Monday, May 12, 2008

Painfully Objective or Le Nez Brun?

When Richard Lugar sought the Republican Party’s nomination for President in 1996, he culled together perhaps the best political talent a Republican candidate from Indiana could have for a strategizing session during which the attendees were to hear his “stump speech.” The Lugar brain trust was comprised of old guard and young upstarts, business leaders and established figures in state and national politics, including individuals who had served as advisors in a very high executive office.

Richard Lugar gave his speech. The delivery was an awful monotone that lacked rhythm and consistently had the wrong emphasis. In the words of one attendee, “I don’t think Richard Lugar could read a Dr. Seuss story with cadence.”

This attendee waited for people to tell Senator Lugar that he was rather boring and that his speech needed major work. The group went around the table, each giving message emphasis suggestions. We should talk more about X, and less about Y, for example. But nobody asked for more pizzazz. Nobody asked for more energy. Nobody asked for the Senator to use more rhetorical devices to draw his audience in, to connect with them. Not one such comment.

Now, some may say that this was the correct response because these people knew that criticizing would be pointless; this was the best Lugar could do, and he was an "old dog." I don’t buy it. Every politician gets better when pressed. Frank O’Bannon was dreadful, but by his re-election, he owned the stump. Bart Peterson made incredible improvements. But this is because he had people around him to tell him he needed work.

I wonder how often someone doesn’t re-evaluate their own performance because they speak before a roomful of political geniuses who don’t want to wrinkle the feathers of a senior senator.

As good as Obama is on the stump, he’s still sometimes off, and I wonder if his principal consultant and campaign advisor, David Axelrod, has ever said, “Man, your new speech sucks,” or “You were really flat on that one.”

The world of politics is populated with “yes” men and women. And while optimism can be contagious and is, therefore, a valuable campaign resource, you do a disservice when you are too afraid to tell people what they need to know. And I believe the higher the office, the harder it is to speak up because people are trained to brown nose. This certainly applies among George Bush’s cabinet. Unfortunately, to quote one of my favorite sayings, “The only difference between a brown noser and a sh*t head is depth perception.” Are you listening Alberto Gonzalez?

Sadly, as thoughtful, intelligent, humane, bi-partisan, and well-respected as Richard Lugar is, he couldn’t win the Oval Office sounding like Howdy Doody. And he lost his chance to be our President, at least in part, when a roomful of very important people were too afraid to tell him.



varangianguard said...

Good post.

One certainly does not have to be an orator to be effective outside of the public eye. But, in running for President (since the advent of radio), a person certainly should have to consider being "inspiring" as a prerequisite.

Plenty of others have fallen by the same wayside for the same reason. And sometimes, that has been a real pity.

Anonymous said...

At least, Lugar has ideas and is respected world wide......his speeches are boring but he could be like Evan Bayh....a boring speaker and an empty suit also.

Anonymous said...

"Every politician gets better when pressed. Frank O’Bannon was dreadful, but by his re-election, he owned the stump."

Everybody loved Frank, but he never, ever "owned the stump." As someone who occasionally had the opportunity to help him do better, I can tell you Gov. O'Bannon listened to advice and did his best, but it was never very good.

As for Lugar, I believe he'd gotten the same advice for the same people for years and years. About the best he's been able to do is remember to smile.

And Bart Peterson has more natural speaking personality and wit than most.

That said, everybody needs criticism. And as with Gov. O'Bannon, no successful politician ever begrudges honest advice. Making use of it is something else.

Anonymous said...

O'Bannon was great one on one.

Anonymous said...

You are definitely on point in that a "yes man" or, God forbid, a team of "yes" men, can be incredibly damaging. However, there is a delicate balance warranted when you realize a candidate lacks the ability to implement your suggestions. Pouring on at that point will only shake the candidate's confidence.

It's like a PGA caddy. They may debate their player over club selection, but once the player makes his choice, the caddy better well make the pro believe he can pull the shot off to perfection.

Chris Worden said...

Anon 11:12...truer words have never been spoken regarding the tricky balancing act. You definitely have to say it the right way. BUT I've always been a fan of saying it because I just have an optimistic view that everybody can get better if they get the right instruction, even if it's only incrementally better or "relatively" better.