Speech Writers Preview McCain's RNC Address What will Sen. John McCain tell a national audience when he accepts the GOP nomination for the presidency? NPR's Tony Cox takes a look at the craft of creating a winning political speech. Joining him are Susan Estrich, Chriss Winston, and Charlton McIllwain.
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Speech Writers Preview McCain's RNC Address

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Speech Writers Preview McCain's RNC Address

Speech Writers Preview McCain's RNC Address

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TONY COX, host:

We just heard reaction to Sarah Palin's speech last night. So what is the craft behind creating a winning political speech? A week ago, you may remember, we spoke to three speech writers on the day that Senator Barack Obama accepted the Democratic Party's nomination in Denver. And today, we turn to them again on the day Senator John McCain accepts the GOP nomination.

With me are Susan Estrich, a professor of law and political science at the University of Southern California, she was also Mike Dukakis's presidential campaign manager in 1988. Chriss Winston worked in the George H.W. Bush administration and was the first woman to head the speech writing staff at the White House. And Charlton McIllwain is an assistant professor of culture and communication at New York University. Welcome back all three of you.

Professor SUSAN ESTRICH (Law and Political Science, University of Southern California): Thank you.

Ms. CHRISS WINSTON (Former Head of White House Speech Writing Staff for the George H.W. Bush Administration): Thanks.

Dr. CHARLTON MCILLWAIN (Culture and Communication, New York University): Thank you.

COX: Susan, I'm going to come to you first because you said last week that a great speech not only entertains or impresses us, in your words it moves us. Were there any of those moving speeches from the GOP this week?

Prof. ESTRICH: I think Sarah Palin's speech moved a lot of people last night. I have to say that on matters of policy, I simply disagree with her. I also have to say that I disagree with Marie Wilson in terms of the fairness of her treatment by the press. I think that she's been treated extremely unfairly and has been through the meat grinder in the last four days, including questions that none of us have any business asking about others.

And I think the fact that she stood up there with pride and grit and dignity was in fact moving. And I think she did very well for herself. Whether it will swing voters, I don't know. Whether it will stop the investigations of her, I do know. The answer is, it won't.

COX: It will not stop that.

Prof. ESTRICH: But it was a moving speech.

COX: Well Chriss, let me ask you the same question, because I noticed that Susan didn't say anything about Mayor Giuliani or Romney or Huckabee, all of whom also spoke last night. What's your take on the speeches that you heard, any of them great and moving?

Ms. WINSTON: Well, I watched all of them of course. And I have to say that I thought Governor Romney and Governor Huckabee's speeches were good speeches. I thought Giuliani's speech was terrific, and I think it did move people and got them out of their seats. I thought the Palin speech was just a total and complete homerun. She was fabulous.

And I have to say, just as a kind of an insider thing, that, you know, she had two or three days tops to work on that speech and to practice. And believe me, using a prompter takes some time to learn, and to stand there in front of 20,000 screaming people and millions watching you and deliver it as flawlessly as she did last night was truly extraordinary, just from a, you know, as a craftsman watching the speech go on. I was amazed.

COX: It's the kind of speech that they'll be using in speech classes in colleges around the country probably.

Ms. WINSTON: I will.

COX: Let me ask you, Charlton, a lot has been said about who wrote her speech. But my question to you is, does that really matter, whether she wrote it or didn't write it?

Prof. MCILLWAIN: I don't think it matters so much who wrote it. I think it matters whether or not it reflects really her personality and what it is she believes. You know, I think that you could clearly see a bit times in there where you thought the speech wasn't really hers. When it started talking about a little bit more about policy and so forth, and so when she got to that speech, I think things sort of took a downturn. But the rest of the speech - which I agree with the rest of the guests, was outstanding - I think was when she really was herself, was able to tell her own personal story, one which I think will resonate with some voters.

COX: Well Chriss, one of the things that you have to do, do you not, when you give a speech is to balance being in front of an enthusiastic hall and at the same time, a large skeptical nation. How did she manage that?

Ms. WINSTON: Well I thought she did beautifully, because she managed to not only talk about her own biography and what she had accomplished, because I think a lot of what she had to do last night was to assert that she's ready for this job, and that there's something unique about her that will allow her to become a vice president that everyone hopes for and expects. Now, I think she did that very well, she talked about energy policy, and I disagree. I thought when she talked about energy policy, the Russians and so forth, I thought she did just fine. That is her expertise, and I thought it was perfectly in keeping.

But I think you also saw the line about the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull line, which I think will resonate with women all across the country, whether they're a hockey mom or a soccer mom or a baseball mom, of which I've been in my past. I thought that was a riot. And that's a line that I heard one of your previous guests say was ad-libbed, which I did not know, in which case, you know, you go girl. I thought that was a great line. Because people love humor, and she did so much of the speech in a humorous way. Her timing was excellent.

COX: It was. Let me - and speaking of timing, we have to take a break. Susan Estrich, hold on, I'm going to come back to you to ask you about what your concerns were before the speech and how they were alleviated, if they were, as a result of the speech. We'll be right back after we take this short break.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: I'm Tony Cox and this is News & Notes. We're back, and I'm talking about political speeches with three speech writers. Susan Estrich, a professor of law and political science at the University of Southern California, Chriss Winston, who worked in the George H.W. Bush administration, and Charlton Mcillwain, assistant professor of culture and communication at New York University.

So let's get right back into this. Susan, I'm coming to you. Did you have concerns - be honest, I know you will - before the speech began, and were those concerns alleviated during her speech?

Prof. ESTRICH: Well, you know, I watched this with two hats on. I mean, one of my hats, obviously, is that I am a supporter of Barack Obama, I'm a Democrat. I'd like to see the Democrats win. I think this controversy about Palin's qualifications, as uncomfortable as I have found some of the criticism, has probably gotten in the way of the message that Republicans would like in this convention, which is Barack Obama is not qualified, McCain is qualified.

Having said all that, I, like Chriss, know what it's like to have to teach someone or help someone or prep someone to get up in front of a convention hall for the first time who may not be used to using a teleprompter, who may not be used to speaking in front of millions of people, and I take no pleasure in seeing women - even women I disagree with - fall on their faces.

So I was of two minds, and I think the good news - and I think this is good news for all of us ultimately - is that she stood there, she showed her grit, she showed her determination, she made her case, and the case really should be decided on the issues, on ideology, on competence, on policy. Not on whether she's a good mother.

COX: All right. Let's talk about John McCain's speech tonight. And before we do that, Chriss, I'm coming to you. People tend to look for clips in these speeches, I guess it's just a part of being in the soundbite age. We went into the archives and pulled back some clips from some other well-known acceptance speeches. Here's one. It's George H.W. Bush at the 1988 RNC, accepting his party's nomination.

(Soundbite of 1988 Republican National Convention)

Former President GEORGE H.W. BUSH: My opponent won't rule out raising taxes, but I will. And the Congress will push me to raise taxes and I'll say no. And they'll push and I'll say no. and they'll push again and I'll say to them, read my lips.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

Former President BUSH: No new taxes.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

COX: Now of course, after he said read my lips, he said no new taxes, which you may not have been able to hear. That became a catchword. How important are those to have in speeches, Chriss?

Ms. WINSTON: Well, they're very important. It's the sound bite, it's what - the line I just mentioned in terms of Palin last night was one sound bite. She had many. Obviously, I kind of remember that line.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. ESTRICH: So do I, Chriss.

Ms. WINSTON: Only too vividly remember that line, as a matter of fact. And you know what? It was a great convention line, it was a great campaign line, and when I was director of speech writing for him, I was one of the people arguing he ought to stick to that line. But I lost that fight, and unfortunately in terms of policy, he chose to go another direction. And I think one of the things you've got to remember when you're putting together a speech like this tonight, or, you know, for anybody giving an acceptance speech is you'd better learn - you'd better decide to live with whatever it is you say that you're going to use as that central theme. I think it cost Bush his re-election in part, because he reneged on that promise. And it was so central to his message that it cost him dearly politically.

So I think McCain has to - any candidate has to be careful what they promise, what they say, how they paint their vision, because you've got to live with it not only through the campaign, but through four years of a presidency.

COX: Here is another clip. This is George W. Bush speaking at the National Cathedral in 2001.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Just three days removed from these events, Americans do not yet have the distance of history. But our responsibility to history is already clear, to answer these attacks, and rid the world of evil. This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others. It will end in a way, and at an hour, of our choosing.

COX: That was George Bush in the aftermath of 9/11. Our time is running really short. Charlton, I wanted to give you an opportunity to jump in here. Do you think - and maybe this is unfair, I don't mean it to be - that John McCain is capable of giving that kind of speech?

Dr. MCILLWAIN: Oh, I think he certainly is. That kind of strength and resolve that you heard in George Bush's voice I think is certainly something we would expect out of John McCain. I think, really though, what he's got to do is to sort of go beyond his biography, which we've heard over and over again this week, and really give, especially those independent-minded voters, those swing voters, a vision of where he wants this country to go, beyond sort of military might and the United States flexing it's military muscles around the world. So giving us a broader vision, I think that's really his challenge tonight.

COX: I've got about 15 seconds for you, Chriss, to answer whether or not you think that Sarah Palin's speech made it easier or more difficult for McCain tonight.

Ms. WINSTON: Probably a little of both. They're very different speakers. But I agree, I do think McCain tonight has his work cut out for him to, you know, basically communicate a future to the American people, and then explain and convince them that he can actually make that future happen. That's a big job, but he's given some pretty good speeches in the past. I have every confidence in him.

COX: Let me thank all three of you. This has been very enlightening. I appreciate your coming on both weeks. Sorry we can't do it again next week, but there's no convention for us to cover. Susan Estrich is a professor of law and political science at the University of Southern California, she was also the manager of Mike Dukakis's campaign for president in 1988. Chriss Winston worked in the George H.W. Bush administration. Charlton McIllwain, an assistant professor at NYU.

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