For President Obama on Wednesday, it might have seemed that just showing up would be a powerful enough statement.
After all, he is the first African-American president, and he stood before the Lincoln Memorial in Washington to speak on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream
Oratory demands words, not just a wave from the podium. So, how do you follow a speech that many consider the greatest of the 20th century?
For one thing, don’t try to compete, Obama said beforehand
“Let me just say for the record right now, it won’t be as good as the speech 50 years ago,” Obama said. “I just want to get that out there early.”
In his speech
, Obama was understated in alluding to his own status as president: “Because they marched, city councils changed, and state legislatures changed, and Congress changed, and, yes, eventually the White House changed.”
Twitter chimes in
Judging from Twitter, Obama’s words struck a chord with many. One wrote, “Best line from Obama today ‘The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own.’”
Meteorologist Chuck Bell tweeted
The Chicago Mayor’s Office, headed by former Obama staffer Rahm Emanuel, tweeted
Occupy Phoenix, however, was unimpressed, tweeting
Speechwriters left speechless?
Though the speech lit up social media, David Murray, editor of Vital Speeches of the Day, said he was getting no response to a post seeking comment
from speechwriters. There was also “no buzz about it with my speechwriting pals on Facebook,” he said in an email.
“Perhaps we're reaching the moment with President Obama―or the moment in the racial conversation in this country―when we all think we've heard it all,” Murray said.
Preparing for a speech
How do you prepare a leader for a speech on a topic of such historical significance? Speaking to the media in advance, several pros lifted the curtain on the thinking that goes into a major speech.
Several agreed that it was essential to strike a positive tone—although Obama’s speech also highlighted persisting injustices that the nation needs to address.
In an interview, former Clinton speechwriter Jeff Shesol, founding partner of West Wing Writers
, said the 50th anniversary was a milestone in and of itself, but especially so with an African-American in the Oval Office.
“The fact that what Dr. King would’ve regarded as improbable or even impossible 50 years ago has come to pass,” Shesol said.
A light touch
In a New York Times interview
, Jon Favreau, the president’s former top speechwriter, recalled a debate among campaign advisers about how much Obama should talk about King in his Democratic National Convention acceptance speech in 2008, which fell on the anniversary of the “Dream” speech.
“We went with a light touch,” he recalled. He told the Times
that in such moments, “you don’t have to be too self-conscious about it.”
, a freelance speechwriter who teaches writing at Georgetown, says that three things worked together to make King’s speech great: He had something of value to say. He was a gifted orator with roots in the pulpit. And he had a historical moment.
Regarding today’s address, “This is a moment for celebration,” said Long, who was formerly a speechwriter for Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson. “This is a president who could use some positivity directed his way. This is a nation that ought to be reminded it’s positive.”
Terry Edmonds, former chief speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and the first African-American to hold that position, told NBC News
that Obama faced the challenge of being perceived as too deferential to the African-American community. (Edmonds couldn't be reached for comment.)
“His message has to be about policy and his priorities about moving this country forward and lifting all boats through his efforts,” Edmonds said.
Obama did weave in references to policy, taking a swipe at “entrenched interests” that “resisted any government efforts to give working families a fair deal, marshaling an army of lobbyists and opinion makers to argue that minimum-wage increases or stronger labor laws or taxes on the wealthy…violated sound economic principles.”
Fraser P. Seitel, managing partner at Emerald Partners, says Obama stands as the culmination of all the things Dr. King fought for.
“It’s a moment that really calls for a magnificent speech,” Seitel said.
Russell Working is a staff writer for Ragan.com.