Skip navigation

Speech rated highly, despite absence of memorable lines

Globe and Mail Update

Barack Obama delivered “no zingers” in his inaugural address, says veteran Canadian political speechwriter Sally Barnes. No memorable lines such as FDR's “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” or John F. Kennedy's “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

For the lack of zinger or clip or iconic phrase, Ms. Barnes, speechwriter for former Ontario premier Bill Davis, rated the new U.S. President's speech 8 out of 10 for content. However, she gave Mr. Obama a 10 for delivery. Her former boss, Mr. Davis, was never as eloquent.

Other Canadian political speechwriters rated the Obama speech between 6.5 and 9 out of 10. Indeed, these speechwriters were asked to compare the Obama address with what are considered two of the finest inaugural speeches ever delivered: the 1933 address by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and JFK's speech in 1961.

“Obama gets a 9 out of 10 for using his own challenging and uplifting words,” said Ray Heard, speechwriter for former Liberal prime minister John Turner.

Tom Axworthy, former chief speechwriter for Pierre Trudeau and now the chair of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Queen's University, came up with the idea of a political speechwriters society, modelled after the American Judson Welliver Society, a bipartisan social club of former presidential speechwriters. Mr. Welliver is credited with being the first presidential speechwriter; he wrote for Warren Harding (1921-1923).

Arthur Milnes, an Axworthy colleague at the Queen's centre, is the society's secretary. The two are calling their club the Leonard Brockington Society of Political Speechwriters, after the former Queen's rector and first full-time prime ministerial speechwriter. He wrote for Mackenzie King.

And they asked these Canadian political speechwriters to rate and critique the Obama address as part of their first act as members of the new club.

Scott Reid, who wrote speeches for another Liberal prime minister, Paul Martin, rated the Obama speech an 8.5: “It's a 9 compared with Kennedy and an 8 compared to FDR.”

“Obama's words were reliably graceful,” Mr. Reid observed, “but the message was sometimes direct and unvarnished. For an inaugural address, he pulled few punches in signalling his disapproval of the administration his will replace.”

“The phrase ‘the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for too long have strangled our politics' jumped out as particularly critical and surprisingly colloquial,” he said.

Mr. Reid felt that with the speech, Mr. Obama went from “prophet to President.”

“All great speeches include a call to arms,” he said. “Today's met that mark and began the necessary task of transferring expectations from the sole shoulders of Barack Obama to the whole of America.”

And despite the lack of “bejewelled one-liners of Kennedy,” Les Horswill, who wrote for former Conservative leader Robert Stanfield and Ontario PCs, including Mr. Davis and Frank Miller, rated Mr. Obama's effort an 8 against FDR's 10, and a 10 against Kennedy's 10.

“I'd say this speech may be the best of the three in terms of helping a president make history,” he said.

But not everyone was as effusive. One speechwriter, who asked to remain anonymous, gave Mr. Obama a 6.5 rating.

“In part, it sounded like one of the campaign speeches: economy, check. Health care, check. Energy, check. Iraq, check. There was a theme that this generation can achieve like its predecessors but it had trouble soaring till the end with the invocation of Washington,” the speechwriter said.

Recommend this article? 0 votes

Back to top