Finding Power in Prose

Author Outlines How GOP Speeches Have Shaped History

Posted February 26, 2007 at 4:30pm

Whether you’re picturing a solemn figure in a black stovepipe hat using contrasting elements of death and rebirth, or a stout man with a distinctive mustache preaching the importance of the individual struggle, the famous speeches of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, however different in nature, both left a distinctive mark on the landscape of conservative rhetoric. Moreover, these early themes and characteristics help sculpt today’s GOP public-speaking standouts, and may even define the key players in the 2008 Republican presidential nominations.

Or at least this is the argument Wynton Hall hopes to make in his latest book, “The Right Words: Great Republican Speeches That Shaped History,” which hit bookstores last week. Hall, whose past political gigs have included stints as a speechwriter and presidential scholar, currently is fulfilling a yearlong fellowship at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

In his book, he argues that many of the notable speakers from Republican history were able to deliver speeches to the public in a way that ultimately affected history.

Hall makes use of a number of prominent speeches that seemed to define GOP history — from Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” and Roosevelt’s “Man With the Muck-Rake” to Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” and former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s (Ga.) “Contract with America” — and combines them with commentary about their importance not only in the era in which they were presented, but also as milestones for conservative speakers today.

The speechwriter-turned-author argues that it was the authenticity of these speakers, as well as their delivery, that allowed these speeches to be implanted in history.

“I would say that sincerity is a quality that is hard to train [in] a speaker,” Hall said. “A speechwriter can write the most beautiful speech and prose, but if the person breathing life into those prose can’t come across in a sincere and genuine way, then it really does fall on deaf ears.”

Richard Wirthlin, founder of the Wirthlin Group, served as chief political strategist to former President Reagan and collaborated with Hall for the book “The Greatest Communicator: What Ronald Reagan Taught Me About Politics, Leadership and Life,” which outlined the speaking accomplishments of the 40th president.

Agreeing on the timeless importance of audience connection in conservative speakers as Hall argues in “The Right Words,” Wirthlin believes that “the extent to which Republican candidates across the board resonate with their base … hinges on the extent to which they, through their words and positions, harken to those things that have been important to Republicans for some time.”

Hall also points to the underlying ties of these great speakers who relied on three pillars — “self-reliance, security, and strong families and values” — and to the importance of any conservative running for the 2008 presidential nomination to implement them.

“I think that whoever can best speak to those three ‘pillars’ of the conservative message … that’s going to be the person who is going to emerge as the best spokesperson for the Republican Party heading into 2008,” Hall said.

Hall’s belief in the necessity of the “three pillar ideology” in a strong conservative presidential candidate rings true with other conservative political analysts.

Angela McGlowan, founder and CEO of Political Strategies & Insights, a government affairs, political strategy, public relations and advocacy consulting firm based in Washington, D.C., has corroborated with Hall on studies regarding liberalism versus conservatism, and also is able to link the pillar theory to the ultimate outcome of a presidential bid.

“Even though some presidents might have had different styles from other presidents … it’s the same conviction,” McGlowan points out, adding that the commonality of these individuals encompasses “the pillar, the foundation, and also the same purpose.”

Wirthlin also agrees that Hall’s philosophy is a legitimate frame of reference for conservative speaking greats, stating, “I think the three pillars he references are well-founded — a good way to look at these Republican speeches that have been given in the past.”

The question remains: Are there any GOP hopefuls right now who fulfill all three pieces of this pillar? Hall notes that current candidates are close, but notes “right now, we find that we have candidates that maybe own one of those pillars, or are perceived to be strong at one or two, but not all three yet. And that may change — and should — but I think that’s going to be what determines who will be the person, the ‘heir apparent’ to square off in the general election.”

Looking at the Republicans so far competing for the 2008 nomination, Hall mentions the significance of two figures — former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.).

Hall respects Romney for the fact that “he does address the three pillars that I’m talking about. He very much makes a strategic effort to address each of those. It’s very much a part of the model he is using.”

“The Right Words” also travels back in conservative history to make a connection between McCain and Roosevelt. According to Hall, not only is McCain facing a similar political climate to that of Roosevelt (a trend away from conservatism by the general public), but the Senator also is learning to combat this trend in a matter not unlike the 26th president would have done.

“What I think is interesting about McCain is he positions himself in the center,” Hall said. “Roosevelt very much was that way as well.”

Hall also notes the way McCain tends to showcase “T.R. qualities” of a “maverick style,” which, to Hall, is especially exemplified in one key characteristic of McCain.

“It’s all about individualism,” Hall notes. “It’s all about self-reliance, it’s all about doing for self, and not relying on others to do for you. And that’s very much in keeping with the ‘T.R. tradition.’ ”

Wirthlin believes that the public-speaking similarities between historical conservatives such as Roosevelt and current GOP hopefuls such as McCain are a logical connection.

“The party is based upon a set of … ideals and ideologies, so it isn’t surprising that there is considerable overlay in terms of the rhetoric as you go from Teddy Roosevelt to Sen. McCain and others,” Wirthlin said.

While the importance of these historic speeches in modern-day politics is just a theory, McGlowan believes “The Right Words” is coming from the right place.

“Wynton knows his history and he can rule out the different phases from the past … and compare them to the plight of America today,” McGlowan said, praising Hall with her belief that “he’s a centrist in a way of looking at both sides. But he’s also very conservative. He can put on different hats and analyze from both sides and that’s a true talent.”