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Speechless: How Mitt Romney, His Wife and Paul Ryan All Blew It in the Spotlight

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There is no excuse for even one major political speech to be poorly written. But three? Romney should fire his entire team for having the three most important speeches of the GOP convention so poorly written and poorly framed.

Ann Romney, "failed to make it real," as former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan put it. Ryan broke a cardinal rule of political speeches -- don't lie so blatantly that the lies become the story.

Romney's speech lacked vision and inspiration, arguably the two most important elements in a speech accepting your party's presidential nomination. And having Clint Eastwood's incoherent ramble as an opening act was an amateurish failure of framing.

After all, if you can't put together one flawless and compelling hour of TV speeches for the biggest solo national audience you're ever going to get, how are you going to manage the crucial stagecraft of the presidency?

Speechwriting is a very, very old art and science, as I discuss in my book Language Intelligence: Lessons on Persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln and Lady Gaga. In ancient Athens, all citizens needed to excel at public speaking because every citizen was required by Greek law to speak in his own behalf in court. Since you were not required to write your own speech, some litigants hired a logographos, a speechwriter, to prepare their defense. Others studied the basics of speechmaking with a professional rhetorician.

Over time, rhetoric was turned into a set of rules by Greeks like Aristotle. The Romans built on what the Greeks did, and the Elizabethans raised it to high art in English. The world's greatest communicators, from Jesus to Shakespeare to Abraham Lincoln to Churchill to Martin Luther King to Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, have been masters of rhetoric, as are the best present-day speech-writers.  Research by modern social scientists and the advertising industry demonstrates that these strategies are essential to being memorable and persuasive, a key reason why most successful ad campaigns -- and the most effective speeches -- use the central elements of rhetoric:

  • Short words

  • Repetition

  • Key figures of speech, especially metaphor

  • The word rhetoric, unfortunately, now means for most Americans a way of speaking completely different from the way real people speak, so I use the term "language intelligence." The irony, to use a figure of speech, is that the goal of rhetoric from the start was to help orators create a persuasive story by helping them speak the way people actually speak when they express "emotion and character" as Aristotle explained in On Rhetoric.

    Rule number one for any speech, of course, is to show, not tell. And that's the rule Ann Romney broke. She asserted her husband had a variety of valuable qualities, but didn't illustrate them. Noonan explained:

    "The opportunity Ann Romney missed was to provide first person testimony that is new, that hasn't been spoken, that hasn't been in the books and the magazine articles. She failed to make it new and so she failed to make it real."

    Team Romney also screwed up the framing for the night for the large primetime audience. Her speech was framed entirely around "love," a word she used 13 times:

    I want to talk to you tonight about that one great thing that unites us, that one great thing that brings us our greatest joy when times are good and the deepest solace in our dark hours.

    Tonight, I want to talk to you about love.

    But within minutes, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey was Etch-a-Sketching her entire theme away in his keynote address:

    I believe we have become paralyzed, paralyzed by our desire to be loved....

    Tonight, we will do what my mother taught me.  Tonight, we are going to choose respect over love.

    That is jaw-dropping incoherence for the first of the three hours of prime-time you are getting from the major networks for your convention. Clearly nobody was herding the GOP cats.

    Ryan's speechwriting sin was equally grave. Of course, political speeches go beyond the truth. "Tell them a personal story from your life," says GOP message guru Frank Luntz, advising Republicans how to address an audience on the environment. In his ironically titled 2002 memo, "Straight Talk," he tells Republicans that "it can be helpful to think of environmental (and other) issues in terms of a 'story.' A compelling story, even if factually inaccurate, can be more emotionally compelling than a dry recitation of the truth."

    The trick is not getting caught. Ryan failed that crucial test so badly that even the normally tame and blindfolded major media swooped down on him like a feral hawk. Within hours, the Associated Press ran a piece describing the myriad "factual shortcuts" on the stimulus, Medicare, economic stimulus, and closing of his hometown's GM plant, and the debt commission.

    Indeed, the "shortcuts" cut the corners of the truth so sharply that they moved into the realm of gross intellectual dishonesty and hypocrisy. One stands out. Ryan said of Obama:

    He created a bipartisan debt commission. They came back with an urgent report.  He thanked them, sent them on their way, and then did exactly nothing.

    As the Washington Post's Jonathan Bernstein explained, "It was, by any reasonable standards, a staggering, staggering lie":

    "They." "Them." "Them." Those words are lies. Because Paul Ryan was on that commission. "Came back with an urgent report." That is a lie. The commission never made any recommendations for Barack Obama to support or oppose. Why not? Because the commission voted down its own recommendations. Why? Because Paul Ryan, a member of the commission, voted it down and successfully convinced the other House Republicans on the commission to vote it down.

    The risk, as Mark Herstgaard put it on HuffPost, is that if the GOP vice presidential nominee "keeps spouting so many blatant and easily checkable lies," he may find himself branded "Lyin' Ryan."

    Romney, as I've written, has no language intelligence. He can't speak off-the-cuff, and he can't write a good speech. Apparently, he is so tone deaf he can't even accept the help needed to do a first-rate job on the most important speech of his life.

    Tom Brokaw, who generally tries to be apolitically polite in such matters, immediately told Brian Williams, "what I thought was, Brian, that it was more of a checklist than I expected. I thought maybe we would have a more eloquent statement tonight, kind of thematic about who he is." Bingo.

    Former Romney adviser Alex Castellanos said on CNN: "He didn't answer the question that is on everybody's mind, which is he didn't offer anything new. He just wanted to go back to Bush."

    As the Bible says, where there is no vision, the people perish. I didn't hear any metaphors at all, which are crucial for creating an inspiring and visionary speeches.

    Since Obama is also remarkably unmetaphorical, I'll note that a 2005 study examined the inaugural addresses of 36 presidents who had been independently rated for charisma. It concluded: "Charismatic presidents used nearly twice as many metaphors (adjusted for speech length) than non-charismatic presidents." When students were asked to read addresses and mark the passages they viewed as most inspiring, "even those presidents who did not appear to be charismatic were still perceived to be more inspiring when they used metaphors."

    You might even say Romney's speech was anti-visionary because not only did he want to go back to the Bush policies, he mocked one of the most visionary things Obama ever said:

    President Obama promised to slow the rise of the oceans -- [pauses for audience laughter(!)] -- and to heal the planet. MY promise is to help you and your family.

    One can mock Obama for not doing enough to keep this important promise, but not for making it in the first place.

    Chris Hayes on MSNBC rightly says the audience laughter at the whole notion of fighting sea level rise will some day "be in documentaries as a moment of just 'what-were-they-thinking' madness."

    As one final example of how incoherent and tone-deaf Romney's speech was, he had just minutes earlier said "when the world needs someone to do the really big stuff, you need an American." Setting aside this sweeping insult of all the great national leaders a President Romney would have to deal with, how precisely can he mock Obama for wanting to do really big stuff after he has just praised Americans for that very quality!

    To expand on what I wrote before: Can a tone-deaf, gaffe-prone politician -- whose team can't even put together a first-rate, coherent series of speeches for a national audience -- become an inspirational leader who successfully guides the country through political division, war, and economic strife?" The question answers itself.