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Guest Commentary

Straight Talk: Presidential Speech Writer Craig Smith

From Issue: Volume XX - Number 22

Art Levine’s recent guest on Straight Talk was Dr. Craig Smith, former presidential speech writer for President Ford and Director for the Center of First Amendment Studies at CSULB. Craig welcome back to our show.

Art: We’re going to talk about the [political] conventions which many of us were watching so we start with the republican convention. Give us your take on it.
Craig: I thought the first day went very well. Ann Romney did what she needed to do, she was an excellent speaker, she identified with her audience, particularly with women who the republicans need and then she warmed up our feelings about Mitt Romney, talking about him personally, the man she loved, the man she met at the high school dance.

Art: And one of Romney’s problems is he seems a bit standoffish, he is a great looking guy – like superman but not warm and fuzzy.
Craig: He is distant and her job was to say you know he doesn’t brag about the things he does and all the good things he does for people. He doesn’t think that’s appropriate. So her theme was love and she was the good cop and then she was followed by Chris Christie who gave the keynote address and his theme was truth and he was the bad cop. He really beat up on the democrats and on Barack Obama and had some pretty good lines. You know we love the teachers but not their unions, which puts the republican’s right where they like to be so I thought that was a pretty dynamic speech too.

Art: Some had criticized him for being too much about himself and his record.
Craig: I think that’s a little unfair because Ann Romney had gone on so long about her husband that I think he needed to establish his own credibility, then transfer it to Mitt Romney.

The second night was really interesting because you have another person that may emerge as a presidential candidate and that was Condoleezza Rice. I thought she gave a terrific speech, she’s very articulate. There was a particularly moving passage in the speech. She says a little girl grows up in Jim Crow Birmingham, the segregated city of the south where her parents can’t take her to a movie theater or a restaurant but they have her absolutely convinced that even if she can’t have a hamburger at the Woolworths lunch counter, she could be president of the United States and she becomes Secretary State.

Art: OK third night
Craig: I thought that Paul Ryan’s speech was what he had to do the night before he laid out his position, which is a very conservative physical policy. He’s articulate; he’s young, one of the youngest people to be running for vice president.

Art: And the policy rock, very bright on top of this stuff.
Craig: Very easily he handles his material as easily as Bill Clinton does. I think that was a successful speech and on the final night Marco Rubio introduced Mitt Romney with a wonderful speech, trying to appeal to the Hispanic vote, again he seemed to me to be a kind of authentic speaker. When Clint Eastwood came out with a chair and began to talk to the chair imagining that the President of the United States was in that chair, he said some very inappropriate things, I think kind of desecrating the office of the president was not wise, particularly at a republican convention.
The first part of the Romney acceptance speech I thought was very impressive, he got personal, he did a nice turn when he said look if I’m asking for your vote, you need to know who you’re voting for so let me talk about myself a bit, that was all very effective and very moving and then he went on the attack and some of the attacks on Barack Obama seemed to me spirited and began to dissipate that good feeling that we had for Romney and then he went through foreign policy like in 60 seconds and he was done. I thought the speech was upside down. I mean I would have started with foreign policy, developed it, he’s not known for foreign policy.

Art: The difference between a written speech and an oral delivery of a speech, you use the word orality – tell us that distinction.
Craig: You hear a speech and it’s invisible and so speakers have to insert poetic lines and repetition so that the ideas stick, if you read an op-ed piece in the LA Times for example, you can take your time as you read it you go back to the top, you can start over, you can’t do that with a speech. Look at Julian Castro’s key note speech, he knew how to phrase things so they stick in your mind. He said dream is universal but America makes it reality. “Investment in opportunity today to create prosperity tomorrow” … those are memorable lines because they rhyme. Another point he said you can’t be pro business unless you’re pro education so when you’re doing something that’s oral you have to find a way to get it to sit in the mind of the listener. Franklin Roosevelt was very good at that.

Art: Well let’s turn to the Democratic Convention, give us your take.
Craig: The person who hit the ball out of the one of many home runs of the Democratic Conventions was Michelle Obama. When she talked about herself being the mom in chief, one of the smart things about that well delivered, well written speech was she appealed to military voters, which the Democrats need and the phrase we’ll always have your back was a terrific moment.
Art: And then of course night two Bill Clinton hit it out of the park.
Craig: He did and you know he had a very interesting romance with the teleprompter and he does this all of the time. The speech would go along and then he would go off on a riff and they would stop the teleprompter and they didn’t know how long he was going to go off on his riff and then he would come back and go right back into the teleprompter and he did this several times and that’s why he was somewhat over time.
But it makes it that personal connection, I mean no one in America quite has his capacity to bond and deliver and he seems to me, I mean he’s a very bright guy, Yale Law School and all, takes complicated stuff, simplifies it, and then presents it in a folksy way where he was answering with facts, or alleged facts each of the republican critiques of the Obama administration.

Art: OK so we shift to night three.
Craig: Night three was very interesting. Joe Biden comes forward. On the first part of his speech he’s yelling like crazy, which you know was hard on your hearing, and then he set out his theme. He said you know I learned the enormity of Barack Obama’s heart and he learned the depth of my loyalty and so the team thing was set out early and then he went into an attack on Mitt Romney which is his job as the vice president to be the bull dog that goes after the other person but I found the most objectionable part of the speech for me was when he started dancing on Bin Laden’s grave and went into this whole revenge thing, I think that’s beneath America to do that kind of thing.

Art: Give us your take on the president.
Craig: Well he talked about moving America forward, he said you know we’re making things again, he talked about made in America, he talked about all of the different kinds of energy programs that he would advance, it was a workman like speech but I didn’t think it rose to the level of Clinton or his wife in terms of an out of the park kind of speech. He didn’t do it in Denver either so you know four years ago he didn’t give a very good acceptance speech or one that was as dramatic as some of his campaign rhetoric.

Art: Any final thoughts?
Craig: Our democracy is not perfect but it’s sure better than most of the systems in the world. Become part of that process, support the candidate of your choice with your time, maybe your money, certainly with your vote and help make democracy work.