Listening to President Obama's Afghanistan speech
Because President Obama is such a gifted speaker and has such terrific speech writers, you can be sure his West Point address will be stirring and uplifting. But about 30 seconds after he finishes talking, the spell will wear off. Pundits, congressional leaders, policy wonks and lots of normal humans will be poring over the text to tease out exactly what it means for our future role in Afghanistan.
Here's a guide that may help, based on my experience helping corporate and government executives launch new initiatives through "big" speeches.
Study the first paragraph and the last. Those, of course, are the parts of the speech most people remember (and where reporters look first for quotes.) I guarantee the president and his writers will put in more time on those than on any other parts of the speech.
Will the beginning and end summon Americans to a noble mission? Or will it emphasize that our role is limited and describe how we'll get out? Perhaps most important, compare the first and last paragraphs, and analyze how he gets from the beginning to the end. That will tell you a lot about the journey the president wants the nation to take.
Pay close attention to the "stories." Obama, like all great speakers, is a master at making a speech resonate with an audience by illustrating his general points with anecdotes about specific people. Remember this one from his acceptance speech?
And when I hear a woman talk about the difficulties of starting her own business or making her way in the world, I think about my grandmother, who worked her way up from the secretarial pool to middle management, despite years of being passed over for promotions because she was a woman.
At West Point, will he talk about a Marine in Kandahar, a village devastated by the Taliban, families in the U.S. missing their sons and daughters serving in a far-away land, or someone else?
Take a look at who he quotes. One of the ways we speechwriters make our living is by finding quotes that not only summarize a key argument succinctly and memorably, but elevate the speaker by associating him or her with someone famous. And it's great if you can find an unexpected quote by that famous someone. In this case, the perfect quote might be one from Churchill or Reagan on the need to compromise with an enemy, or a famous general on the need to have an exit strategy as well as a victory strategy.
In President Obama's inauguration speech, the first person quoted was George Washington: "Let it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it."
If you want a great indicator of what the president intends, search out the first quote he uses at West Point.
See how he defines the "middle way." Every president wants to make his chosen policy seem "moderate" and "reasonable." A terrific way to do that is to characterize alternatives to his policy as "extreme" or "unreasonable." My guess is the president will spend some time describing why the kind of massive build-up some Republicans are pushing would be unworkable. AND he will detail why a quick withdrawal favored by some Democrats would be dangerous. Appearing moderate is more important than ever for this speech, given the challenge of putting together a majority in Congress that will support his new policy after eight frustrating years of war.
In short, don't be blinded by the president's rhetoric, use it to understand what might really lie ahead in Afghanistan.
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