NEAL CONAN, HOST:
President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney speak almost every day throughout the campaign season, sometimes two or three times a day. They deliver everything from commencement addresses to foreign policy analyses. But at rallies and union halls, high school auditoriums, at county fairs and a thousand other venues, they offer slight variations on a set of standard remarks known as the stump speech.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
MITT ROMNEY: We know that this election is about the kind of America we will live in and the kind of America we're going to leave to future generations. Now, when it comes to the character of America, President Obama and I have very different visions.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: How will we determine our direction, not just for the next year, not just for the five years, but for the next decade, the next two decades? Because this election is not just about two candidates or two parties. It's about two fundamentally different visions of where we take America, and the stakes could not be higher.
CONAN: And people say they can't agree. As we await tonight's second presidential debate, we've invited our panel of former presidential speechwriters to discuss the components of the classic stump speech. Paul Glastris wrote for Bill Clinton. He now serves as editor-in-chief at The Washington Monthly. He's with us here in Studio 3A.
Nice to have you back.
PAUL GLASTRIS: Great to be here.
CONAN: Peter Robinson was a speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan. He joins us from the campus at Stanford University, where he's a research fellow at The Hoover Institution.
And welcome back to you, too.
PETER ROBINSON: Neal, a pleasure.
CONAN: And what is the function of the stump speech? Paul, let's start with you.
GLASTRIS: So we are used to thinking of a speech as something you turn on the TV and you hear. A stump speech is one that you don't see. It's the one the president takes around the country. And every time he gives it, even though he's given it 50 times, 99.9 percent of the people who hear it are hearing it for the first time. So it's a practiced, repetitive, the kind of thing that reporters get tired of, but audiences don't.
CONAN: Oh, boy, do they. Boy...
CONAN: If you've ever covered a campaign, after the second week or so, you can recite the stump speech as the presidential candidate goes on to do it.
And Peter, the audience is important in this case. It's, again, it's generally people who are supporting you.
ROBINSON: That's right. In the final weeks of this campaign, the purpose of the stump speech is pretty clear. It's to convey a sense of excitement that the - and I'm talking both about Romney and Obama. They both have the same fundamental task at hand every time they deliver the stump speech. It is to convey a sense of excitement, to convey the notion that they are - he, in each case, is the winner.
By the way, this business about the repetitiveness of the stump speech, that actually, if a campaign is thinking things through - and both of these presidential campaigns are, at this stage, well-functioning machines - you use that, because you put in the one paragraph that you're almost going to force the press to put up on the radio and on television that evening, because it's the only paragraph that's different from what the reporters have heard a hundred times before, just as you said.
So you can kind of put a focus on the soundbite that you want to come out of that day, while, if you're doing it well, conveying a sense of excitement. Stump speeches are different from long texts in that it needs to be participatory. You heard - it was especially good, the clip you played of President Obama, because you could here people in the background saying, yes. There's sense of participation. People want to laugh. They want to applaud. They want to participate. It is a - properly done, a stump speech isn't a speech with a speaker talking to an audience. It's a communal event.
CONAN: And, Paul Glastris, it's not just the speech as well. It's a whole production. These days - well, going back to your old boss Bill Clinton, an he was going: don't stop thinking about tomorrow. We'd play. You'd have a warm-up act. You'd have bands. You'd have, you know, it's a whole production.
GLASTRIS: It is. And this is, as Peter said, a call and response to the audience. President Obama is actually very, very good at it. He - people say - he'll say something about Romney and they'll boo. And he'll say, don't boo, vote, right?
GLASTRIS: He's community organizer. He is out there telling people this is - this election is in your hands. You should be excited. You should be bringing your dorm mates to the voting booth with you. It's a chance for him to energize his voters.
CONAN: And let's pull the switcheroo. Peter Robinson, we sent copies of the stump speeches to both of you. You listened to Barack Obama's. What about him do you find particularly effective?
ROBINSON: Oh, Barack Obama's effective, enormously effective, although Paul - I'm sure Paul and I will disagree here. I find Barack Obama very effective across a fairly narrow range. And that range is when he gets into the rhythms of what I think may properly be referred to as the African-American church, where you hear rhythms, call and response as part it. You hear, as you're listening to Barack Obama, echoes of Jesse Jackson or Dr. King or this beautiful, lovely soaring oratory. He's weaker, in my judgment, when it comes to a light touch, when it comes to humor. He is weaker, again, in my judgment, when it comes to arguing his case. He's beautiful at the kind of call and response we heard.
Mitt Romney is a little bit better, in my judgment, when it comes to making the case, arguing in a straightforward way. But Obama is just - you can't touch him when it comes to that kind of - as I say, it's a narrow range, but you just can't touch him when it comes to that beautiful, soaring oratory that echoes great African-American orators throughout American history, really.
CONAN: And, Paul Glastris, what is Mitt Romney particularly good at?
GLASTRIS: He is very prepared. He knows...
ROBINSON: As bad as that, Paul.
GLASTRIS: I mean, you imagine the fellow at the meeting with the pension fund, and he's trying to convince them to give him, you know, a million - a billion dollars. And he's got his facts and they fit together, and he makes - I agree with Peter. I think he makes an argument that he's got this all figured out. He can be trusted. Here are the five things I'm going to do. His - every Mitt Romney speech has the five points. And, you know, we can debate the truth or whatever. But they're very clear, and he repeats them and he repeats them again. And he points to his past record of turning things around. And you can almost see the guy from the pension fund writing the check. Now, it's not - Barack Obama...
ROBINSON: Or he seals the deal.
GLASTRIS: He seals the deal. Barack Obama - you come away belated and inspired from a Barack Obama - if you're a Barack Obama fan. I don't - I think you don't come away elated and inspired from a Mitt Romney stump speech, but you probably come away convinced.
ROBINSON: May I add just a little fill up? I actually don't disagree with that analysis at all. But we saw it for maybe five days when he named Ryan, and I believe we're seeing it again right now after that first debate on October 3rd. Romney is conveying a sense - this is new to him. He is conveying a sense that he's enjoying himself. There's more of a lightness of touch about Mitt Romney right now, in my judgment, than there would be about Barack Obama. New to Romney, but he's getting it across. There's a certain pleasure that he's sharing with the audience now.
CONAN: There can be - and I have covered campaigns in the past, and you guys may have participated in them - this sort of crushing moment where the candidate is bearing the burden of what everybody suspects is a losing campaign and going out there and gritting his teeth and spitting out the words.
GLASTRIS: And there's no question, I think, that Peter is right, that Romney is conveying more of a sense of fun. Prior to that, there was a kind of agitation, like turning it up to 11 to get that enthusiasm going, although I think Barack Obama, since the debate, ironically enough, seems to be enjoying himself more. He seems to be powered-up and it's more - a little more 2008 than we'd seen in the weeks prior.
CONAN: And does the stump speech - as you say Peter Robinson, he could insert that desired paragraph into a speech so that you're certain a local news in Youngstown, Ohio will focus on that and maybe the national papers and the networks will pick up on it as well. But does the speech evolve over time?
ROBINSON: Oh, well, I can talk about working for President Reagan and President George H.W. Bush. And the answer there is that with President Reagan, it did tend to evolve because the president himself was making notes, adding passages. With President - so you could actually see him - not only would the stump speech evolve as the campaign progressed, but Ronald Reagan was so technically adept, so in tune with his audience that you could see - you can almost see that twinkle in his eye before he do an adlib or he'd feel that there was a need for a joke. He had a flat moment, he'd insert a laugh. You could see him adjusting his speech as he delivered it.
With President George H.W. Bush, he was a more of Romney figure, in the sense that he could make the argument and stay with the text. But it was - it didn't come naturally to him. So there the speech evolved because people held meetings and decided that this paragraph - it evolved in the speechwriting shop, so to speak, rather than being driven by the president.
But the answer is, sure it evolves. These guys are paying - these guys, by these guys, I mean the candidates themselves, of course, but their advisers - when you talked about it - Paul will remember this as well. You mentioned, Neal, that this is a big production. You'll have local political figures on the stage with a candidate. You will also have staffers standing in the back of the room or off to the side of the crowd, including speechwriters, making careful notes on what worked and what didn't. And if something didn't work, they'd fix it for the next speech.
CONAN: Every once in a while, stabbing themselves playfully in the stomach.
CONAN: But, Paul...
GLASTRIS: So I think Mitt Romney - I was just talking to my friend, the blogger Steve Benen, who's read every Romney speech for eight months. And I asked exactly this question...
GLASTRIS: ...because I have not, I have to confess. And what he said was that it's remarkably stable. The speeches remain remarkably the same. What's changed is he - in recent weeks, maybe months, he's added more human touches. I met this guy and he's a plumber and - whatever, worried about the debt. There's been more of that.
CONAN: All those plumbers seem to be from swing states.
GLASTRIS: They - yeah, that's right. That's right...
GLASTRIS: ...and they all have one-syllable names. And what you also see is the, you know, whatever the latest shiny object of cutting criticism will be, it's a - he didn't build that. That'll be in there for a week or so until it's played out, and then the next one, they'll put that in there. But very much the same practiced speech, whereas my sense is the Obama speech has changed more.
ROBINSON: Hmm. That's Paul Glastris, editor-in-chief of The Washington Monthly, previously Clinton speechwriter back in the Bill Clinton administration. And also with us, of course, is Peter Robinson, former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, now a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And, Peter, you mentioned the writing shop. Is this speech, more than most, a product of committees?
Well, I can't actually - I don't quite know how it varies from candidate to candidate and from White House to White House. Paul and I know each other well enough to talk. The Clinton operation was very different from the George H. W. Bush operation, which was different in turn from the Reagan operation. In the final weeks of the campaign, typically what's happening is that the speech is being adjusted by one or two writers who are traveling with the candidate. That has the advantage that you got a couple of people on the scene watching the way crowds are responding.
It has the disadvantage, at least, I always felt it was a danger, in that when you're on the campaign plane, it's very easy for a kind of groupthink to settle in and to lose the thread of what the new story of that morning might be. But typically, it's in the - at this stage in the campaign, the speech is set in its fundamentals and is being adjusted typically by people traveling with the candidate who are making relatively fine adjustments.
GLASTRIS: Well, in my experience, these decisions are often made above the heads of speechwriters, right?
GLASTRIS: You've got political consultants. You've got pollsters. You've got strategists saying, you know, here are some language that we'd like. I think - so the speechwriters then try to take that language and make it into something, you know, loftier and more solicitous and easily understood, then they fight back. But there's a battle over language in any campaign, in any administration. And so, speechwriters have a lot of power, but often the decisions are above their pay grade.
CONAN: We can't let you go without, of course, we're looking for the town hall debate tonight at Hofstra University on Long Island. And not so much what do the candidates have to do, but how do they have to address this particular kind of audience, which Paul Glastris says, is unlike, well, the debate format we saw a couple of weeks ago, where the candidates were on stage and Jim Lehrer, the moderator, said, hey, no applause, no laughs. This is going to be a very different format.
GLASTRIS: Right. And this is not like a stump speech where we're with supporters. This is a - these are undecided voters who are going to have their questions that are not - the candidate is not going to know in advance. They're going to have to be very prepared. They're going to have to be empathetic. They're going to have to be specific. And they're going to talk less to each other and more to the voters, which, I think, will be an interesting format.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. And, Peter...
ROBINSON: No. To me, that's the key distinction. In the first debate, Romney, in my judgment, was the dominant figure largely because he kept looking directly at Barack Obama, and President Obama, for reasons unknown to me, kept looking down at his podium. So Romney is making eye contact with Obama. He's pushing against Obama in terms of arguments, but also just at the kind of animal level. He was just standing up to Obama. In a forum like this, you've got to be a human - you have to make a human connection with each of the questioners, and viewers will listen, of course, to what the candidate answers.
But there's also that moment the camera will go to the person asking the question. You can also tell on the television whether the person who asked the question felt that he or she has been dealt with fairly, completely, whether there's a look of satisfaction on that person's face. As the candidate, you want that look.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. And do you look directly at that person waiting for that moment and then stop?
GLASTRIS: Well, you know, there's a famous moment that Peter will remember maybe not fondly, where an audience member...
ROBINSON: Oh, the watch. Always the watch.
GLASTRIS: Yes. The audience member asked first President Bush and then Governor Clinton, you know, how has the deficit affected you personally? And President Bush kind of didn't get it. He - it was kind of an odd question, and he asked the questioner to repeat the question and gave a kind of a clumsy answer. Bill Clinton, seeing that happened, looked directly at the woman and said, let me tell you how it's affected me. I'm a governor of a small state. When a business goes under, I know those people. And he went on and just locked his glare on that woman and answered the question that was actually on her mind and hit it out of the park. And that's the kind of thing that both of these candidates would like to be able to do.
ROBINSON: I thought Paul was referring to the horrible moment when President Bush glanced at his watch as if to say, how much longer does this debate last? But what he conveyed was, how much longer must my administration last?
ROBINSON: But that's exactly right. That is exactly right. People will - some people in the audience - we won't know until it unfolds this evening. But some people in the audience, they are standing before two very famous men, one of them the president of the United States. And I couldn't agree more that you want to answer the question the questioner asks, but deeply. You want to answer the question behind the question if you possibly can. This will be tricky. This will be tricky. They have to look at each other. They have to pay attention to the moderator and they have to answer - they have to make human contact with one person after another.
CONAN: Paul Glastris and Peter Robinson, as always, thanks very much for your time. We appreciate it.
GLASTRIS: Glad to be here.
ROBINSON: Neal, pleasure. Paul, take care.
GLASTRIS: You too, sir.
CONAN: It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.