“We are a president-obsessed nation,” argues John Dickerson in his May cover story for The Atlantic. Far too often, he writes, we look to the president for answers. The presidential address—the most formal approach a president can choose to convey those answers—has long been central to a president’s success. In today’s issue, we’re digging into the rhetoric that comes out of the White House. Jim Fallows and David Frum, each a former speechwriter for an American president, weigh in on fictional presidential addresses, and how well they mirror the real thing. Then Abdallah Fayyad explores how the rhetoric of Presidents Obama and Trump has differed from their predecessors.
What Presidential Speechwriters Make of Fake Presidents
By James Fallows, David Frum, and Caroline Kitchener
In his cover story, Dickerson includes a short snippet of a hypothetical inaugural address, which begins, “My fellow Americans, for generations presidents have stood where I stand now and built a tower of disappointment.” For the full (hypothetical) speech, read Dickerson’s story, now published online. It inspired us to look at other fictional presidential speeches. We asked James Fallows, who worked under President Jimmy Carter, to offer his perspective on speeches from three of our most famous fake presidents: President Bartlet from The West Wing, President Underwood from House of Cards, and President Meyer from Veep. At our request, Jim rated the speeches on how closely they echoed a speech he could have imagined writing for a president. Read on to see his analysis of the three.
Speechwriting involves a form of mimicry. In essence, your job is to imagine how a speaker would present an idea, in the style and diction natural to that person, if the speaker had nothing else to do than work on the speech.
This resembles the job of being a screenwriter or writing dialogue as a novelist. But in the particular case of being a presidential speechwriter, you’re dealing with a thicket of unique complications. In normal administrations, the speaker is the most time-starved and decision-burdened person on earth. A whole federal government, plus reserve armies of legislators and lobbyists, are constantly pleading to get their particular issues or terms-of-art plugged into the speech. Any politician, most of all the president, has to pull off the difficult trick of sounding “natural” and “frank” and “candid” and “unscripted” while not in fact saying anything that’s too far outside normal bounds. If universities exist in the future, there will be whole dissertation-categories on the way Donald Trump both observed and obliterated that rule.
Deep down, most politicians resent the idea of having speechwriters at all. Most politicians got elected precisely because of their skill at expressing thoughts in ways people could connect with. As politicians ascend the career ladder, they have to rely on these hired pencil-pushers to meet the endless demand for material, statements, press releases, and “brief remarks.” But only a few of them are really comfortable with the relationship. And woe unto the speechwriter for a president originally celebrated as a gifted writer himself—everyone knows this about Barack Obama, but Jimmy Carter before his election wrote a generally praised book called Why Not the Best? No such president can avoid thinking, “God damn it, why can’t these hirelings do as good a speech as I would do, if only I weren’t so busy running the world? Where’s my editing pen?”
This brings us to the three speeches, which I think of as reflecting varying phases in the speechwriter-exasperation cycle:
1. President Selina Meyer, Veep
The first few weeks of my presidency were about emphasizing continuity—showing that government still worked in the moment, in the here and now. I became president in an unprecedented fashion and America needed to know it was in safe hands. I think, I hope, the nation has been reassured of that fact. We achieved a cohesive and stable transition. So today I don't want to talk about the present; I want to talk about the future. Whatever we have in store cannot be known, but given time, it can be understood. The past was once the future. The future is, I should say, unknown. It is in fact unknowable. So I'm asking you to meet me at the station and join me as we board a train bound for a place called the future, and we will be ready for that future whatever.
But now it's time to roll past the future, to move on and do so very, very quickly. When we think of what is to come, we think of our children, and when we think of our children, we think of their security. So, for the safety of our children, we will invest $60 billion in the new N620 submarine fleet. That's a further $10 billion investment in this vital and modern defense system.
This speech, from the sublime Veep, is from the only one of the shows designed as a comedy, and it’s from the unintentional-humiliation category of the show as a whole. You could imagine this being given by a very low-level politician (a safe-seat legislator with a previous career as, say, an infomercial host) with a comparably low-skill staff. In this case, everyone involved might be comfortable with high-school-oration word-fog. (“The past was once the future. The future is, I should say, unknown. It is in fact unknowable.”) Or, as in so many scenes in Veep, it could be from a high-level politician whose staff members have had enough and are setting The Principal up for ridicule.
2. President Frank Underwood, House of Cards
For too long, we in Washington have been lying to you. We say we're here to serve you, when in fact, we're serving ourselves. And why? We are driven by our own desires to get reelected. Our need to stay in power eclipses our duty to govern. That ends tonight. Tonight, I give you the truth. And the truth is this: The American dream has failed you. Work hard? Play by the rules? You aren't guaranteed success. Your children will not have a better life than you did. Ten million of you can't even get a job, even though you desperately want one. We've been crippled by Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, by welfare, by entitlements. And that is the root of the problem: entitlements.
Let me be clear. You are entitled to nothing. You are entitled to nothing. America was built on the spirit of industry. You build your future. It isn't handed to you. And the problem with Washington is that we haven't given you the tools to build it. The only way for us to serve you is to give you the means to serve yourselves. Well, that's exactly what I intend to do. Not handouts. Jobs. Real paying jobs.
With a few crucial sentences struck out, this is a speech that many modern presidents could give, and quite a few actually have. The first long paragraph could have been taken from a cleaned-up version of a Trump campaign speech. But most insurgent candidates present some version of those themes—things are screwed up, we need a different path—and at crucial times incumbents may also do so. Many people have heard of the “malaise” speech that Jimmy Carter gave as president, in 1979. (I had left work as his speechwriter, and joined The Atlantic, a few months earlier.) Few people know either (a) that the speech did not include the word “malaise,” talking instead about a “crisis of confidence,” or (b) that it led to a significant rise in Carter’s popularity. As the historian Kevin Mattson wrote in his book about the speech, What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?, in the days just after the speech, Carter’s approval rating rose by almost ten points. But then he re-arranged his cabinet, and his ratings declined again, and a speech that in real time had been a clear success was reclassified as a big mistake.
What are the lines that make this speech unrealistic? These: “Let me be clear. You are entitled to nothing. You are entitled to nothing.” In context, Underwood explains what he means. But a politician can’t ever blame you directly. He has to blame us, if it’s a high-road speech (“we must do better,” etc., etc.)—or blame them, which is always more fun.
3. President Jed Bartlet, The West Wing
More than any time in recent history, America's destiny is not of our own choosing. We did not seek nor did we provoke an assault on our freedom and our way of life. We did not expect nor did we invite a confrontation with evil. Yet the true measure of a people's strength is how they rise to master that moment when it does arrive. Forty-four people were killed a couple of hours ago at Kennison State University. Three swimmers from the men's team were killed and two others are in critical condition. After having heard the explosion from their practice facility, they ran into the fire to help get people out. Ran into the fire. The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels tonight. They're our students and our teachers and our parents and our friends. The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels, but every time we think we have measured our capacity to meet a challenge, we look up and we're reminded that that capacity may well be limitless. This is a time for American heroes. We will do what is hard. We will achieve what is great. This is a time for American heroes and we reach for the stars. God bless their memory, God bless you, and God bless the United State of America. Thank you.
This was an earnest show—not black comedy like Veep, not dystopian melodrama like House of Cards—and this is an earnest speech. I think for most modern politicians, this particular line would be laying it on too thick: “The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels tonight.”
But otherwise, this is the kind of speech that real writers would have churned out for a real president, of either party. As a final touch of verisimilitude, it obeys the convention that Ronald Reagan invented and all his successors have obeyed. Namely, it ends the speech not with a real thought or idea or phrase, but with the formula, “And may God bless the United States of America.”
Didn’t presidents always talk this way? No: You can look it up. Before Reagan, a real speech needed to end in a real way. Since then, it’s seemed impious not to go out on this note. That’s how we can tell that the West Wing writers were trying to sound realistic. This sample speech is aware of the conventions and the pieties, down to this last touch.
May God bless us, every one.
Another view from former speechwriter David Frum
David Frum, The Atlantic’s second resident speechwriter, who worked under President George W. Bush, also weighed in. Here’s David.
The best of all cinematic presidential speech-making scenes occurs in the 1997 movie, Wag the Dog. A Hollywood guru has been hired to rescue a president’s faltering image. One element in the guru’s plan: a big Oval Office address to the nation. The speech is composed and hastened to the president for his review. The president reacts negatively. He outright refuses to deliver it. An aide explains that the president thinks the speech is “corny.” The guru erupts:
“It’s corny? Corny? Is that the word? Of course it’s corny. We wouldn’t have him say the flippin’ thing if it wasn’t corny.”
So from that point of view, the speech from The West Wing wins the contest. It’s the apex and apogee of corny, a thing of beauty, of artistic perfection.
And yet, much as we admire artistry, we must accept that in politics, artistry isn’t everything. Points must also be allotted for content: for new ideas and bold visions. On that basis, I must award the palm to Selina Meyer. How often have we been told that the future lies ahead of us, like some Christmas always promised but that never arrives? Nuts to that! “It’s time to roll past the future,” says President Meyer. Yes. Yes it is.
How Obama and Trump Made Presidential Speech Personal
By Abdallah Fayyad
On the surface, their oratorical styles couldn’t be more different. Yet Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump share a surprisingly similar rhetorical habit that’s a departure from their predecessors: Both men refer to themselves more often than previous presidents did. According to an analysis by scholars at the University of Minnesota, written up at The Conversation, both Trump and Obama have used first-person pronouns far more frequently than any of their predecessors.
In 2004, Barack Obama, then a candidate for U.S. Senate in Illinois, thrust himself onto the national stage with a single speech. During a keynote at the Democratic National Convention, he introduced his personal story to the nation as an emblem of the American Dream. Over the years, he has continued to invoke his own story as a reason for optimism about America’s future.
Trump also ascended to the top of the Republican ticket in 2016 in part by trading on his unique personal story. Many Americans already knew him as the host of The Apprentice. In his speeches, he portrayed himself as an insider in the corrupt annals of American power. Having seen up close how rigged the system was, he said, he could use that knowledge to give the advantage back to the American people.
Lara M. Brown, the director of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University, says this turn toward the first-person is “a result of an increasingly polarized electorate.” The two candidates—and now presidents—mentioned themselves in their speeches in part to present a juxtaposition with their parties; each of which was unpopular. “Both men won their party nominations and won their presidencies as outsiders coming in,” said Michael Cornfield, a professor at GWU and director of the Public Echoes of Rhetoric in America Project. “They presented distinctive agendas and their personas exemplified their distance from their parties.”
Previous presidents, of course, did not shy away from telling their stories. From Bill Clinton’s assurance that he still believes “in a place called Hope” to Ronald Reagan invoking the “shining city upon a hill,” optimism and personal triumph have long been a part of the presidential story. But the more informal communication style of the 21st century has seemingly contributed to a more straightforwardly self-referential turn in recent presidential speeches. “Individuals were able to get information about the presidency without having to read the newspaper or watch the national news,” said Diane Heith, a professor of politics and government at St. John’s University. “You could get it directly from the president. It was much more personal.”
Trump has taken that personal approach to a whole new level, often resorting to Twitter to quickly say what’s on his mind. His tweets and speeches tend to be more negative and divisive than those of his predecessors. Trump also differs from Obama in how he injects himself into his rhetoric. While Obama or Clinton, for example, leaned on their own stories to emphasize the country’s strengths, Trump talks about himself as the solution to the country’s weaknesses. “With Trump, it’s very differently about the individual in an ‘I alone can fix it’ tone,” Heith said. “No [other] politician says stuff like that. It’s very unique to him.”
It’s too soon to tell if either Trump or Obama has changed the way future presidents will address the public, though we have already seen some candidates for smaller offices channel their oratorical styles. “American candidates, like American voters and consumers, are pragmatists. If Trump is seen as succeeding in policy, he will have imitators,” Cornfield said. “If he is seen as failing, he will inspire contrasts.”
Quiz: How Did The Atlantic Describe Presidential Language?
Over the years, The Atlantic has written at length about presidential rhetoric. Below are four quotes from our pages, describing the language of four different presidents. Can you match the president with the way The Atlantic characterized his speech? Scroll down to find the answers in “Today’s Wrap Up.”
“[He] evinces not a Midas touch, but a Moses touch—an extraordinary talent for planting a stake in the ground and dividing the landscape before him.”
“That this bold defiance of expectation was deliberate is clear from the pride [he] took in this speech.”
“Often in [his] speeches you will find one slightly overstated sentence followed by another of elegant understatement.”
“His central rhetorical theme in office concerned transition.”
Today’s Wrap Up
Question of the day: Which fake president would you vote for, and why?
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