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Friday, March 26, 2010

A more perfect speech draft: Obama edits "our" national story

Editors of the world are agog at a close-up of Obama's mark-up of a draft of the speech on health care he delivered to both chambers of Congress on September 9. It's an extraordinary window into Obama's mind.

What did Obama do to the draft? Repeatedly, he added agency, attributing acts, feelings and thoughts to specific people or groups of people.  He added nouns and pronouns and active verbs, converting verbal nouns in the original draft to active verbs with human predicates(Teddy, our seniors, members of Congress, I, we, etc.).  He drew individuals, members of Congress generally, and the American people as active agents into a joint national project of compassion and positive action.  He reminded Republicans that they had been part of this national project (extending from social security to Medicare to the current health reform) in the past.

His additions of this sort are boldfaced below. Text in blue appears neither in the typescript nor in Obama's handwritten edits -- it was apparently added later
But those of us who knew Teddy and worked with him here -- people of both parties -- know that what drove him was something more.  His friend Orrin Hatch -- he knows that.  They worked together to provide children with health insurance.  His friend John McCain knows that.  They worked together on a Patient's Bill of Rights.  His friend Chuck Grassley knows that.  They worked together to provide health care to children with disabilities.

On issues like these, Ted Kennedy's passion was born not of some rigid ideology, but of his own experience.  It was the experience of having two children stricken with cancer.  He never forgot the sheer terror and helplessness that any parent feels when a child is badly sick.  And he was able [orig: or his ability]  to imagine what it must be like for those without insurance, what it would be like to have to say to a wife or a child or an aging parent, there is something that could make you better, but I just can't afford it.

That large-heartedness -- that concern and regard for the plight of others -- is not a partisan feeling.  It's not a Republican or a Democratic feeling.  It, too, is part of the American character -- our ability to stand in other people's shoes; a recognition that we are all in this together, and when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand; a belief that in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play; and an acknowledgment that sometimes government has to step in to help deliver on that promise [orig: "...security and fair play that only government can ensure"].

This has always been the history of our progress.  In 1935, when over half of our seniors could not support themselves and millions had seen their savings wiped away [further edited before delivery], there were those who argued that Social Security would lead to socialism, but the men and women of Congress stood fast, and we are all the better for it.  In 1965, when some argued that Medicare represented a government takeover of health care, members of Congress -- Democrats and Republicans -- did not back down. They joined together so that all of us could enter our golden years with some basic peace of mind.  

You see, our predecessors understood that government could not, and should not, solve every problem.  They understood that there are instances when the gains in security from government action are not worth the added constraints on our freedom.  But they also understood that the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little; that without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, the vulnerable can be exploited.  And they knew that when any government measure, no matter how carefully crafted or beneficial, is subject to scorn; when any efforts to help people in need are attacked as un-American; when facts and reason are thrown overboard and only timidity passes for wisdom, and we can no longer even engage in a civil conversation with each other over the things that truly matter -- that at that point we don't merely lose our capacity to solve big challenges.  We lose something essential about ourselves.

That was true then.  It remains true today.  I understand how difficult this health care debate has been.  I know that many in this country are deeply skeptical that government is looking out for them.  I understand that the politically safe move would be to kick the can further down the road -- to defer reform one more year, or one more election, or one more term. 

But that is not what the moment calls for.  That's not what we came here to do.  We did not come to fear the future.  We came here to shape it.  I still believe we can act even when it's hard.  (Applause.)  I still believe -- I still believe that we can act when it's hard.  I still believe we can replace acrimony with civility, and gridlock with progress.  I still believe we can do great things, and that here and now we will meet history's test.

Because that's who we are.  That is our calling.  That is our character.  Thank you, God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America. 

One addition -- not the warmest, but one that opens a window onto how Obama conceives of government -- deserves an additional spotlight. At the end of  a complex sentence, he added a clause to change this:
It, too, is part of the American character -- our ability to stand in other people's shoes; a recognition that we are all in this together, and when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand; a belief that in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play that only government can ensure.
 To this:
It, too, is part of the American character -- our ability to stand in other people's shoes; a recognition that we are all in this together, and when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand; a belief that in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play; and an acknowledgment that sometimes government has to step in to help deliver on that promise. 

Talk about "active government" -- you have here a seven-word active verb phrase: "has to step in to help deliver."  Note how qualified government's role is: it steps in only when it has to, and it only helps deliver on the promise that is part of the American character.  That is liberalism chastened by Reaganism -- a conservative superego imposed on a liberal id.

UPDATE: In a look at Obama's rhetoric, Jonathan Bernstein suggests that Obama defines American greatness as the capacity for creative political action:
We, in the United States, do not accept history, or live through history -- we have the capacity, Obama (and Biden) say, to make history, through collective action, whether it is in the Revolution, the Constitution, the Civil War, the civil rights revolution, or now, in tackling the challenges that face us in the 21st century.  America, therefore, is self-created, and continues to be self-creating, by political action. 
The changes noted above reinforce this theme by naming and crediting the actor. See also 'We've been here before': How Obama frames our history.

Update, 10/4/12: In a similar vein, see the changes Bill Clinton ad-libbed in his speech at the 2012  Democratic National Convention.

The Obama Rhetoric Series

2 comments:

  1. I think you're going a bit too far with the "Obama edits activist government into the speech" interpretation. In fact, activism is in the speech from the start: The importance of (modest) government activism is the assumption behind doing health care reform in the first place. I read most of these edits as rhetorical, not substantive--that's to say, just editing the speech to make it a better speech.

    The bit you highlight--Obama's changing "rewarded by some measure of security and fair play that only government can ensure" with "an acknowledgement that sometimes government has to step in and deliver on that promise"--to me shows a writer and speaker striving to make his point more concrete and tangible for listeners--in a phrase, to punch it up. The added agency, the switch to strong, active verbs that you note is just good writing--and I think would be recognized as such by most professional writers and certainly public speakers.

    So it is for most other changes--"those" to "those of us," "him" to "Teddy," and so on: the personal replacing grammatical placeholders, vivid, personalized experience ("In 1935, when over half our seniors could not support themselves and millions had seen their savings swept away") highlighting dry historical reference.

    This is the work of Obama the smart public speaker (and writer), not Obama the ideologue of bigger government. As I say, the latter was baked in from the start.

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  2. To anyone who's worked in government or politics this is standard stuff. Speechwriters (unless they know the speaker will routinely announce their stuff verbatim) provide a sort of template that the boss 'salts' with engaging personal stories and emphasis as they see fit.

    Obama's additions and tweaks are exactly what the speechwriter would expect from a politician like Obama (i am not talking about content, merely process, and I am assuming that Obama did not write the initial drafts which surely he did not). in fact getting to see the final mark-up is a bit of a rarety even for speechwriters but Obama's changes seem exactly as you'd expect. For less exalted speakers you're lucky to see a transcript.

    Some speakers undertake this process instinctively; you get the impression Reagan would have taken any speech he was given and marked or unmarked, as he spoke turn it into a sort of rosy, 'morning in america' ramble. Even if he did have to look stern about the Soviets, or whoever, at some point.

    I was going to say something about GWB but it doesn't seem worth pursuing.

    in any case, the almost kremlinological analysis of Obama's edits is as interesting as the edits themselves. Obama's soaring but - once you've heard a couple of his speeches - off-the-shelf rhetoric does seem a little too remote and formulaic, I think.

    Commentary dwells on his edits switching to the active but a speechwriter may or may not leave that sort of emphasis to the speaker. I think Obama could be more direct and less rhetorical more often. Kremlinology shouldn't be necessary in a democracy.

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