On Wednesday, Donald Trump gave a foreign policy address billed as a first step in seeming “presidential.” He used teleprompters and everything! Yet his language—scripted in advance, and then read from a screen—was still boring. No stirring metaphors, no clever similes. Really, no effort at all to raise up his rhetoric.
That should come as no surprise. This election cycle has sorely lacked soaring oratory. “It’s something I’ve been talking about with people recently,” said Peter Wehner, deputy director of speechwriting during George W. Bush’s first term. “There have been no memorable speeches. It’s been a barren wasteland.”
In an effort to understand why we’re being deprived of high-flown language this year, I spoke to eight top-level speechwriters from both sides of the aisle—some of whom wished to speak anonymously, all of whom have worked for presidents, vice presidents, or governors. I wondered: Is the flat language simply the nature of these particular candidates and their personalities? Or does it have more to do with the tenor of our Twitter-ized times? And what, if anything, do we miss out on when our politicians don’t bother to couch their ideas in elegantly crafted paragraphs?
Jeff Nussbaum, a speechwriter friend of mine who has previously written for Vice Presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden, theorizes that the deficit of speechy speeches is a result of the electorate’s seeming thirst for authenticity. “The political season launched with Ted Cruz making an announcement speech that looked and felt unrehearsed,” said Nussbaum. “And I think it was a calculation he made. If there’s been a rhetorical metanarrative this season, it’s that authenticity beats polish. We’ve thrown out the rulebook, and one of the things that’s been thrown out to some extent is standing up at a lectern and delivering a traditional speech. It’s been a really bad year for teleprompter operators.”
Donald Trump’s appeal stems in large part from his un-politician-like behavior. He’s repeatedly boasted he doesn’t use a teleprompter at his rallies, instead communicating with off-the-cuff, improvisatory riffs (or tweets). Trump’s rah-rah spiels feature simple applause lines (“We’re gonna build that wall!” or “We’re gonna knock the hell out of ISIS!”) and call-and-response sessions (“Who’s gonna pay for it?” “Mexico!”). His elementary vocabulary and playground taunts are apparently part of his charm.
Hillary Clinton has never been much of an orator. Even when given good lines to sell, she struggles to muster a lofty, inspiring tone. She seems far more comfortable answering town hall questions that let her demonstrate how dutifully she’s done her policy homework. She’s also hemmed in by her brand positioning as a pragmatic technocrat. “She’s especially hindered in her ability to paint a grand, optimistic vision,” says Paul Glastris, a former speechwriter for Bill Clinton. “She’s aware that the more lofty and grandiose she sounds, the more unrealistic she sounds.”
Bernie Sanders reportedly eschews speechwriters altogether. He composes his own speeches, using blunt, stripped-down language to artlessly hammer at his themes. His supporters recite his greatest hits—“millionaires and billionaires,” “$27”—along with him. He effectively conveys his worldview. But his speech is not elevated. “He’s energizing thousands of people,” says Glastris, “so it’s working for him. But you don’t feel that you’re listening to a statesman who’s walking you through difficult territory and then persuading you that he’s considered all sides.”
As for John Kasich and Ted Cruz: With the possible exception of Cruz’s Trump disses (“New York values” and “sniveling coward”), which are not about establishing Cruz’s platform or vision, neither has uttered a single scripted phrase that’s broken into the national consciousness.
A few speechwriters I spoke to noted that Marco Rubio was the candidate most prone to using highfalutin oratory. If anything it hurt him, precisely because it made him seem so familiarly political at a time when the electorate has lusted after novelty. “Rubio has a compelling life story to tell,” said Wehner, “and he can deliver a rhetorically impressive speech that moves people. But there just wasn’t much audience for that in the Republican Party this year.”
Rubio’s penchant for the well-turned phrase brutally backfired on him during his infamous New Hampshire RubioBot meltdown, when he repeated the same carefully prepped sound bite over and over. “Rubio really put a dagger in overly crafted and overly rehearsed speech with that glitch,” says Nussbaum. Accidentally repeating his perfectly crafted line revealed the machinery beneath. And that became a liability—it made him sound scripted and phony.
To be fair, it’s possible that we’ve all been spoiled by Barack Obama. Speechwriters from both parties acknowledged the president’s singular gift for oratory. Obama effectively launched his political career with his “there’s no red America, there’s no blue America” speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. His concession speech after losing the 2008 New Hampshire primary was so lyrical that Black Eyed Peas frontman Will.i.am turned it into a song.
At an existential moment for Obama’s 2008 campaign, when the Jeremiah Wright controversy exploded, Obama opted not merely to respond to the accusations of the day but instead to offer a wide-ranging, stunningly ambitious speech on the topic of race in America. You could imagine Carly Fiorina employing a similar tactic this year after Donald Trump mocked her appearance—stepping behind a podium to speak expansively and elegantly about, say, her notion of feminism or what it means to be a woman in power—but she declined to seize that opportunity.
Few politicians have the ability that Obama does to make scripted, fussy language sound natural and uplifting. And that’s been true forever. “It’s pretty abnormal to have a consistently high level of rhetoric in our country,” says Ted Widmer, a foreign policy speechwriter for Bill Clinton who edited a two-volume anthology for the Library of America titled American Speeches. “We spend more time in the valleys than on the peaks.”
So does it matter that we’re deep in the valley this cycle? Do we lose anything when our candidates speak plainly? I think we do. Sure, we can wade through sound bites and tweets to get the gist of what a candidate thinks. But oratory is a vital skill for a politician who wishes to command the world’s stage. A crafted speech, replete with well-turned phrases, a forceful worldview, a link to compelling biography, and an orderly presentation of a tight argument, is a unique opportunity for us to judge a candidate’s capacity both to reason and persuade.
Such a speech is also a gift to the listener. “Aesthetics matter in the life of a country,” Wehner insists. “Art, music, and rhetoric all matter. There are words that elevate the human spirit and words that pull down the human spirit. And we often think of presidents because of a phrase, not a policy. ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’ ‘Ask not what your country can do for you.’ ‘Tear down this wall.’ ”
It seems unlikely that we’ll add “We are going to win so much, believe me” to that pantheon.