Trump at the U.N.

On 19 September President Trump addressed the United Nations General Assembly. I have seen the speech described with the word ‘hate’. That word has become a catch-all for any opinion ‘with which I disagree’; in fact, disastrously, that almost amounts to a legal definition these days. Therefore like most who actually bother to think I invariably dismiss the term until and unless I have examined the matter in hand.

For example, we were all regaled with how Trump had threatened “to totally destroy North Korea”. There’s an inflammable headline for you! Having now watched the whole speech several times I can bear witness to the accuracy of the quote, just as I can point out how misleading it is without the qualification that preceded it, “if [USA] is forced to defend itself or its allies we will have no choice but…”

Here is the whole speech.

I have no appetite for picking through all his points. There’s more than 40 minutes of speech in which he did that for himself, and you here have the opportunity to form your own opinion. Therefore I shall limit myself to my own speciality interest, the preparation and delivery of the speech itself.

I like his “Welcome to New York” opening. It’s a velvet glove covering an iron fist that says “your building: my town”.

As representing the USA, it is fitting and traditional that he gives a very potted summary of the state of his nation, on the one hand a country battered by hurricanes and on the other a country resolutely and successfully climbing out of economic doldrums. He doesn’t waste the opportunity to point out that the economic turnaround began with his accession. The Dow Jones had been rising for a time before he entered the Oval Office; but it has accelerated since, along with growth and employment. Crime and food-stamp usage have travelled in the opposite direction.

He is much beloved of triads, and I don’t mean oriental crime syndicates. They are scattered all over this speech. “Peace, sovereignty, and prosperity”, “strong, independent, and free”, and so on. They are everywhere, and the commonest ingredient seems to be “sovereignty”. I was put in mind of my own triad in this blog posting almost exactly a year ago where I pointed out that in eight years the previous administration had seen the U.S. become “less free, less safe, and less prosperous”.

At 02:55 I am impressed with Trump’s presence of mind when he switches between TelePrompter screens, misreads a word and seamlessly corrects himself. Later it happens again, and then again. It goes on happening, always the same type of misreading. With my trainees, whenever asked, I tell them how skilled are operators of this sort of equipment, always holding station with the speaker. I think we can safely assume that the United Nations, and/or the White House, have the most skilled of all, yet it seems here that repeatedly Trump’s screens get just behind him. I hesitate to add to the huge heap of conspiracy-theory-rumours that surround this presidency, but I sense a slight odour of the subtlest of sabotage coming off this. Completely unprovable and, probably by anyone other than a saddo like me, unnoticed.

He commits that most widespread of all the diction errors: swallowing the ends of words. He shares this mistake with some of the best speakers in the business, Hannan and Obama to name but two, and there have been others castigated for it on this blog.  I thought you might want evidence of Trump doing it, so I confidently clicked straight to about the middle of the speech and within seconds had an example. At 21:50 he says, “We must deny the terrorists safe haven…” The second syllable of that last word is virtually inaudible.

My having just mentioned Obama, I feel that you might be expecting a comparison between the two presidents’ speaking abilities. This could be a battle of cliché metaphors, but here goes. Trump is no longer the bull in a china shop that he used to be, but he remains a bit of a blunt instrument. Obama is supremely elegant – a fencing master. None of those metaphors answers the question though, because perhaps the prime purpose of a speech is to be memorable. Quote me a sentence from an Obama speech – just one.

Hasn’t it gone quiet!

If I asked you to quote from this speech you’d probably shout, “totally destroy North Korea” but this speech would be cheating because it’s so recent; therefore try Trump’s inaugural speech. Do you remember “Buy American, hire American”?  – or “You will never be ignored again”? If so, Trump wins.

And I bet you never expected me to say that.

 

 

 

 

Barack Obama as an embryonic orator.

On 20 September, 1995, in the public library in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a thirty-four-year-old law student read from an autobiography entitled Dreams From My Father. You may wonder how many people of that age have already written an autobiography, but perhaps this young man was shaping to put many more entries in the record books.

His name was Barack Obama, and my particular interest lies not in the reading but in the eight minutes he spent introducing the reading.

He utters his first words, “Good evening” while approaching the lectern. It’s a sound technique as a hump-buster, because the long silent walk to where you will speak can tighten you up. This is not a long walk, but still the principle holds. If you are not wearing a radio mic, you may have to raise your voice, but what the hell!  What you are likely to say is so inconsequential that it doesn’t matter if the audience misses most of it. Fancy a kid of the age of my younger son having already learnt that trick! What else had he learnt?

That’s a nice opening and, though he smiles while saying it, there is no other indication that he expects a laugh.  Essentially he throws it away, and that’s another thing he’s learnt. The boy is good.

He’s shooting from the hip, and is no less fluent for that. The ‘ums’ and ‘errs’ don’t make him look hesitant and indecisive they make him look spontaneous, sincere, and at ease. These are all qualities that relax audiences.

He has a distinctive way of holding his head with his chin up slightly. This lends him an air of openness and authority. In years to come, if he makes something of himself, some body-language analysts might see that as an affectation he has deliberately developed. It may be, but if so it was developed before September ’95.

It is really quite startling how accomplished he already is as a communicator.

He starts reading at 09:10, and I’d prefer not to comment further. It is not that I don’t like book- or poetry-readings – I perform them myself – I just think that the author is not the best person to do it, because he’s too close to it. I feel that the perspective of someone who can stand back further from the canvas is usually better. That said, I have to admit he reads it well.

It’s also interesting and well-written, though I find the anger and self-pity a little trying. He may have good reason to be angry and self-pitying, but so do many people who choose not to display it because it’s an unbecoming characteristic. It doesn’t bode well for his future. At 25:00 he finishes reading, and thereafter he answers questions.

I wonder what became of him.

Andrew C McCarthy and a lawless President

Andrew C. McCarthy was at the Heartland Institute last week (12 June to be precise). He delivered a talk to promote his new book Faithless Execution: Building the Political Case for Obama’s Impeachment.

This, it seems to me, is eye-catching subject matter when such a distinguished attorney is broadcasting it. Amazon quotes The New York Times thus:

His background distinguishes him from pundits on the left and the right.

I wonder whether the speech excites equivalent interest.

In posting this video on You Tube, The Heartland Institute removed McCarthy’s introduction, so we are not privy to the “litany of past accomplishments” that apparently precede this speech. We start when he does, and his speech gives way to Q&A at 37:30.

When trainees of mine, struggling with a huge deck of slides representing the fruit of some enormously expensive piece of corporate research, are sweating over how to precis it to an audience, I invariably tell them not to bother. The audience will get that deck in hard-copy; so then the speaker’s job becomes not to precis it but to trail it. Just as a film trailer doesn’t tell you how the movie pans out but seeks to persuade you to watch the movie, so you should prepare some sexy cherry-picking in such a way that the audience becomes determined to read through all the rest of that hard-copy.

By precisely the same token I hoped that McCarthy would trail this book and not precis it. He trails it.

My heart momentarily sank when he produced a sheaf of papers at the beginning, but never did he look at it. This speech is shot entirely from the hip, and is all the better for that.

It’s also well structured: he tells us clearly how he approached the lay-out of the book, takes us through that layout, and cherry-picks (that expression again) examples in passing. What makes it all rather startling is the calm matter-of-fact way he recounts a stream of spine-chilling stuff. I keep reminding myself that he is not just a lawyer, but has spent many years as a prosecuting attorney. What may be spine-chilling to me is mundane to him.

The proof of the pudding for a speech such as this is whether it works. Has it persuaded me to buy and read the book?

You bet.

President Obama talks the talk

On 10 December, 2013, politicians past and present gathered to join thousands of South Africans in the FNB Stadium in Soweto, South Africa, for a service in memory of Nelson Mandela. Many speeches were delivered, not all praised by the British media. I was too busy to see any of it at the time, but the most frequent criticism I subsequently read and heard was that some politicians had (ab)used the high profile occasion to deliver self-serving political messages. The exception, according to the BBC, was President Obama; but then, to the BBC, POTUS can do no wrong. Let’s see what we think.

Obama has a power-pose which comes from the angle of his head. He tips it up a little. I assume it to to be a pose, though it may come naturally from habit. Is he accustomed to having to look up? Is he short in stature? I have no personal knowledge of this because he hasn’t met me, but it has always struck me as a pose. As poses go, if you must pose, it’s quite a good pose.

Why is he shouting? With that battery of microphones, and speakers all over the stadium, he could be heard if he whispered. I know there’s a great amount of crowd noise, but if that noise drowned his whisper it would also drown his shout. Also, if you want your audience to be quieter the secret is not to speak louder but softer. That will make them go quiet. He knows that: he knows the power of quiet intensity. He briefly used it at 08:40 in this speech. He knows he doesn’t need to shout to be heardTherefore I repeat the question: why is he shouting?

There is a simple answer: he does not want the audience quieter. He wants that noise! Please do not misinterpret my pointing this out, but another very effective and skilled speaker used the same technique at Nuremberg rallies in the 1930s. I draw no parallels between the men; I merely observe that using a noisy audience as part of your stage management is not a new technique. It wasn’t new in the 1930s: Shakespeare had Mark Anthony doing it in Julius Caesar.

The British media complained of politicians using this stage to promote themselves. What did they expect of politicians? Obama is a politician: he did it too. He may have done it covertly, more subtly, … perhaps better (I haven’t seen the others yet) but he did it. This speech is littered with weasel implications, claiming co-ownership of Mandela’s personality, principles, and policy. He is careful to be ‘umble about it, but from his repeated use of Mandela’s Xhosa name, Madiba, to introducing the grievance card with a spurious comparison of the race struggles in their two countries he’s playing the world’s adoring media for all he’s worth.

Obama’s strongest words are not his but Mandela’s, quoted from his speech to the court at his trial in June 1964…

I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I’ve cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and equal opportunity. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve; but if needs be it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

These are wonderful words; and it is to Obama’s credit that he quoted them. The whole speech could so easily have been wonderful if stripped of its self-serving opportunism. The peroration which he launches at 18:04 with the words, “Let us search for his strength” is magnificent. As a speaker he is so talented! What a pity he leaves me with a taste made sour by his having uttered, with a straight face, the following…

There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.

Quite so.