Monday Morning – September 8, 2008
In this new world of changing political landscapes, Hockey Moms and Soccer Moms are pretty much synonymous. The notion that either would be different from pit-bulls in only one respect – lipstick – is enough to put a non-partisan smile on just about anyone’s face. The difference between hockey and soccer would only indicate the ready accessibility of ice. The farther north, the more likely you’d find a hockey mom, though right here in Southern California I’ve got a card carrying hockey mom for a sister. (We’ve got that ice in enclosed rinks right here even in the heat of summer.) Whether it’s hockey or soccer, the moms have become target market for politicians. Win them over, and you’ve really got something.
It seems that every political season brings a new word or phrase that permeates the discussion; this year – “vetting.” These words catch on. You’ll hear them used sparsely early on, and then the frequency proliferates until pretty soon everybody has the hang of it. For this year’s winner, the root word is vet. It’s not the noun form, which is much more familiar as in short for veterinarian. Or veteran. This would be the verb form. Turns out the root word is the same as the animal doctor – who “examines.” According to the dictionary, to vet is “to appraise, verify, or check for accuracy, authenticity, or validity” which is what Presidential candidates are supposed to do when they consider a running mate.
In this thing we call the blogosphere, I can track how often a LeaderFOCUS gets read. I can’t tell who reads it, but sometimes one of my little essays takes off. One of those is the piece I wrote called “In Praise of Oratory.” I’m not sure why, but it is the second most read piece on my blog. It somehow shows up on Internet searches, I suppose. Or it gets passed around from reader to reader. I wrote about the lost art of public speaking – and how few there are who have mastered the craft. I talked about a young politician raised by a single mom and grew up on mean streets and managed to get the attention of some of the highest rated schools in America and then emerged as a powerful rhetorician. His compelling speech at the 2004 Democrat Convention launched an unlikely career.
I’m left to scratch my head wondering why so few public leaders pay attention to the power and the benefit and the effectiveness of the classic discipline of oratory. Some of them employ brilliant speech writers who serve up powerful phrases and piercing logic and compelling punch lines, but even with the teleprompter right there, they cannot deliver those lines. If a good number-cruncher took the time, they could calculate the cost per phrase. Factor in the weighty issues that hang in the balance, you could put a staggering price tag on the value of each word. But the inability to deliver leaves those pricey sentences on the trash heap of forgotten verbiage. There’s nothing more disappointing than a politician who has the right ideas, but can’t persuade the people.
Now we’ve heard some powerful communicators these past couple of weeks. To call it oratory may be generous. But compelling. Energizing. Persuasive. If you looked and listened, you will have heard it.
I was on the airplane with Carolyn when the news broke. We just pulled up to the gate. I turned on my cell phone with the data connection, and up popped the headline. “McCain Announces His Choice for Running Mate.” I read it out loud, and suddenly, the entire passenger compartment went silent. Everyone stopped cold. They looked my direction. McCain’s eagerly anticipated pick was apparently made while we were in the air; and the secret was well kept. Everyone perked up. I looked for a familiar name in the text – Romney, Huckabee, Giuliani, Lieberman. I squinted over a name I’d never seen before – “Palin.” I had no idea how to pronounce it.
“I’ve never heard of him…” I said. Perplexed. Everyone else looked puzzled. “Pal-in” was my attempt.
A couple rows up, a guy turned and said, “Sarah Palin. Governor of Alaska.”
“Whoa,” I said in amazement as I noticed the first name. “I’ve never heard of her.“ It was one more embarrassing moment out there in a public place.
After that speech last week, Sarah Palin is no longer an unknown. With a hint of Fargo in her voice, she stepped up to the mike and after a couple minutes settling in, she launched the speech of a lifetime. Even veteran talking heads were left tongue tied. A political bomb went off. The pundits, usually self-assured and poised, were shell-shocked.
I’m not ready to call it oratory. But it was a speech. A stem-winder. A barn-burner. It connected. It launched a career. “A star is born,” one commentator said. Another called it the emergence of an “instant legend.” (That could well be an oxymoron of the first rank, but who cares?)
I’ve already confessed, I’m a soft touch for a great speech. They are all too rare these days. Somehow, I do believe that Obama raised the bar in 2004. Others, now, have trained like Olympians to reach that bar; and the effect has been nothing short of stunning. Even Hillary has improved. Obama hit the mark again in Denver. Then you’ve got Romney and Giuliani. And now, Sarah.
Staying power is no small thing in this pressure cooker of American politics. (“Was she properly “vetted” by the McCain camp?” They’ll keep asking.) As a leader, you know how hard it is to sustain serious momentum.
But on this Monday morning, maybe it’s time to put some lipstick on that pit-bull, and get after it. Just like Sarah did.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2008