it's just, you know, he's reading, he's straining to look at the words. And that's why the McCain campaign both in 2000 and 2008, its strength has been town hall meetings - straight talk express, unscripted, you ask me a question, I'll tell you exactly what the answer is.

MARTIN: Finally, let's talk about Mike Huckabee our former Arkansas Governor. He didn't give a big speech after the Potomac Primary. He came kind of in striking distance in Virginia, didn't make it. So we found a clip from his speech on Super Tuesday after he won five states and he spoke in Little Rock, Arkansas in his home state and one of the states he won. Let's listen.

MR. MIKE HUCKABEE (Former Arkansas Governor): Today has been a day when the people have spoken. And today people across this country are saying that yes, we heard what the pundits said. But this is our vote not theirs. This is our election not theirs. This is our presidency not theirs.

MARTIN: Kenneth Baer, interesting to me is that Mike Huckabee is also a Baptist Minister in addition to being a professional politician. And I'm kind of, I don't know if I'm just primed to look for elements of preaching in his sort of public iterations. But I see, I sense a little bit of it. But he's also got a kind of a casual style. I just wonder, what do you make of his style?

Mr. BAER: I think he blends that folksiness with the ability to lapse into cadences of a preacher without going overboard on it. You know, his charm is this sort of regular guy around the block and his having been able to turn a good phrase. And seemingly it is very real. You know, I don't think Mike Huckabee would be very successful in giving that big speech to 25,000 people. I think that's almost too [Unintelligible] you know, he doesn't lapse into sort of Senate speak, you know, talking about bills and legislation.

MARTIN: Professor?

Ms. JAIMESON: What Governor Huckabee brings to communication is a sense of authenticity and a capacity to converse with audiences. His speech is set in a way that invites you as the individual in the mass audience, to feel that this is a conversation one on one. And that's the mode with which Governor Hucakbee is extremely effective.

MARTIN: Finally I want to ask you both, just very briefly in the time we have left, this campaign is going to go on for a long time. I mean it started very early. People are already tired. But they still have a long way to go. Is inspiration something that you can sustain over such a long period of time? Kenneth?

Mr. BAER: I think that's a big question. I think we are starting to see, especially Senator Obama and a couple of critics saying gee, you know, what's the next act? Can he still keep doing the same stump speech over and over again?

MARTIN: Professor?

Ms. JAIMESON: Last week Senator Obama delivered a policy speech on economic policy and told his audience, he was going to notch it down a level, because it wasn't going to be the standard king of speech. He is recognizing that he needs to have in his repertoire, the policy driven speech that has detail, because there is a danger when you only deliver the other kind of speech, the speech appropriate for the ceremonial occasion, the speech that is the attempt to unify and create grand vision that people say and what's next. I think that's still an open question.

MARTIN: Kathleen Hall Jamieson is Professor at the Annenberg School For Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and Co-author of the upcoming book "Presidents Crating the Presidency: Deeds Done in Words". We are also joined by Kenneth Baer, former senior speech writer for former Vice President Al Gore and co-editor of "Democracy, a Journal Of Ideas." Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. BAER: Thank you.

Ms. JAIMESON: You're welcome.

MARTIN: Just ahead, perhaps the only people watched as closely as the President of the United States, are the people who act like him or her. We'll talk about fictional U.S. presidents.

Unidentified Man: In the history of feature films, there've been five African— Americans that have portrayed the President of the United States on film, Morgan Freeman, James Earle Jones, Louis Gossett Junior, Tom Tiny Lister and Chris Rock.

MARTIN: That's coming up next on TELL ME MORE. I'm Michel Martin. The conversation continues on TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

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