Bill Gavin (right) shares a laugh with former President Richard Nixon and House Minority Leader Bob Michel in the latter’s office on March 8, 1990.


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The End of Rhetoric

In a recent interview with senior editor Samuel Hughes, author William Gavin talked about his years as a speechwriter, the politicians who used his words, and the ways they achieved their rhetorical goals. Here are some parts of that conversation:

You mentioned that [US Senator] Jim Buckley [R-New York] wanted to leave a crowd thinking not what a great speaker he was but what a good argument he had made.

What he basically said was, “I am accused of making arguments that cannot be put into law because of the nature of the Senate in which I work. I admire those who can compromise and make deals and that kind of thing. But there’s also room for an argument to be made.” And it must be made by the ones who are upholding the principles of the party, because they show the boundaries of what is not only possible but what is desirable. And if no one does that, then you have people just going around and talking without any rootedness, if you will, in principle.

Remember the context. There was a time when a guy like Jim Buckley was considered to be rather odd—a nice man in his own way, but rather odd. Not our kind. And the Senate was dominated by liberals. They simply didn’t consider conservatism to be a serious point of view.

Jim—out of necessity, because we were a beleaguered outpost in the Senate—made sure that almost every speech he did was one in which he laid out not only his own argument but sometimes arguments that might be made against it. And this is something I think is important in American rhetoric. You lay out your argument, but then you say, ‘Look, folks, I know there are people who disagree. Let me give you one reason why. Guy said this about Social Security. I understand that argument. It’s a good argument. But I don’t think it’s the best argument.’

Jim had to do something like that almost every time he spoke. And in doing so he created a rhetoric which was at once civil, forceful, rational, and, because it was all those things, inspirational to those who looked to Jim for guidance. And he combined all those things without rabble-rousing. He was just a great guy.

You talked about Bob Michel’s speech before the first Gulf War [in which the Republican House Minority Leader agreed that there was “not a perfect fit between the lessons of Munich and the problem of Kuwait” but asked “that we at least consider that delay often can have more serious consequences later on than swift action”]. By acknowledging the validity of the beliefs on the other side of the aisle in a non-demagogical way, his speech comes across as quite moving as well as effective.

Bob made two speeches. I didn’t include the first speech in the book. I can remember the line because I helped contribute to it. He said of President [George H.W.] Bush, “President Bush needs our help, and we all have different opinions here. And the question is, are we going to be a tower of strength, or are we going to be a Tower of Babel? Are we going to send different voices out so Saddam will hear different kinds of things, or are we going to get [united]”—that kind of thing.

The speech that’s in the book—it’s not a speech. It’s remarks, really. He was sitting there thinking, “What the heck can you say?” And then he just came up with that idea.

And every time I look at the man, I think to myself, “When he was 19 years old, he waded onto a beach, six days after D-Day. Young boys in the Wehrmacht were trying to kill him.” And so when he went into politics, he didn’t use metaphors like “This is war” and “We’re in the trenches.”  He had seen the real thing. And boy, I learned early on, he simply wouldn’t do that.

I don’t think anybody ever said Bob was eloquent. And I wouldn’t even say they were greatly constructed words, because they were mine, and I just tried to do the job that was done. But what he brought was this other part of rhetoric which is so mysterious, and that is the presence of a human being.  It’s mysterious. It is as mysterious as great art or music or anything else.

Talk about that a little more.

It’s very difficult to pinpoint exactly what that is because it isn’t always the same thing [with different people]. With Obama it is this reasonable, professorial, almost condescending type of rhetoric which seeks to impart to his audience the fact that what he’s saying is not only right, but it’s reasonable. With Bob Michel it was the fact that here was a man who was just a guy from Peoria, and what he said was backed up by all that. And with Jim Buckley it was a much more intellectual kind of thing.

But in each of the three cases, it was the presentation of a persona which was likable, believable, and had something that transcended the rhetoric.

A speech is more than words written for somebody, or even sometimes more than the delivery. It’s just something there that people have, and it’s a gift in public life. Not everybody has it—but if you’ve got it, it’s worth almost everything.

You talk about “working rhetoric” and the need to craft clear, punchy arguments for achievable goals. Who do you admire for that today?

I think the best place to look for working rhetoric is going to be in the acceptance speeches next year. [The Republican candidates] are not yet at the Holy Grail; they’re not yet president, and they can make their inaugural addresses with all the appeals to history and everything. They’ve got to work, man; they’ve got to cover all of their weaknesses, and they’ve got to show you something.

Most of the stuff that I am familiar with from this race is in debates. And in debates, you have to talk a kind of a haiku. You have to talk in sound bites and [answer] the quick question and that kind of thing. So I’ll wait until whoever the nominee is, and we’ll see what happens.

Now, obviously you have to get back to Obama. And as I said in the book, he’s got a strange kind of articulateness. It’s more about who he is than what he says. I don’t think since he has become a national figure he has said one memorable sentence. I suppose that goes for most political figures. They say billions of words, and you’re going to remember one thing. But I think he’s the guy who has set the new standard. And that’s why in the beginning of the book I say, “Thank you, Mr. President. You’ve brought rhetoric back to where it should be in public affairs.”

But my final analysis of him would be he has a marvelous gift for almost conversational rhetoric. He doesn’t try to soar for the heights very often.  And he’s really good at that.  But I think he’s gone to the well once too often, if I may coin a cliché.  That’s my feeling.

I was thinking of very cunningly titling my book The End of Rhetoric, meaning two things: What is the end of rhetoric—its purposes, its goals?  But also the end of rhetoric. We seem not to have been given many great speeches or inspiring speeches, whatever it happens to be. And I think [Obama] really brought rhetoric back to a position where we’re looking at how people say things, as well as what the substance is.

Now, can I break in and tell a story?

By all means.

I was in the second class of the Annenberg School. Gilbert Seldes was the dean then. His idea was that the school would have what he called a humanist rather than a scientific or an analytical point of view. And we spent a lot of time discussing issues, one of which was: What is the difference between the public interest and the public’s interest? In those days, everything had to go through the FCC, so if you got a license to have a TV station, one of the deals was that you had to operate in “the public interest,” not the public’s interest.

He was a principled liberal all his life, very active in the anti-nuclear stuff. But he told us the story of when he was a critic for what was then called the Saturday Review of Literature. It was edited by another famous liberal of the time, Norman Cousins. And Seldes was the television critic, because back in the 1920s he singlehandedly invented media criticism. He wrote a book called The Seven Lively Arts in which he took things such as movies, vaudeville, comic strips, everything—took them seriously, looked at them from a scholar’s point of view.

So Edward R. Murrow—who, by the way, is a friend of Seldes, and Seldes admires him greatly—does a program against Senator Joe McCarthy. It’s one of the most famous programs on television: highly edited, the purpose of which was to show Senator McCarthy in the worst possible light. And it was universally admired by liberals, called one of the great moments, not only in television journalism but in American history.

Seldes wrote a review of that program, and this is what he said: “I have absolutely no respect for Senator McCarthy. I think he’s done great damage to the country. I admire Ed Murrow more than anybody else. But I have to say to my fellow liberals, is this the kind of thing we want? How will we like it if the other people get people as good as this, and they use the same techniques against us?”

Well, all hell broke loose. More letters came in to the Saturday Review than anyone could remember, lambasting Seldes, 90 percent of them from liberals, 50 percent of them from guys who liked Seldes, saying, “How can you give aid and comfort to this beast prowling the American landscape, and blast Ed Murrow?” And Seldes, in telling the story, said, “At one point there was a move to remove me [as television editor], but Norman Cousins wouldn’t hear of it. He said, ‘You made a point. It’s not a point I agree with, but you stay on.’” Which, by the way, is a good liberal principle.

I always remember Seldes for that. You know, there’s a phrase in America, “to speak truth to power.” But when you speak the truth in politics to your own friends, they don’t like it. It’s the toughest thing in the world to do. You have to have courage, and you have to have confidence, and you have to have an ability to make your argument clearly. And not too many people can do that, on either side of the aisle.

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EXCERPT & INTERVIEW: Some Words for Nixon
Illustration by Jonathan Bartlett

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Last modified 10/28/11