This morning, a colleague asked me what I thought of a legal brief recently filed in opposition to a motion I wrote in one of my cases. I answered, “oh, you know, it’s just a bunch of lawyer talk.” I was joking, partly. Unless a lawyer is committing malpractice, everything he or she says or writes is lawyer talk. Good legal writing takes the less offensive forms of lawyer talk and uses them effectively enough to make one’s points without constantly reminding the reader that the lawyer is talking. Alternatively, and less often, some good legal writing uses certain conventions so well that the reader celebrates the writing as lawyer talk at its best.
So too with political speeches. Any speech a politician gives is politician talk, designed to promote the politician and/or the politician’s party. Last night, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani were promoting themselves and also lending President Bush a hand. McCain’s speech employed less overt forms of politician talk so that he (true to his image) would sound less like a politician. Giuliani used some of the most overt forms in order to present a classic political stem-winder.
There is one key difference between lawyer talk and politician talk. When we hear or read lawyer talk, we usually don’t consider the source (other than that it comes from a lawyer). When we hear political speeches, we always consider the specific source — the identity of the politician who is speaking. I think this is central to understanding what was going on last night. Giuliani and McCain are special sources in ways that even big-hitting Democratic speakers like Clinton and Gore are not. Giuliani, having risen to the challenge of the most monstrous event ever to take place on our shores, has special standing. McCain, hero, political independent and, yes, media favorite, does too. Thus, their most effective endorsement speech is not the usual one (“I support a man who. . .”) Their most effective approach is to talk less about who should be president than about the vital subjects that they have special standing to address. The proposition that Bush should be re-elected ought to flow from that text. It should be a conclusion, not a starting point.
Giuliani executed this brilliantly. His avowed text was 9/11. But he missed no opportunity to insert Bush into his story of that event or to infer from the lessons of 9/11 the urgency of re-electing the president. McCain proceeded differently. His speech was a lecture, not a story. His subject was the war against terrorism. Bush was not often mentioned. Yet, McCain drew two lessons from his lecture — that Bush’s most controversial decision in prosecuting the war on terror was correct and that Bush should be re-elected.
Clearly, McCain could have trumpeted Bush more than he did. But it’s not clear that doing so would have been the most effective way to promote Bush’s interests. As I said, voters consider the source. It’s well known that McCain isn’t a Bush fan. And it’s a truism that undecided voters, the folks McCain can help Bush with, aren’t Bush fans either. Thus, McCain’s pitch — that voting for Bush, like it or not, is the proper choice given what we know about the war on terrorism — may (intentionally or unintentionally) have been the best politician talk McCain could have provided on the president’s behalf.
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“Arise and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.” Winston Churchill