In a prior life and century I worked for a controversial Vice President named Spiro Agnew who delivered fiery speeches denouncing, among other things, what he called “instant analysis” of presidential speeches.
Instant analysis, a feature of the television age, took place when, immediately following a presidential address, a panel of talking heads appeared on TV screens to tell us not only why the President said what he said, but what was wrong with it. In short order that practice spread to the print media as reporters, once given only to reporting the news, felt it necessary to interpret it for what a new generation of journalists viewed as the dim-bulb masses.
Agnew’s speeches on the subject, delivered in Des Moines, Iowa, and Montgomery, Alabama in October 1969, were in turn instantly analyzed by his media critics as being “an attack on the First Amendment.” The Vice President, it was written and said by media pundits from Walter Lippmann to CBS’s Eric Sevareid, aimed at producing a “chilling effect” that would inhibit if not stifle critics in a free American press.
If that was Agnew’s aim, he missed his mark badly. Far from being chilled, media critics of presidential speeches since that time have been, if anything, overheated. Take, for example, the instant analysis of President Obama’s speech last week on the ongoing crisis in the Middle East.
Though no fan of Obama’s loquacious style of making a point, I thought his speech that night, while predictable, was direct and effective. But no sooner than he finished, a bevy of instant analysts, notably led by CNN’s David Gergen (of Gerald Ford speechwriting fame) and Chris Matthews (of Jimmy Carter speechwriting fame) were on-screen to tell us how bad it was.
All of which brought to mind a piece I wrote back in my Agnewesque days, imagining what a 20th century (now 21st century) press would have to say about a presidential speech made in a small Pennsylvania town in mid-autumn of 1863 . . .
GETTYSBURG, Pa. – Nov. 19 – President Lincoln, in what White House aides billed as a “nonpolitical” speech, dedicated a military cemetery here today before a sparse, unresponsive crowd estimated by local authorities as fewer than 300 people.
In a tactical move clearly designed to get the political jump on Gen. George B. McClellan, his probable Democratic opponent next year, Mr. Lincoln made one of his rare trips outside Washington to visit this vote-rich Keystone State. Judging by early reaction to his appearance, however, the White House strategy appears to have backfired.
Not only was the President’s address sharply criticized by political experts for being too brief, but he was upstaged by the main speaker of the day, the brilliant public orator Edward Everett. Moreover, Mr. Lincoln’s glaring failure even to mention McClellan or Gen. George Meade, the victorious Union commander of the battle fought here in July, cast doubt on White House staff claims that the trip was “purely nonpolitical.”
One veteran political observer, noting recent charges that the Lincoln Administration has created a “credibility gap” between itself and the public, termed the President’s omission of McClellan’s and Meade’s names from his speech text “a serious blunder that will come back to haunt him in next year’s election.”
“This is another example of the sloppy White House staff work that has plagued the Administration since the day Lincoln took office,” commented another observer on receiving news that the President’s speech has been hurriedly scribbled on the back of an envelope en route to the speech site.
White House spokesmen vehemently denied this rumor, claiming that Mr. Lincoln had “worked over two drafts of the speech before he left Washington.”
While debate went on regarding the manner in which the speech was drafted, there was general agreement with the opinion rendered by a visiting professor of oratory from the University of Pennsylvania that the President’s address was “a dud.”
Mr. Lincoln delivered his remarks in the same high-pitched, vaguely irritating Midwestern inflection that has characterized his past public addresses. Another criticism was that the speech, in the words of one Gettysburg resident, “didn’t say anything we haven’t already heard.”
“My family and I came out here to see and listen to the President of the United States and all we got was a puny two minutes,” said one outraged localite.
Mr. Lincoln remained unsmiling throughout his visit to this small eastern Pennsylvania village. Aides claimed the President’s solemn demeanor was simply “appropriate to the occasion,” but knowledgeable Washington sources have indicated that serious problems in Mr. Lincoln’s home life more likely account for his grim public visage in recent months.
In support of this view, it was noted that Mrs. Lincoln did not accompany the President here.
Another significant absentee from the speaker’s platform was Vice President Hannibal Hamlin. Rumors persist that Mr. Lincoln plans to dump Mr. Hamlin as a running mate next year in favor of a Border State Democrat who would be more helpful in pursuing his Administration’s Southern Strategy.
The President, who has not held a major news conference in two years, refused reporters’ requests that he answer questions following his address. In the speech itself, Mr. Lincoln said that the men who died in the battle here gave their lives in order “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
However, the President, who was elected three years ago on a pledge to preserve the Union, once again failed to provide details on any fresh Administration initiative to achieve this objective.
Sound Bites to Remember
“Nattering nabobs of negativism.”
— Spiro Agnew’s description of Democratic critics of the Nixon Administration, words written by speechwriter William Safire, 1970.
“An effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.”
— Spiro Agnew’s description of antiwar demonstrators, words written by Spiro Agnew, 1969.