At Jacksonville University on November 3, 2016 – a handful of days before that year’s US Presidential Election – the Public Policy Institute’s Hesburgh Lecture was delivered by Law Professor, Amy Coney Barrett. She was there to discuss the questions and ramifications of the choices the new POTUS would have in replacing Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court Justice who had recently died.
Here we are today, less than a handful of weeks from the next Presidential election. We know who was appointed by President Trump to succeed Scalia: it was Neil Gorsuch. We also remember the outrageous pantomime in 1918 that accompanied the nomination and appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to succeed Anthony Kennedy. And now, with the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, President Trump has nominated her successor to be Amy Coney Barrett.
The chance to hear the nominee herself – albeit four years ago – lecturing on this is too good to squander.
The Lecture is introduced first by Rick Mullaney, Director of the Institute, who hands over at 1:38 to Pat Kilbane whose task is to introduce the speaker herself. She begins at 4:07, speaks till 18:08, and this is followed by Q&A.
I am often asked about speakers’ mannerisms, and what can be done about them. Over the decades my position has changed a little and now reached a point where essentially I tell speakers not to worry about the existence of a mannerism, only that the audience has noticed it. If you are interesting enough any mannerism becomes unnoticeable to the audience. So what you do about a mannerism is you make your talk more interesting.
Can your vocal quality be a mannerism? If so, Barrett has a mannerism. In the first seconds of my hearing her speak it was almost like Lina Lamont, played by Jean Hagen, in Singin’ in the Rain. That voice has a sharp, acidic, squeaky quality that, despite my conviction on the subject, had me thinking she needed voice coaching like Margaret Thatcher. I was wrong: my conviction was right. Within a minute or two the sound of her voice had become irrelevant, swamped by the value of what she was saying. I never noticed it again. Were I advising her I would tell her to ignore it.
When you have an audience that mixes experts with lay people, leaving you wondering where to pitch the technical scholarship of your arguments, you should do two things: pitch to the least expert and tell the audience you are going to. Barrett does both. There then remains the Einstein challenge: Einstein famously said that if you can’t explain it to a five-year-old you don’t really understand it yourself. What I know about law in general, and the US Constitution and SCOTUS in particular, equates roughly to the square root of not a lot. Yet I managed easily to follow everything she said, and was so absorbed that when she finished and sat with Rick Mullaney for the Q&A, I stayed with it.
It was interesting, enlightening, and fascinating to hear her four-years-younger self explaining to us what could now be facing her.
Is she a good candidate for the position? Don’t know: don’t care. I know nothing of the subject and have zero influence over it. But I can say with a little authority that she is a fine speaker.
Also, Einstein would have been proud.