Guest Posting: Rhetoric Revisited: FDR’s “Infamy” Speech, by Robert Lehrman

Former Chief Speechwriter to Vice President Al Gore in the White House, Bob Lehrman has written four novels, the highly praised The Political Speechwriter’s Companion (CQ Press 2009), and has now co-authored and co-edited a new book: Democratic Oratory from JFK to Barack Obama (Palgrave Macmillan 2016). He teaches public speaking and political speechwriting at American University.

Rhetoric Revisited: FDR’s “Infamy” Speech

Really, he’d hoped to spend that afternoon up in the second floor study, magnifying glass in hand, working on the stamp collection that since boyhood had taught him about the world. But FDR was president, with work to do. He was talking policy with one of his aides when Navy Secretary Frank Knox called.

“Mr. President,” he said, sounding doubtful, “it looks like the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor.”

Perl Harbor
USS Shaw exploding during the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor. By an unknown photographer, December 7, 1941. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Roosevelt had no doubts. He knew it was true—and what it meant: war. And a war many Americans did not want, including Charles Lindbergh, whose America First campaign had blocked FDR’s attempt to build up America’s military. Three hours later, FDR called Grace Tully, his secretary, and dictated a speech he would deliver to Congress. The next day, he sat in the House Chamber, wheelchair carefully hidden from photographers, and uttered the words Americans remember about a day “that will live in infamy.”

It’s one of the most famous speeches in American history, though it’s safe to say most Americans remember only that phrase. But on 75th anniversary of the attack, it’s worth asking: What makes it so famous?

It’s not just because the United States would declare war. Who remembers a word of other speeches by presidents asking for war—in 1812, 1846, 1898, or 1917? In fact, I wrote a speech for my boss, Democratic Majority Whip, Bill Gray, during that 1991 debate on the First Gulf War. I remember sitting in the House Chamber watching an incredible sight: Members speaking, then actually sticking around to hear others. I don’t remember the declaration at all.

Is FDR’s speech memorable for its eloquence? No. The language is mostly flat. The readability statistics our computers now provide tell us it’s full of passive voice, with long sentences copyeditors today would think wordy—”In the intervening time,” not “meanwhile.” Even the word “infamy” is a little off; originally he had dictated another word: history. Roosevelt clearly didn’t want to sound neutral, but his usage of ”infamy” was at odds with conventions of the day; a descriptive word, ”infamy” usually appeared the way people talking about FDR often misquote him: “day of infamy.”

Neither was it substantive. FDR rejected the suggestions of those who wanted a longer speech giving listeners context. He wanted to convey urgency to Americans opposed to war.

Did it offer concrete detail—visceral specifics of the attack and casualties? That’s a rule of good speechwriting. Barack Obama used it effectively in 2013, when he told Americans about the Syrian use of chemical warfare: “The images are sickening … a father clutching his dead children, urging them to get up and walk.” Here, FDR gave listeners bland abstractions— “I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost.”

But if “Infamy” isn’t notable for its eloquence, it’s still a fascinating speech. Its intrigue lies not only in what FDR told Americans then, but what he didn’t tell them—and what the speech tells us now.

Speech Notes
The first typed draft of FDR’s speech spoke of a “date which will live in world history.” Roosevelt later changed it to the more famous “date which will live in infamy.” Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Looking back, for example, the speech gives us a glimpse into how technology could and would influence a nation.

When Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war in 1917, only those in the House Chamber heard and saw him. It took weeks even for the stereopticon slides of his appearance to reach American families. But by 1941 almost 90 percent of American homes had radio. That day four of five families with those radios tuned in to FDR’s noontime speech. The vast acceleration of technology had—literally—electrified a country, and given presidents a way to electrify its people.

Roosevelt’s brevity also exposes the rhetorical devices leaders often use in times of crisis. Take the five-step structure so popular with speechwriters it now has a name: Monroe’s Motivated Sequence (Google it!). In ”Infamy,” Roosevelt uses all five.

First, win attention. Right away, FDR tells us the bad news. ”Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

Second, present a problem. FDR shows us why the news is bad—not just loss of life, but the threat to Democracy and the evil of the other side. ”The facts of yesterday speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.”

Third, offer a solution. FDR assures us the country will fight back. ”As Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy, I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense.”

Fourth, envision the future: He not only predicts victory but shows absolute certainty about it. ”With confidence in our armed forces—with the unbounded determination of our people—we will gain the inevitable triumph—so help us God.”

Fifth, utter a call to action: FDR calls for one specific act: that Congress declare war. ”I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December seventh, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.”

FDR Signs
FDR signs the Declaration of War against Japan on December 8, 1941. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

They are the steps of many such declarations—and many moments of crisis. In fact, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, speechwriter Peggy Noonan’s artful speech let Ronald Reagan make the same points, not about fighting a war but exploring space.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about this speech is what goes unsaid. Let’s be honest—while Roosevelt prided himself on using direct language, as if wanting us to know his views, he was hiding some. He presents a picture of himself taken by surprise—”looking towards the maintenance of peace.” There is no evidence for the allegations that FDR maneuvered the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor. But he did know war lay ahead. According to the diary of then-Secretary of War Henry Stimson, two weeks before the attack, he asked aides how to provoke Japan into “firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves.” The only surprise was where the first shot would be.

And his certainty of the “inevitable triumph”? FDR had many doubts. He didn’t know whether the United States could handle a war fought on two fronts, and told Eleanor he expected many losses.

But when a president declares war, one should expect to hear confidence, not candor.

The decisions about this speech were largely Roosevelt’s own. That was unusual for this president — the first to use speechwriters for most of what he said. Except for a few phrases added by aides, and one echo of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, the language and strategy for this speech mostly came straight from his mouth into Grace Tully’s manual typewriter.

Would it work? FDR could not be sure.

But three hours after his speech, Congress passed its declaration with only one dissenting vote. It gave FDR the money he needed to rearm. The isolationists gave up the fight. “We have been attacked. We must fight,” Lindbergh said. In the weeks ahead, young Americans filled recruiting stations to enlist.

FDR’s doubts were reasonable. There were many defeats in those opening months. But Americans planted victory gardens, sent sons to fight, and kept in office a president who before the war had been very unpopular.

Dying less than three years later, FDR didn’t live to see the results of those decisions. But the 520 words he dictated then thundered out, set in motion a united and long-lasting response to the threat of Japan and Germany much more dangerous and uncertain than he could let on. FDR didn’t get to spend that afternoon organizing the stamps he loved. But by focusing on the future—he put his stamp on it.

This post originally appeared on the PBS American Experience website and is reprinted here with Mr. Lehrman’s express permission.

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Past provincial life

Half asleep on the evening ferry after a long day at work, half listening to a podcast of a recent episode of Start the Week, I was startled awake by a remarkable poem:

In Wales, wanting to be Italian

(from Over the Moon, by Imtiaz Dharker)

Is there a name for that thing
you do when you are young?
There must be a word for it in some language,
probably German, or if not just
asking to be made up, something like
Fremdlandischgehörenlust or perhaps
Einzumandererslandgehörenwunsch.

What is it called, living in Glasgow,
dying to be French, dying to shrug and pout
and make yourself understood
without saying a word?

Have you ever felt like that, being
in Bombay, wanting to declare,
like Freddy Mercury, that you are
from somewhere like Zanzibar?

What is it called? Being sixteen
in Wales, longing to be Italian,
to be able to say aloud,
without embarrassment, Bella! Bella!
lounge by a Vespa with a cigarette
hanging out of your mouth, and wear
impossibly pointed shoes?

Mod on his Vespa

I knew that truth in my own life, back when I was sixteen and looking for a way to shake the dust of Crewe off my heels, sitting on the back of my friends’ Vespa’s, looking for a way out. Which came for some of us, didn’t it? When we went off to Universities (even ones in Wales), and on to other places in the world than that dirty old town, where we’d met our love, by the gasworks wall n’all.

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Guest Posting: What’s Your Rate of Speech? by Kate Peters

Kate Peters is the Founder and President of Vocal Impact, Inc. a network of communication impact professionals dedicated to guiding and inspiring leaders to be real and relevant heroes in their own stories and the stories of their organizations or causes; heroes who transform hearts and minds, and create solutions for a vibrant and peaceful world, every day. Read her full bio here.

Kate PetersLanguages spoken in Southern India are among the world’s fastest languages. In fact the native speakers of one of those languages,Tamil, speak faster with each other than the native speakers of any other language. They also tend to speak English faster than native English speakers. The world record for the fastest talking woman is held by Fran Cohen, a New Yorker, who can talk at about 600 words per minute. Go ahead and listen to her telling the story of The Three Little Pigs, and you may get a feeling for what Tamil native speakers speaking English sound like to other English speakers.

In the US, researchers have found that the rate of speech varies from state to state, with the fastest talkers in the state of Oregon, while the slowest are in Mississippi. The rate of speech in the US is picking up, but it is unlikely ever to be as fast as Tamil.

How fast is fast? Native speakers of English tend to speak from 140-165 words per minute. Auctioneers speak 250 words per minute. As you may have noticed if you have ever been to an auction, native English speakers have a hard time hearing what’s said by an auctioneer, and by anyone when the rate is faster than 180 wpm. However, most 8th graders in the US are now expected to read 150 wpm by the winter of their school year.

If you think you might be vying for Fran’s position or if you are from South India and your communication impact is suffering because you speak fast (and you don’t want to set a record) you can find out how to pace your voice just right by reading my post, Are you talking too fast?

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Trevor Noah on the language of Donald Trump

Trevor NoahIn a wide-ranging interview on Fresh Air, late night TV host Trevor Noah comments on the appeal of Donald Trump, specifically the language he uses. This is worth quoting at length since it confirms what Bob Lehrman writes about, Kate Peters advises, and I’ve observed about Trump’s rhetoric:

I came to realize the power and the importance of language.

It’s more than just language and the way we perceive it. If you look at this election, I feel like Donald Trump was speaking a different language to Hillary Clinton. Y’know it’s not dissimilar to what we saw in South Africa with our president Jacob Zuma.

I remember sitting with people laughing when they would watch the debates, and they’d go “This guys a buffoon. Oh man, he has such a low word count, he’s got the grammar of a five-year-old, the vocabulary of a toddler.” And I said, “Yeah, but do you know how many people find that appealing right now? He’s up there and everyone understands what he’s saying.” Like: “Can you imagine this guy as a President?”

And I said, “Yeah, but think of how many people who, for the first time, are listening to a Presidential candidate and understanding every single quote and policy that he puts forward?” And sometimes that’s a thing that, I will call the elites, not even liberal elites, just people who are educated, forget sometimes.

Communication is more important than your grasp of language.

Can you communicate effectively as a person?
.
.
You’ve got to be careful in deciding what your intention is. Are you using language as a flourish or are you trying to communicate effectively as possible with another human being? And that’s what Donald Trump, in my opinion, did very, very well.

Truth is: Trump’s communication style resonates with many Americans.

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Acts 2:19

I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. – Acts 2:19

While I’m not a superstitious type I looked out of my window as the sun rose this morning and, lo, to the east their appeared a wondrous sight:

Sky Smoke

I’m no prophet…but a thought did occur to me:

Trump Smoke

However, this Thursday I’ll be gathering with friends and family to give thanks for what Is, not what might be:

They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts… Acts 2:46

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Public Speaking for Fun and Profit

While there are many Toastmasters and National Speakers Association members who speak for fun and profit, none can touch the stellar earnings that retired (but not retiring) politicians can rake in at the podium.

As I reported back in 2008, ex-President Clinton (well, I suppose there’s still only one, so no need to clarify like there is with the confusing Bush, Snr and Bush, Jnr) earned beaucoup bucks from the podium.

Now the UK Independent newspaper is shocked, shocked! to hear that ex-PM Cameron (no need to clarify, unlike Pitt the Elder and Pitt the Younger) earns £2,000 per minute speaking about the defining issue of his premiership: the Brexit vote. They note that

While Prime Minister, Mr Cameron earnt £143,462 per year, the standard salary for the role.

Now he’s no longer forced to slum it in Number 10 he can jet around the world in Tony Blair’s footsteps, who knows how to earn a few bob post-Westminster.

Of course, career politicians of this ilk can cash in giving an hour speech here and there, while lesser ones must make money the old fashioned way, as lobbyists and board members.

David Cameron Speaks

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She said / He said …

As the dust settles on the recent US election it’s fascinating to read the draft acceptance speeches that were penned by Democratic pundit Bob Lehrman and Republican Aram Bakshian. Bob was Al Gore’s speechwriter and Aram used to write for President Reagan.

Note that these speeches were written 36 hours before the results were known and are ‘what if’ exercises by two professional writers asked to imagine what kind of victory speech Clinton and Trump should give.

Of course, we now know which candidate actually delivered a victory speech in the early hours of November 9th. But both of these drafts are great examples two masters of the art of craft of speechwriting worthy of study.

The Hillary Clinton Victory Speech

Hillary Clinton by Andy FriedmanBob writes a speech that Hillary would have delivered if things had turned out differently. She opens with a subtle nod to the glass ceiling the first woman to become President would have broken. She covers the thanks she would have expressed to her husband; to Obama who had broken the racial barrier that previously kept black men out of the Oval Office (save the slave laborers who helped build it); to her supporters. She does not pull punches in criticizing Donald Trump for debasing the tone of political debate (in a country we now know was base enough to value each midnight tweet, every ‘ugly insult’). She reaches across the divide to embrace the ‘deplorables’ she’d previously dismissed (who we now know did not forgive that blunder, no more than they previously forgave Romney).

Bob employs many of the techniques he explains in his excellent book The Political Speechwriters Companion.

It’s instructive to compare with the victory speech President Obama gave back in 2008.

However, as we all know, this speech, or the version of it that Hillary’s own speechwriters had drafted, was not delivered. Both, together with the candidate, have been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Instead we heard…

The Donald Trump Victory Speech

Donald Trump by Andy FriedmanAram writes a speech that deserves to be read in parallel with the one President-elect Trump actually delivered. What’s immediately apparent is that there are certain required elements in these speeches that any candidate, even one as contrarian as President-elect Trump, must touch on. Thus, thanking your opponent and your supporters; calling for unity; avoiding going off-script … OK scratch that. It’s obvious that Aram’s draft is entirely too coherent for the unique style of this winning candidate. Contrast the measured repetition of

The best trade negotiators…
The best resources for law enforcement…
…the best judges…

with the randomness of

And Lara, unbelievable job, unbelievable.
Rudy Giuliana. Unbelievable, unbelievable. He traveled with us…
Governor Chris Christie, folks, was unbelievable.

Speechwriters are often judged on how well they capture the ‘voice’ of the speaker. I’d venture to suggest that no speechwriter can truly capture The Donald’s voice. However, Aram fails to even include the word ‘beautiful’ which his candidate used frequently during the campaign and again on election night:

Tremendous potential. I’ve gotten to know our country so well — tremendous potential. It’s going to be a beautiful thing.
We’re going to dream of things for our country and beautiful things and successful things once again.
…if Secretariat came in second, Secretariat would not have that big, beautiful bronze bust at the track at Belmont.

He also severely underestimates the use of the all-purpose adjective ‘great’ which he used only three times in the whole speech, whereas it appears that many times in a couple of short sentences:

We’ll have great relationships. We expect to have great, great relationships. No dream is too big, no challenge is too great.

That said he does include the campaign slogan ‘make America great’ which the actual speech omitted.

The differences in the speech prepared by the Bush-era professional and that delivered by the President-elect are highlighted by comparing the visual representations below:

As scripted

Aram Bakshian Draft Wordle

Click to enlarge – Image by Wordle.

As delivered

Trump Victory Speech Wordle

Click to enlarge – Image by Wordle.

Indeed, applying Lehrman’s recommendation, Word returns an 8th grade Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score (a 13-year-old level of understanding) for Aram’s draft, while Trump delivered a speech at was scored at a 4th grade, or typical 9-year-old’s, level of understanding. ‘Nuff said!

I find it fascinating that as a candidate Donald Trump broke so many of the rules of politics, including the speechwriting nostrums in Bob Lehrman’s book, and in so doing destroyed the hopes and ambitions of political professionals of both parties. Perhaps this bears out the truth H.L. Mencken’s trenchant observation.

Hey, it’s all part of the rich tapestry of life in the good ole’ US of A.

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The Next Hot Job in Silicon Valley Is Speechwriting

OZY Cover

An interesting post in OZY explains why the next hot job in Silicon Valley is speechwriting.

Leslie Nguyen-Okwu does a great job interviewing David Murray, head of the Professional Speechwriters Association, who comments that

When twentysomethings get “spit out of the administration after working 23 hours a day and [making] shit money,” they’re “interested in working for people who are looking forward and involved in the future.”

She also quotes the views of Google’s Matt Teper.

The claim is that “freelance speechwriters in Silicon Valley get paid more handsomely at $200,000, and in-house speechwriters like O’Conner and Teper can make even higher” which is good news for those at the top of their game with a White House pedigrees. Others might find the rewards are less handsome.

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I read the news today, oh boy…

I read the news today, oh boy
About a lucky man who made the grade
And though the news was rather sad
Well, I just had to laugh.
— The Beatles, A Day In The Life

I’ve made a decision to avoid reading the news for the rest of 2016. This might strike some as an eccentric, even foolhardy, decision. After all, things are happening in the world: a Presidential election is underway in the USA, Brexit in the UK, conflicts in Syria, refugees in the Med.

The News book coverI’m inspired by reading the provocative book The News: A Users Manual, by Alain de Botton which suggests a number of reasons to treat the ‘news’ with caution. In a trenchant analysis of the news de Botton not only takes issue with the selectivity and bias of the news in the usual way of political critique from various quarters, he raises fundamental questions about the philosophical underpinnings of the activity of reporting and editorial control:

The news may present itself as the authoritative portraitist of reality. It may claim to have an answer to the impossible question of what has really been going on, but it has no overarching ability to transcribe reality. It merely selectively *fashions* reality through the choices it makes about which stories to cast its spotlight on and which ones to leave out.

The news knows how to render its own mechanisms almost invisible and therefore hard to question. It speaks to us in a natural unaccented voice, without reference to its own assumption-laden perspective. it fails to disclose that it does not merely *report* on the world, but is instead constantly at work crafting a new planet in our minds in line with its own highly distinctive priorities.

As important as the stories the news covers, claims de Botton, are those stories that are not considered ‘newsworthy’:

…the cloud floating right now unattended over the church spire, the gentle thought in the doctor’s mind as he approaches the patient’s bare arm with a needle, the field mice by the hedgerow, the small child tapping the surface of a newly hard-bolied egg while her mother looks on lovingly, the nuclear submarine patrolling the maritime borders with efficiency and courage, the factory producing the first prototypes of a new kind of engine and the spouse who, despite extraordinary provocations and unkind words, discovers fresh reserves of patience and forgiveness.

So as an experiment I’ll be cancelling my FT subscription, avoiding the TV, unplugging from social media and turning off radio bulletins. I’m not completely alone in this, as I’ve discovered others who have made the same decision, some many years ago. Instead of reading and watching the news, I’ll be paying more attention to the ebb and flow of the tides, phases of the moon and birdsong.

I hope to fill the evening hours considering the Dharma, perhaps reading Proust for the first time, or tackling an epic like the Mahabharata or The Bible.

I might blog as the experiment unfolds, but you won’t find me on social media as I ease into the experience of this fast from the headlines de Botton has enjoyed:

We need relief from the news-filled impression that we are living in an age of unparalleled importance, with our wars, our debts, our riots, our missing children, our after-premier parties, our IPOs and our rogue missiles. We need, on occasion, to be able to rise up into the space of our imagination, many kilometers above the mantel of the earth, to a place where that particular conference and this particular epidemic, that new phone and this shocking wildfire, will lose a little of their power to affect us — and where even the most intractable problems will seem to dissolve against the aeons of time to which the view of other galaxies attests.

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A conversation with Bob Lehrman

On Thursday September 1, members of the Silicon Valley Speechwriters Roundtable hosted a conference call with with renowned author, speechwriter and professor Bob Lehrman.

Bob LehrmanRobert A. Lehrman served as Chief Speechwriter to Vice President Al Gore and, in 2004, as Chief Speechwriter for the Democratic National Committee during his more than three decades of experience writing speeches. His 2009 book, ‘The Political Speechwriters Companion‘ is one of the best books I’ve ever read on speechwriting, period. He’s an editor of the new book ‘Democratic Orators from JFK to Barack Obama‘ (Palgrave/Macmillan 2016) and authored the chapters on the oratory of J.F.K. and Barack Obama.

Bob has written for political figures, celebrities, heads of nonprofits, and corporate CEOs. He created and co-teaches the political speechwriting course at American University, speaks often at other campuses, conferences, and associations, on the topic of political speechwriting, and has conducted four workshops in Hanoi for Vietnamese diplomats. Author of a number of award-winning novels, and many articles for publications like The New York Times, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, and Politico, Bob has a B.A. from Tufts University and an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he studied with Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Yates.

I was going to summarize the topics we discussed on the call, but Rob Cottingham did a great job capturing this in an awesome Sketchnote:

SketchNote

(Click to enlarge)

To listen to the first half hour of the call, click on the podcast icon below.

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