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Eye on the News

Lisa Schiffren
Why Palin’s Speech Worked
A former vice-presidential speechwriter breaks it down.
4 September 2008

Last night, Sarah Palin, the previously obscure governor of Alaska, demonstrated before a national audience that she has an extraordinary ability to communicate with Americans. As someone who used to make her living writing political speeches, I can say that Palin certainly knows how to deliver one. She is talented at properly inflecting words to maximize dramatic punch, and she doesn’t stumble over timing. These skills, and not the writing, are what make it possible for an audience to really hear a speech.

Consider that the man who wrote Palin’s speech, Matthew Scully, also wrote speeches for Vice President Dan Quayle (as did I), Vice President Dick Cheney, and President George W. Bush. Scully has produced many excellent speeches over the years. Yet despite their various virtues, none of those men ever electrified a room the way Palin did last night. They had the words, but not the music—and absent compelling delivery, words are easily ignored in our media age. Dramatic delivery is a critical political skill that few Republican leaders have had since Ronald Reagan.

In a nutshell, Palin did the four things that she had to do. She offered repeated endorsements of John McCain and a comprehensive rationale for supporting him. She provided sharp criticism of the Democratic presidential candidate. As a newcomer, she demonstrated intelligence, ease with substantive matters, humor, and natural talent sufficient to explain why McCain chose her as his running mate. And she introduced herself and her family on her terms.

Introducing oneself should be a no-brainer for a candidate. But Palin had been through the wringer in the five days since her introduction as McCain’s surprise V.P. pick. Given the media attacks on her as a nobody, a distraction, an obviously bad mother running for office with a newborn at home, and a failed mother of a pregnant teenage daughter—as well as crass attacks on that daughter—taking back her story was an important, if delicate, task. (At the Democratic Convention, the Obamas had to reclaim their own story for the opposite reason: the press had treated them so gingerly that they seemed alien.)

Palin introduced her family in a straightforward, proud-mother way, with no hint of defensiveness. She referred to her daughters as “strong and good-hearted,” a rebuke to her pregnant daughter’s detractors. She touched hearts by noting the unique challenges that accompany having a special-needs baby—her newborn son has Down syndrome. Pronouncing herself an advocate in the White House for all parents in similar situations turned her maternal protectiveness into a political asset. Similarly, in presenting herself as the mother of an Iraq-bound soldier, she personalized her endorsement of McCain as commander in chief. Her counterpart in the Democratic Party, Joe Biden, has an Iraq-bound son, too, but he did no such thing for his running mate. She called herself a hockey mom, and her deft joke—“They say the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull: lipstick!”—conveyed willingness to fight hard in a feminine context. Any female would-be leader must present herself as simultaneously tough and feminine; since those qualities often undercut one another, the line was brilliant.

Palin also turned the Obama campaign’s derision of her experience as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska into a plus. She rooted herself in a hometown (where is Barack Obama rooted?). Her drawling explanation that “a small town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that that you have actual responsibilities,” had the crowd laughing with her, and set up a direct contrast between the GOP’s vice-presidential candidate and the Democrats’ presidential candidate on the key matter of experience. (She wins, and McCain rises above both.) And her small-town riff—“We tend to prefer candidates who don’t talk one way in Scranton and another way in San Francisco”—allowed her to swipe at Obama’s remark about rural dwellers who cling to religion and guns. It made the job of Scranton native Biden, assigned to win back the working class, harder.

Palin discussed her career as a reformer, her commitment to ethics, and, centrally, her efforts to restore government to “the people.” One of these—giving Alaskans back their money by selling the state jet (on eBay, no less), was funny, memorable, and spoke to one of the central planks of the McCain platform: fiscal responsibility. Palin also described putting ethics reform into law and reminded the audience that Senator Obama had no laws to his credit. Further, she attacked Obama’s “tax and grow the government” ethos, inviting working-class citizens to question how higher taxes would help them. Those working-class voters, not feminists, are the constituency she is targeting.

Most impressively, Palin, the foreign-policy novice, used her genuine expertise on energy issues, and her history of pushing back against oil companies, to deliver a brief but sophisticated discussion of how America’s energy vulnerability affects its dealings with various adversaries, connecting it to Vladimir Putin’s efforts to control the Georgia pipeline. That was sharp writing, enabling Palin to share foreign-policy substance without making it look forced. On energy policy, she offered concrete solutions: “Starting in January . . . we’re going to lay pipelines.”

Palin articulated her points so that average citizens could insert themselves into the pictures she painted. She concluded by making the case for John McCain’s character, experience, leadership, and readiness to be commander in chief in a dangerous world. Her performance helped validate McCain’s own political judgment in selecting her. And she spoke straight to the American people throughout. That is an astonishing amount for one speech to accomplish.

Lisa Schiffren was a speechwriter for Vice President Dan Quayle and contributes to The Corner at National Review Online.

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