Words as Weapons

Friday, October 19, 2007

National Review Online editor Kathryn Jean Lopez interviewed Peter Schweizer and Wynton C. Hall about their book, Landmark Speeches of the American Conservative Movement.

Lopez: Every conservative who picks up your book is bound to have the same reaction: Barbara Bush? She’s not the first orator or conservative one thinks of—how did she make it in?
Schweizer: We can certainly understand that reaction; without knowing the history of her 1990 Commencement Address at Wellesley College, Hillary Clinton’s alma mater, we would have had the same reaction. But there’s a reason that Barbara Bush’s speech was rated by top rhetorical scholars as one of the top 100 American speeches of the past century. And that is that rarely has a commencement speaker withstood the kind of controversy and national media scrutiny as did Mrs. Bush. Of Wellesley’s 600 graduating seniors, 150 had signed a petition that read in part, “Barbara Bush has gained recognition through the achievements of her husband. . . . [Wellesley] teaches us that we will be rewarded on the basis of our own merit, not on that of a spouse.” The New York Times then ran a front-page story on the topic and ignited a national firestorm that presaged the “Mommy Wars,” as we now call them. Mrs. Bush’s speech was, in many ways, one of the opening salvos in the Mommy Wars. She deftly argued that by imposing narrow definitions of the “proper” roles of women, her protesters had undermined their own argument.

Lopez: Is there any line from any one of these speeches that best defines what exactly a conservative is?
Hall: Well, several lines echo conservative themes and truths. But one line that seems to capture the broad sweep of what a conservative is comes from Barry Goldwater’s 1964 acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco: “Those who seek to live your lives for you, to take your liberties in return for relieving you of yours, those who elevate the state and downgrade the citizen must see ultimately a world in which earthly power can be substituted for divine will, and this nation was founded upon the rejection of that notion and upon the acceptance of God as the author of freedom.” It might not fit well on a bumper sticker, but it captures much of what conservatives believe. For a bumper-sticker-length definition we’d recommend Ronald Reagan’s First Inaugural wherein he declared that “government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.”

Lopez: Was there a recipe when compiling this book? We need one Buckley and one Goldwater and one Reagan and a chick somewhere?
Schweizer: Boy, that would sure have made it much easier! No, we actually used a fairly detailed rubric for which speeches to include, recognizing, of course, that we were bound somewhat by copyright restrictions. We selected orations that exemplified the six classic features that Russell Kirk argues in The Conservative Mind typify conservative thought and speech. But we used three primary benchmarks. First, for an address to be considered a “landmark” speech it must possess a reach broad enough to affect the movement as a whole. Second, speeches were chosen on the basis of their espousal of conservative principles broadly defined. Finally, speeches were evaluated with an eye toward their rhetorical artistry and style. Thus, many fine essayists, such as F. A. Hayek, Russell Kirk, and others do not appear.
Lopez: Have you listened to all these speeches? Did you take delivery into consideration?
Hall: That’s certainly one of the challenges for all speech collections; namely, that you are reading a transcript of what someone said, absent their physical delivery. And even listening to a speech recording—which we did where only those were available—one misses all the visual dimensions of great oratory, such as facial expression, gestures, body movement, and so on. But landmark speeches are often the combination of both solid delivery and powerful content, and that’s certainly true of many of the speeches we include in the book.
Lopez: Why not an ERA speech for Phyllis Schlafly when that’s what she is best known for?
Schweizer: Originally, that’s exactly what we planned to do; seems like the obvious move. But after getting in touch with Mrs. Schlafly, we asked her if she thought there were any speeches we should review. One of her suggestions was the one we included: her powerful June 28, 1987, speech before the Conference of the Legal Services of the New York City Board of Education. Aptly titled “Child Abuse in the Classroom,” it was a broadside against rampant secularism in public school textbooks. The speech, in many ways, is a precursor to the broader debates that would later unfold over multiculturalism and political correctness in public school curricula. As usual, Schlafly led the vanguard in fighting the culture war.

Some speeches are bumper-sticker-friendly. For instance, Ronald Reagan’s First Inaugural, source of the line, “Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.”

Lopez: Did you fight over any speeches?
Hall: Absolutely we fought. But Peter is a bully and better at arm wrestling so he often won. No, seriously, I think most of our battles over certain speeches were settled by copyright laws. We did, however, have a robust debate with some at our publisher about whether we could include Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 Harvard address. . . . We got overruled.
Lopez: What’s your favorite speech in the book, Peter? Wynton?
Schweizer: Whittaker Chambers’s “I Broke Away from the Communist Party.”
Hall: Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire.”

Lopez: If there was one more you could include, what would it be?
Schweizer: Oh, there are so many. As we say in the introduction, readers may think worthy speeches were omitted and we agree. We really love Jeane Kirkpatrick’s August 20, 1984, “Blame America First” speech at the Republican National Convention. That speech has so many wonderful lines, like, “It wasn’t malaise we suffered from; it was Jimmy Carter—and Walter Mondale.” But the speech gets its name from her parallel repetition of the phrase, “But then, they always blame America first.” Wynton and I love the speech—and the speaker.

“A great speech must exemplify the three Ps: principled, passionate, and practiced. I’d also add a fourth P and that would be that it can’t be ‘plastic.’ ”

Lopez: For a college grad getting this book for graduation (I’m sure it will sell like hotcakes at the Harvard Square IHOP): what makes a good speech?
Hall: A great speech must exemplify the three Ps: principled, passionate, and practiced. I’d also add a fourth P, which is that it can’t be “plastic.” Ronald Reagan, Phyllis Schlafly, Barry Goldwater . . . these are speakers who are comfortable in their own skin, who know who they are, and who actually believe in what they are saying. I think one of the dangers conservatism faces right now is that some view it as a marketing project, not a movement. The brilliance of the American conservative movement has been its ability to transcend politics and stand strong on principles. And I sense part of the frustration many conservatives feel heading into 2008 is that there is a sense that we’ve lost our way, that currently no one is willing to stand and fight for core conservative values and principles.

Lopez: Who gives the best speeches among the 2008ers?
Schweizer: Not Ron Paul. Clearly Obama is better than Hillary, but that isn’t saying much. As far as Republicans go, Governor Mike Huckabee gives a powerful oration and certainly has pulpit practice on his side.

Lopez: The most conservative speeches?
Hall: We’ve got our eyes on Senator Fred Thompson.