McCain Speeches Don’t Deliver
Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee in all but name, has spent this week on an autobiographical road trip, seeking to pull attention from the still combative Democratic contest by highlighting important places in his remarkable life story. But if the “Service to America Tour” has shown the strength of McCain’s biography, it has also underscored his real weakness as a speech-maker.
His flat delivery often makes him seem bored with his own stories — as he did Tuesday, when he told a crowd of current students at his alma mater, “Memory often accords our high school years the distinction of being among the happiest of our lives. I remember Episcopal in that light.”
While more masterful speakers – including both remaining Democratic candidates, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) – can use a big speech to bring along a crowd, McCain moves awkwardly through complex phrases, sometimes surprising himself with the end of a sentence. He regularly leaves his audience without any cues to applaud. Despite years in public life, he makes bumpy transitions from personal anecdotes to broad policy pronouncements.
A presidential candidate who doesn’t give a good speech isn’t unheard of (think Bob Dole). Some of them – Bush 41 – even win. And McCain does do well in less formal settings, like town hall meetings and one-on-one conversations. But his discomfort behind the podium is a distinct disadvantage as he struggles for national media attention, while continuing his bid to convince doubting conservatives that he deserves their support. And the pressure on him to deliver strong speeches to big audiences will only increase as the general election campaign heats up.
“McCain needs all the help he can get,” said Martin Medhurst, a communications professor at Baylor University and the editor of Rhetoric and Public Affairs, a quarterly journal.
Medhurst is particularly bothered by how McCain handled several of his victory speeches during the Republican primary. (His remarks after his January win in New Hampshire, which re-ignited his campaign, were especially rough.) “It was awful painful to watch his attempts to read what obviously he had never read before in his life.”
Such a weak delivery effects viewers’ – and voters’ – perceptions of the speaker’s sincerity, knowledge and credibility, Medhurst said. “Some politicians just don’t understand that they must devote a certain amount of time to their communications, or it’s going to hurt them.”
For McCain, “part of the problem is [a lack of] practice,” Medhurst said. “Part of it is probably attitudinal. I don’t think he likes to give formal speeches.”
Judith Trent, a communications professor at the University of Cincinnati and co-author of “Political Campaign Communication: Principles and Practices,” agrees. “His formal speeches leave much to be desired, even in terms of having an impact on an immediate audience,” she said.
Watching McCain speak, Trent says, gives her the feeling that he is “kind of holding back what he really thinks.” He does have his attributes, she says – “a good deal of charm, humor and sometimes self-deprecating humor,” and he is far better when talking about the subjects he knows well, like national security. But, of this year’s crop of presidential candidates, “He is not the smooth orator of any of the rest of them," Trent said. "Of the three remaining candidates, he has to be the weakest as a public speaker.”
Trent said McCain uses few techniques that other, more eloquent, speakers embrace — and depend on. “He doesn’t quote poetry. He doesn’t quote other people,” she said. “He doesn’t use parallelism, or repetition.”
And, while his years as a POW –much of it in solitary confinement at the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" — make up a central part of his life story, until this campaign he has rarely discussed that experience. “He doesn’t have to talk about it,” Trent said. “He knows that you know about them, so he only has to make reference to them.”
But Medhurst, Trent, and other analysts agree that McCain does have one strong suit: the question-and-answer session.
David Kusnet, chief speech writer for Bill Clinton during the 1992 campaign and the first two years of the administration, called McCain “almost a mirror image of Ronald Reagan.” Reagan excelled at formal speeches. “But you wouldn’t want to have him do a town hall meeting,” Kusnet said. “He would get his facts wrong, or start repeating himself.”
“McCain is the opposite,” Kusnet said. “He’s not good at reading a speech, especially with a teleprompter. But he is good at a town hall meeting.”
McCain has often relied on that format, conducting more than 100 town hall meetings before the 2000 New Hampshire primary, in which he defeated George W. Bush, and at least 100 more in the state in the run-up to this year’s primary, which ended in his comeback victory.
“He’s not afraid of it and he’s willing to take all comers,” Medhurst said. “It sort of fits his personality.”
That confidence was on display at his old high school. After his formal remarks were done, McCain opened the floor to questions. “It can be about anything that’s on your mind,” McCain said. “Most anything that’s on your mind.”
The shift in format instantly set him at ease. McCain moved around the gym floor, leaning on the podium and holding his microphone with the breezy confidence of a Las Vegas lounge act. Freed from the teleprompter, he made eye contact with the crowd, talked comfortably about his high school wrestling record – “I won more than I lost” – and, after describing an unexpected victory, quoted ESPN’s Chris Berman: “That’s why you play the game.”
McCain’s campaign is expected to continue to use the town hall format as the campaign progresses. Obama, whose rhetorical prowess has been at the heart of his campaign, is also now using the setting more frequently — recognizing that voters value the more relaxed atmosphere and the opportunity to move from lofty ideas to bread and butter discussions.
But set speeches will still play an important role – capped by McCain’s prime-time speech at the Republican National Convention in September in Minneapolis – and Kusnet expects McCain to improve as the campaign progresses.
“He has a very soft-spoken delivery,” Kusnet said. “That soft-spokenness is effective, especially because a lot of what he talks about is war.” In addition, despite long years in the Senate, McCain does not get bogged down in Senate jargon the way Dole did, Kusnet said. Another asset, Kusnet said, is McCain’s long relationship with Mark Salter, his top speech writer and co-author of his best-selling books.
“He writes the way I think,” McCain has said of Salter.
But despite those advantages, McCain will still need to put in a lot of practice time, just like he did during his high school wrestling days. “He will have to give more formal public speeches,” Trent said. “They need to work with him a long time on that. And they need to start now.”