Pierre Trudeau delivered the best speech of his career at Montreal’s Paul-Sauvé Arena on May 14, 1980. The Parti Québécois, the secessionist party led by René Lévesque, had recently called for a referendum on sovereignty. Staring into the eye of a separatist storm, Trudeau had gathered a four-man team of advisers to help him plan his prime-ministerial appearances. The speech the PM delivered that Wednesday night, however, was penned by him alone. The day before, Quebec’s minister of intergovernmental affairs Claude Morin showed Trudeau a small press clipping from the Globe and Mail reporting that Lévesque had attacked his middle name as English. While André Brunelle, his chief speech writer, went off in search of PQ caucus members with similarly Anglo names, Trudeau wrote what Montreal Gazette journalist L. Ian MacDonald would describe as the “intellectual coup de grâce of the referendum campaign.”
MacDonald describes the atmosphere at Paul-Sauvé like that of a “rock concert,” where “a sweating, surging crowd” unleashed cries of “Trudeau!” Speaking in French, the PM launched into a part-tirade, part-meditation on what it means to be Canadian. Addressing himself directly to the undecided, he asked voters to choose love over pride and promised constitutional reform. Just as he finished attacking “the hucksters of the ‘Yes’ vote,” Trudeau tackled the issue of his middle name:
Of course, my name is Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Yes, Elliott was my mother’s name. It was the name borne by the Elliotts who came to Canada more than two hundred years ago. It is the name of the Elliotts who more than one hundred years ago settled in Saint-Gabriel-de-Brandon, where you can still see their graves in the cemetery. That is what the Elliotts are. My name is a Quebec name, but my name is a Canadian name also.
With that, he dismissed the idea of pure-laine Quebecers, reminding the province that everyone could claim a drop of English or Irish blood. Six days later, the federalist “Non” campaign pulled in 59.6 percent of the vote. Trudeau’s speech, widely seen as a turning point in the battle against the Péquistes, was a speech for the TV age: confessional, repetitious and driven by self-conscious chutzpah. It is impossible to know whether days of conferring over message and wording with his advisers would have produced something less or more powerful. What is clear is that it worked, and that no prime minister since has been as eloquent on any subject.
Now imagine if Paul Martin, Stephen Harper or Jack Layton had returned from the Christmas break with an address like this one. Imagine one of these men standing before the nation and speaking as though they’d given an issue serious consideration, as though they were really sticking their neck out, as though they actually knew what sentence was coming next.
When Canadians grouse about political stasis and voter malaise, they typically point to policy failures and weak leadership. But what about speech writing? No one gives it any thought. For many, speeches are little more than the pretty facades politicians erect over policy. To ignore their speeches, to say nothing of the people who pen them, is to overlook the most direct connection we have with our elected leaders. If federal politics are leaving Canadians cold, it could have something to do with the way politicians have been talking to us.
Speech writing has always been a political sine qua non in the United States, where Americans talk about craft in ways that Canadians don’t. NBC’s The West Wing has done much to demystify the practice, revealing it as a stunningly difficult job, one that requires a complex understanding of language, policy, history, philosophy and religion. In her 1990 memoir, What I Saw at the Revolution, former Reagan and Bush Senior speech writer Peggy Noonan goes so far as to say that speech writing “invented” both presidencies.
By this, Noonan means that every administration defines itself—its intellectual style, its ideological character—the moment it is forced to explain its ideas to the nation. A good speech takes a wonkish concept and marries it to an accessible voice, often providing a starring role to sweeping words like “justice,” “freedom,” “fairness” and “compassion.” If the speech can pull this off, there’s a chance it can inspire passion for a specific initiative—or, at the very least, shape the direction of the debate. According to Jimmy Carter’s former aide Hamilton Jordan, the use of speech writers can mean the difference between success or failure. “When a president says something,” he argues, “it moves pending issues, policies and thinking in one direction or another and often defines the terms on which the battle, in Congress or among the voters, will be fought.”
David Lockhart agrees. Lockhart is the head and sole member of Lockhart Communications in Ottawa. He wrote speeches for Paul Martin when Martin was finance minister, had a hand in Ralph Goodale’s 2004 budget speech and penned Ujjal Dosanjh’s address at the Canadian Medical Association’s annual conference in August 2005. Though he’s a freelancer, Lockhart still feels he plays a role in how policy is expressed and greeted.
“There comes a time when all these high-minded discussions about policy and direction have to find roots on paper,” he explains. “And how you choose to interpret what’s being discussed around you shapes what the public will think or see and hear. How far you characterize something, even the adjectives you use, the emphasis you give it—it can certainly colour the type of impression the speech leaves.”
Lockhart, however, is a Canadian speech writer, which means he lives in a country where his profession is afforded little consideration. In the US, a thriving community exists—exemplified by the Washington Round Table and the Judson Welliver Society, of which all former presidential speech writers are members; but, in Canada, speech writers seem a lonely, isolated breed. It was only in April 2004 that the Thomas D’Arcy McGee Roundtable was established. Its mandate is to toast the birthday of Canada’s great mythmaker and to share speech-writing advice.
Speech writing, reflects Dennis Gruending, is “not an academic or intellectual discipline that anyone here seems to have taken on.” Gruending recently edited the Great Canadian Speeches collection, which catalogues the best of Canadian oratory since 1835. Its publication in 2004 marked the first time in almost one hundred years that someone thought to compile such a selection. He began working on the book while writing speeches for Saskatchewan premier Lorne Calvert. During his lunch breaks, Gruending would stroll over to the public library in search of examples of notable Canadian speech writing. He found shelves replete with anthologies of speeches from other nations. There were tomes devoted to the great oratory of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Martin Luther King. There were books like Garry Wills’s Lincoln at Gettysburg and Thurston Clarke’s Ask Not, a work entirely devoted to John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address. Where, he asked himself, were the books on Canadian speeches?
“The Americans not only pay attention to the speeches, but the speeches seem to be more of a genre there,” Gruending notes. Even now that his time spent perusing old Hansards and Empire Club digital archives is over, the former CBC Saskatchewan radio personality still has no answer for why young Canadians in the nineteen-sixties memorized John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech and not Lester B. Pearson’s gorgeous Nobel Prize acceptance oration.
Lockhart thinks he knows why. As a country founded through revolution, tempered by civil war and large-scale conflicts, the United States has been forced to constantly re-articulate its values using what Lockhart calls “set-piece speeches”—at conventions, inaugurals and state-of-the-unions. At every point of crisis, speech writing has been used to catalyze change, forge a new identity and heal old wounds. That’s why presidential speeches continually allude to the nation’s history, to the touchstone phrases of past leaders and to the values upon which the nation was founded. As Kathleen Hall Jamieson argues in Eloquence in an Electronic Age, each great speech by a president essentially retells the story of the nation anew, painting over embarrassing missteps and rededicating the populace to a glorious future toward which all are marching.
In Canada, we don’t expect our politicians to do that. As Lockhart argues, “We tend to be suspicious of people who put themselves out there and say, ‘Look at me. Listen to me.’ We like our politicians to be reluctant leaders.”
Lockhart admits he hasn’t read Great Canadian Speeches yet. When he does, he’ll find that pivotal moments in our history have called upon Canadian orators to respond with eloquence. One of the finest of these speeches occurred in 1862. As the American Civil War raged down south, Canadian politicians began discussing the idea of uniting the northern British colonies. One of the most aggressive advocates for a federation that would declare independence from the Queen was Irish-born Montreal politician and author Thomas D’Arcy McGee. That year—and two years before the pivotal Charlottetown Conference, where these concerns were given their first official airing—McGee gave a speech in the Canadian legislature, making the following pronouncement:
We can hardly join the Americans on our own terms, and we never ought to join them on theirs. A Canadian nationality—not French-Canadian, nor British-Canadian, nor Irish-Canadian: patriotism rejects prefix—is, in my opinion, what we should look forward to, that is what we should labour for, that is what we ought to be prepared to defend to the death. …There is room enough in this country for one great free people; but there is not room enough, under the same flag and same laws, for two or three angry, suspicious nationalities.
Historian Josephine Phelan writes that, while members of the House “cheered” McGee’s speech, they “feared to face the idea that inspired it.” The union of the British North American colonies had been a political dream for years, but few believed it could happen with any hurry. If a union was to come about, most conceded it would have to occur naturally. McGee’s speeches were in many ways responsible for expediting Confederation.
How do you swing the populace with words? Obviously, McGee’s ultimate success had a lot to do with his perseverance. But it didn’t hurt that he elevated his message to the level of poetry. McGee understood that effective rhetoric relies on the well-orchestrated use of contrast. The first sentence in the excerpt above acts like a mirror, the second clause imperfectly reflecting the first. The sentence is made especially powerful because the second clause contains fewer syllables than its predecessor. As a result, McGee is able to dwell over the long vowels of the sentence’s first half before punching on to the finish. He employs the same mirror effect in the closing sentence, constructing an antithesis that defines what can and then what will never work. As Max Atkinson argues in Our Master’s Voices, antithetical, self-mirroring sentences yield a stronger audience reaction. They direct the listener to the “clap cue.” Moreover, these sentences inscribe themselves more indelibly on the memory. Or, as Phelan writes, “His words stirred the slow imaginations of his listeners and warmed their enthusiasm. It was not quick to take fire, but once alight it could be expected to burn with a steady flame.”
Two technological innovations ultimately refashioned the basic ingredients of McGee’s redolent Victorian rhetoric. The advent of radio during the Great Depression required a more conversational rhythm, one which Tommy Douglas and Bill Aberhart came to master. Soon after, television changed the emphasis from speech writing—that is, writing as a source of poetry and edification—to speech making: stagecraft based on poise and sex appeal. This was famously exemplified in the 1960 Nixon–Kennedy presidential debate; Nixon’s five o’clock shadow doomed him to defeat against JFK’s taught youthfulness.
Canada found its first TV politician in Trudeau. He was cool. He exuded insouciance. He responded with quips rather than coherent paragraphs. He wore sandals in the Commons and did pirouettes behind the backs of foreign leaders. He also employed a huge team of speech writers.
Previous prime ministers had often given speeches written by others, but Trudeau was the first to institutionalize the practice. Just because he kept wordsmiths on the payroll, however, didn’t mean he gave them access to his thoughts. The best politician–speech writer relationships, like the one between JFK and Theodore Sorensen, depend on the writer’s ability to penetrate the speaker’s anima. In The Kennedy Men, biographer Laurence Learner writes that “at his best, Sorensen did not simply write speeches but channelled himself into Jack’s psyche and intellect.” Unlike Sorensen, Trudeau’s speech writers were kept at arm’s length from their leader’s mind. As former press secretary Patrick Gossage writes in Close to the Charisma, “Trudeau demands a lot of his staff but befriends them rarely…Perhaps the speech writers are the most cruelly disadvantaged by this system—Joan Forsey, Jim Moore, Jean LeMoyne. I saw LeMoyne almost in tears the day before a speech, text in hand, ready, but having consulted with absolutely nobody.”
Since then, this has been the fate of too many Canadian speech writers. Talk to any in Ottawa and they will tell you that, more often than not, they don’t get to speak with politicians directly. Instead, they’re given thick tomes of material on official policy and forced to google their way toward some idea of what makes that person tick. Speech-writing veteran and instructional guru Wendy Cherwinski, of Ottawa’s Echelon Communications, explains that searching for TV footage of a politician and hunting for anecdotal biographical information helps give her speeches the flavour of authenticity. But inserting a story about the speaker’s baby daughter doesn’t mean your speech was grown organically from the politician’s real feelings on an issue. Without the intimacy born of conversation, it’s no wonder modern political oratory has never become a real force in this country.
The key, most speech writers say, is finding the speaker’s authentic voice. Different speakers have different natural rhythms and oral peculiarities. Noonan ascribes much of her success to her experience scriptwriting for Dan Rather at CBS. Gradually, she found herself talking like Rather, telling friends they looked “like [they] were rode hard and put to bed wet.” Ted Sorensen used to imitate Kennedy on the phone. Lockhart reflects that one of the advantages he had starting out in the business was that, previously, he’d written summaries of the House of Commons’ question period for the Ontario government. Once he was installed in Ottawa, writing for many of the figures he’d watched as a youngster, Lockhart discovered he had internalized many of their voices.
Of course, it doesn’t help that many of this country’s political elite have proven incapable of lighting their audiences on fire. Nothing saps the national mojo like the image of one of our politicians at the lectern. It’s agonizing to watch someone deliver a speech they didn’t write or that they’ve hardly read. Their eyes flit back to the paper, their speech is halting. As with a script, a speech is only as good as the actor delivering it.
Oddly enough, David Lockhart describes Paul Martin as the ideal client. When Lockhart was hired to work on the 2000 budget speech for the finance minister, he was invited to a slew of ministry meetings. “I would just sit there and absorb and at some point he would say, ‘I think we need a draft.’” The process gave Lockhart a sense not only of the direction the ministry wanted to go with its budget, but of how Martin spoke about the budget’s contents away from the microphone.
But was Paul Martin a stirring orator? His budget speeches helped convince Canadians to stand behind decades of slashing, but did he inspire the country? Despite his willingness to engage in the speech-writing process, Paul Martin clearly lacked rhetorical verve and charisma. Good drama teachers will tell you that you cannot get a message across to your audience unless you understand and communicate the stakes at play. Beyond a clever phrase and a cogent argument, you need something even more important: passion.
Gruending identified the most politically important speech of 2005 as the one Paul Martin delivered last April, promising to call an election within thirty days of the publication of the Gomery Commission report. “The thing is,” he reflects, “the stakes were not monumental. It was about the survival of a political party. It’s not the stuff that allows you to move nations.”
He compares that speech to those routinely delivered by Stephen Lewis, the UN’s special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. “I’ve heard him speak a couple of times,” Gruending exclaims, “and he’s talking about really important things…The stakes are monumental, and he’s got an incredible amount of passion. He’s got a message and the ability to deliver it. He’s got a way of using language that’s almost a throwback. You go to Lewis and you’re mesmerized.”
Gruending warns us not to assume the art of speech making is in decline. Each age, he argues, has only a handful of sterling orators. But his Martin–Lewis comparison suggests an important lesson. Since the great gladiatorial Mulroney–Turner showdown over free trade in the 1988 prime-ministerial debate, the most passionate speeches have come out of the mouths of separatists, West Coast anti-Meechers, environmental and AIDS activists and socially committed academics. David Suzuki, Lucien Bouchard, Sunera Thobani, Stephen Lewis and Michael Ignatieff—these are the people speaking with passion to the great issues of the day.
If, as Gruending and so many others argue, a good speech relies more on genuine emotion than on the science of rhetoric, why are those in the centre of our political stage so unable to summon up the fervour?
Speech writers are ghostwriters. Tom Porteous, who penned speeches for Trudeau in the late nineteen-sixties and early seventies recently told the Vancouver Courier that “the existence of the speech writer is a kind of rebuke to the politician.” Porteous doesn’t get a mention in Trudeau’s Memoirs; nor does Noonan in Reagan’s An American Life. When a politician stands up before the public, we need to believe the speech is uniquely their own.
As Lockhart reminds me, “What can justify the lack of acknowledgement of speech writers on behalf of the politicians is that, at the end of the day, they’re still the ones who have to go up there in public and deliver it. It’s their career on the line. They have to pay the consequences.”
Trouble for a speech writer comes in instances when he or she has located the voice needed to make a speech work, but is told the language is too strong. According to those I talked to, speech writers are often taken to task for pushing their rhetoric—the very thing that makes the world’s great speeches great. “What I’ve found with politicians,” Lockhart exclaims, “is that they aren’t as willing to take chances with language or ideas…And I think part of the reason is, they’re afraid of being accused by the media of overreaching. ‘Oh, listen to that highfalutin guy!’ You know: ‘Who does he think he is, Martin Luther King?”
Politicians do have to be careful; former MP Carolyn Parrish’s rants are a good example of how outrage, if ineptly expressed, can be embarrassing. Yet, the notion that the electorate does not want poetry and passion in its leaders is deeply flawed. Just look at Governor General Michaëlle Jean’s wildly popular installation speech. True, she does not need to concern herself with polls and approval ratings. But the astonishing reaction to her statement suggests that deep reflection and resolve are still excellent ways to get the public to pay attention. They’re also useful tools for changing the terms of an unfavourable debate. Dogged by allegations that she was a separatist sympathizer, Jean used her swearing-in to offer a fluent, bold and moving disquisition on the changing face of Canada. In one sentence that for weeks afterwards made the political-highlight section of newspapers and news programs across the country, she stated simply: “The time of the ‘two solitudes’ that for too long described the character of this country is past.”
With those words, the GG proposed a new national focus, which drew groans of displeasure from the separatist ranks (on the day of the speech, a Quebec poll showed support for independence at 50 percent) and perfect marks from conservative pundits like John Ibbitson (“Her promise is the promise of what we almost are, of what we want to be.”) and Andrew Coyne (“It was uplifting without being Pollyanna-ish, tender yet tough-minded, vigorous, audacious.”). In short, she ignited a discussion.
In the eighteen-sixties, McGee approached his task with a missionary zeal, building a bridge of words by which Canadians could imagine—and then come to believe—in a collective future. He had a dream in which he could “see in the not-remote distance, one great nationality bound like the shield of Achilles by the blue rim of ocean.” Today, it’s easy to forget that politics even happens in Canada. We’re little more than a large world city spread out across 10 million square kilometres. Yet if it’s true that “great oratory demands great issues,” as Cicero said—a man whose deft use of direct address sent Catiline fleeing from Rome (“When, O Catiline, do you mean to cease abusing our patience? How long is that madness of yours still to mock us?”)—then the time could not be better suited for passionate, articulate Canadian orators. There’s Kyoto, cities and international aid. There’s the structure of federalism, health care and, of course, the renewed and rising spectre of separatism in Quebec. Perhaps there’s hope someone new can put us back on the sort of high-minded, philosophical course that Trudeau was charting.
For the moment, however, the main issue seems to be the political establishment’s expectations of what they think Canadians want from them. The status quo—speech writers rarely meeting those they write for and passing their product through numerous filters to make sure that it’s clear, safe and rhetorically civil—seems designed to ensure the next edition of Great Canadian Speeches will omit politicians altogether.