I’ve been watching coverage of the Democratic National Convention via CNN for the past few days. Three days ago, while listening to Julian Castro’s speech, I noticed a few interesting things. One, Castro’s speech had a very conversational, colloquial feel to it, almost as if he was speaking directly to a small, intimate group rather than throngs of convention attendees and the millions of people watching on television. And secondly, Castro appeared to be a master of peppering his speech with pithy, punchy, effective statements, like these, which were tweeted by the official Twitter account for the Obama Biden campaign:
Castro’s speechwriter deserves a raise. These statements are like political gold: they’re expressive, they use vivid imagery, and they’re concise. Sure, they might sound like something out of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, but I liken them to fantastic rhetorical poetry. These types of proclamations resonate with people, and I think that in the zeitgeist, incorporating into a speech succinct yet significant comments is especially relevant to speechwriters and political candidates.
Much has been written about the importance of social media in the 2012 presidential election. Twitter was a centerpiece of the Republican National Convention and the Democratic National Convention. (Over three million tweets were sent out on the first night of the DNC.)
Both the RNC and the DNC encourage people to tweet about the events, speeches, and candidates. And Twitter thrives on bite-sized morsels of communication. Its entire raison d’être stems from people’s interest in conversing in a manner that’s fast paced, short, and snappy. This is why statements such as Castro’s are extremely Twitter friendly; they have the potential of taking to Twitter like his insanely cute, loveable daughter took to websites everywhere:
I nominate that precious little three year old for #SecretaryofAdorable.
In the weeks leading up to the election, Republicans and Democrats want to mobilize voters, raise awareness, and generate buzz through various channels, one of those being Twitter. Twitter has a language and dynamic all its own, and if politicians want to spark social media engagement, they have to cater to Twitter users and speak in a way that’s reminiscent of the site.
Michelle Obama: FLOTUS for the Win
Michelle Obama addressed the convention Tuesday evening, and her speech perfectly exemplifies this melding of rhetoric and Twitter. Mashable covered the incredible amount of Twitter coverage devoted to Michelle’s speech with a story containing the oh-so-eloquent (not really) headline: “Watch the Michelle Obama Speech That Destroyed Twitter.” According to Mashable, the First Lady’s speech generated 28,003 tweets per minute at its peak and “had plenty of short, snackable lines easily packed into 140 characters or less.”
The Obama Biden campaign latched onto these lines. The account tweeted 35 times throughout the course of Michelle’s speech, and all of those tweets were quotes extracted directly from the speech.
“Barack knows about the American dream because he’s lived it.”
“Success isn’t about how much money you make, it’s about the difference you make in people’s lives.”
“We can trust Barack to do what he says he will even when it’s hard—especially when it’s hard.”
Michelle Obama’s speechwriter needs a raise as well. I know Wolf would agree with me.
Second Verse, Same as the First
Now, statements like these are a standard rhetorical device, so they obviously aren’t hand crafted exclusively for Twitter. They’ve been sprinkled throughout political speeches throughout the years. Abraham Lincoln used them, and he probably would have been a Twitter sensation if the site existed in the antebellum period in which Lincoln was elected. His profile pic probably would have been something amazing like this contemplative, pensive portrait:
If Twitter was around during some of the most noteworthy presidential-nomination acceptance speeches, which nuggets of incisive and insightful political commentary would have made it big on Twitter? Let American-history-induced rumination commence.
Lincoln accepted the Republican nomination for President on June 16, 1858, when the major issue was slavery in America. Slave and free states coexisted (though not very harmoniously) within the nation. He knew how to work a bow tie, and he knew how to deliver a speech, filling his with comments like these:
“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
“I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.”
“I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided.”
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
FDR accepted the presidential nomination on July 2, 1932 when America faced severe, unprecedented economic crisis. He promised people a way out of the depression that had engulfed the nation.
“…this Nation is not merely a Nation of independence, but it is…bound to be a Nation of interdependence.”
“I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people.”
John F. Kennedy
Ruler of Camelot and arguably the most attractive president in the history of presidents uttered these statements on July 15, 1960:
On Richard Nixon: “Before he deals, someone’s going to cut the cards.”
“We are not here to curse the darkness; we are here to light a candle.”
“And we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier.”
On September 5, 2012, Clinton spoke for a whopping 48 minutes at the DNC. On July 16, 1992, he delivered a shorter, but equally stirring, speech, filled with these words of wisdom:
“I am a product of that middle class, and when I am President, you will be forgotten no more.”
“Now that we have changed the world, it’s time to change America.”
“This election is about putting power back in your hands and putting government back on your side.”
“I want an America where family values live in our actions, not just in our speeches.”
A Personable President
One thing that’s stayed the same over the years is the insertion of easily digestible, memorable statements such as these.
One thing that’s changed is politicians’ modus operandi when it comes to oratory.
While reading through these various nomination-acceptance speeches, I noticed a striking shift in rhetoric over time. I mentioned above that Julian Castro’s speech was very conversational in delivery, but speeches of decades past were not this way at all.
Take Abe Lincoln. Lincoln’s speech is very formal (certainly stiff by today’s standards), and he focuses exclusively on the social climate of the nation at that time period. He uses the first person only twice. He does not insert himself into the speech. FDR’s speech is very similar in this respect. FDR’s use of the first person is devoted not to personal anecdotes but rather to political experience. He speaks to his qualifications, but those qualifications are rooted solely in political experience, not life experience: FDR is qualified because he is the governor of New York, not because he is a son/businessman/member of any particular class.
This utter lack of personal anecdotes contrasts starkly with the details of candidate’s lives that imbue today’s speeches. Ann Romney and Michelle Obama’s speeches were saturated with (sometimes humorous) life stories, as was Mitt Romney’s. When Bill Clinton spoke before the convention in 1992, he laid the personal anecdotes and details of his familial struggles on thick, and ended his speech in a very schmaltzy, saccharine way:
“Somewhere at this very moment a child is being born in America. Let it be our cause to give that child a happy home, a healthy family, and a hopeful future. Let it be our cause to see that that child has a chance to live to the fullest of her God-given capacities.”
Bill Clinton: a true expert in pathos who most likely melted the heart of every woman with these few sentences by tapping into their maternal instincts.
Candidates and their wives speak to us in a casual way. Speeches today are contemporary versions of FDR’s fireside chats. I think Mitt Romney’s speech at the RNC attempted to strike a balance between informal delivery and formal declaration of policies (whether he succeeded at that, I don’t know).
Michelle Obama spoke to convention attendees in a very conversational way. I read the following on The San Francisco Chronicle:
She managed to defend the policies of her husband’s term and cloaked that defense in the language of a neighbor who dropped by for a cup of coffee.
(If Michelle Obama dropped by my house for a cup of coffee, I might just die. She would probably be clad in a chic J. Crew wool coat and some heels.)
Are the speeches we hear today superior to the speeches of the past? I think people certainly want a personable, amiable, congenial president, and I think these qualities are especially important in a society in which millions of people use social media.
Social media lends a certain sense of informality to society: anyone can be a critic or a commentator. When it comes to politics, we can all weigh in on candidates, the election, and speakers at the conventions. And often people do so informally and in everyday jargon. Also, because Twitter allows us to speak directly to candidates (or at least to the individuals who manage their social media accounts), when candidates speak directly to us in a casual, personable way, it’s a kind of reciprocity. Thus, I think the casual, anecdotal form of rhetoric politicians use today fits extremely well with the trends of the time.
I have to say that one of the best parts of the DNC was reading all of the tweets that appeared on my Twitter timeline that remarked upon the convention. Specifically, tweets like these: