Most speeches are written to tight deadlines. But some deadlines are tighter than others. At the Brilliant Communicators’ conference run by the European Speechwriters’ Network on 18 November, we were given a rare insight into the challenges of crafting a speech in truly exceptional circumstances.
Josh Molofsky currently works at the American embassy in London. Back in 2020, he was speechwriter for Chuck Schumer, Democrat and Minority Leader of the US Senate. In late December that year, Schumer paid tribute to Josh’s skills: “every day,” he said in a speech on the floor of the Senate, he “bring[s] poetry and organization to my thoughts.”
Two weeks later, Josh would need to do all that and more.
6 January 2021. Late afternoon. At about 2pm, the Senate had gone into emergency recess as rioters stormed the Capitol. Now, four hours later, order was being restored. Schumer, holed up at Fort McNair, had only limited knowledge of what had happened inside the Capitol. With events still unfolding, he would have to address the reconvened Senate – and about 40 million people watching on television. It was Josh’s job to find the words.
He had 45 minutes.
His thoughts turned to the ancient Greek creation myth. Out of chaos, order. Not just the usual chaos of thoughts, feelings and images inside any writer’s head as they set to work, but the terrifying chaos of an insurrection against the orderly administration of a democracy.
So: did he make a plan?
“Not at all,” Josh told me afterwards. “It entirely emerged as I worked. When you’re up against a deadline as tight as this one, you don’t have time to sketch things out. You know you simply have to begin, and hope that one item will flow to the next. That’s what happened here.”
Here’s Josh’s own account of what he wrote, together with the words as Schumer finally spoke them in the Senate.
(You can watch Schumer delivering the speech here.)
1: Set the context.
Somewhere in the background, I suspect that the elements of a classical oration are informing Josh's thinking. First, the exordium: establish the speaker's credibility – hence the personal references at the very beginning – and announce the purpose of your speech. Josh needs to find, in his words, "a common term": a way of contextualising this event for the audience. What’s just happened is unprecedented. Trumpism itself is unnervingly ahistorical. So, Josh looks to the past.
It is very, very difficult to put into words what has transpired today. I have never lived through, or even imagined, an experience like the one we have just witnessed in this Capitol. President Franklin Roosevelt set aside Dec. 7, 1941, as a day that will live in infamy. Unfortunately, we can now add Jan. 6, 2021, to that very short list of dates in American history that will live forever in infamy.
2: What happened?
Now, the narratio: tell us what happened. Paint a picture. This is enargia: what Richard Lanham calls “vigorous ocular demonstration”. By ‘seeing’ and ‘hearing’ the events in their minds' eye, the audience becomes more deeply involved, not only cognitively but emotionally.
But Schumer’s words need to do more. After all, his audience have been watching actual images of the riot all afternoon. So Josh subtly frames these events within a wider, deeper narrative.
“I’m a big believer in ‘word strings’," he said: "the use of similar terms throughout a paragraph to create a sense of coherence for the listener.” That sense of coherence is generated imaginatively: the word strings generate meaning by creating networks of associations. Here, the words ‘temple’, ‘desecrated’, ‘hallowed’, ‘shelter’ evoke the ancient idea of a sacred space polluted (in this case, literally – people defecated on the Senate floor).
“I reached for these terms because they have a very biblical significance,” Josh told me. “Schumer and I are both Jewish, and when you talk about temples being desecrated, we think of Chanukkah, a holiday about the Temple of David being destroyed, and more importantly, being re-consecrated. That’s what this speech was trying to do: re-consecrate or re-dedicate Congress to its rightful purpose.”
These word strings operate at the speed of light. Look at that word ‘stalk’, which transforms the rioters into monsters from the underworld – or maybe George Romero’s Living Dead. A single word sparks a direct imaginative connection, flashing in under the radar of rational thought.
This temple to democracy was desecrated, its windows smashed, our offices vandalized. The world saw Americans' elected officials hurriedly ushered out because they were in harm's way. The House and Senate floors were places of shelter until the evacuation was ordered, leaving rioters to stalk these hallowed halls. Lawmakers and our staffs, average citizens who love their country, serve it every day, feared for their lives. I understand that one woman was shot and tragically lost her life. We mourn her and feel for her friends and family.
And then the images are objectified, so that we can reflect on them. Like Greek heroes, we feel shame and dishonour.
These images were projected for the world. Foreign embassies cabled their home capitals to report the harrowing scenes at the very heart of our democracy. This will be a stain on our country not so easily washed away – the final, terrible, indelible legacy of the 45th president of the United States, undoubtedly our worst.
3: Name the villains and heroes.
We're moving on to the confirmatio, sometimes referred to as the 'proof'. Who’s responsible for this outrage? The perpetrators must be – if not named – at least defined.
He signals his intention by saying what they can’t be called. Then he turns - consciously or not – to synonymia: “the use of several synonyms together,” according to the trusty Silva Rhetoricae website, “to amplify or explain a given subject or term.” Synonymia “adds emotional force or intellectual clarity”, and “often occurs in parallel fashion.” As it does, more or less, here: check out the three-part list of paired definitions.
I want to be very clear: Those who performed these reprehensible acts cannot be called protesters – no, these were rioters and insurrectionists, goons and thugs, domestic terrorists. They do not represent America. They were a few thousand violent extremists who tried to take over the Capitol building and attack our democracy. They must and should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law – hopefully by this administration, if not certainly by the next. They should be provided no leniency.
The enemy is nameless. The heroes, in contrast, are named.
I want to thank the many of the Capitol Hill police and Secret Service and local police who kept us safe today, and worked to clear the Capitol and return it to its rightful owners and its rightful purpose. I want to thank the leaders, Democrat and Republican, House and Senate. It was Speaker Pelosi, Leader McConnell, Leader McCarthy and myself who came together and decided that these thugs would not succeed, that we would finish the work that our Constitution requires us to complete in the very legislative chambers of the House and Senate that were desecrated but we know always belong to the people and do again tonight.
There is, of course, one name still to be spoken.
And Josh holds that name back.
“I wasn’t quite ready to say the President was entirely to blame,” he told me; “it was happening too quickly. Hence the ‘great deal’ and ‘in good part’.”
Plenty of rhetorical devices here: opening the section, again, with a negation (‘did not happen spontaneously’, echoing ‘cannot be called protestors’); anaphora – three times ‘the president’ rings out, three times he is accused; the antithesis between ‘discourages’ and ‘encourages’; the three-part lists that pepper this section of the speech. And the rising sense of outrage is pulled under control with the resonating references back to shame and the judgement of history.
“I’d never have used the word ‘demagogic’,” said Josh, “if Schumer hadn’t used it with me on one of our phone calls leading up to the speech. Whenever I had even a hint of his thinking, I made sure it found the way into the speech, like a signpost.”
But make no mistake, make no mistake, my friends, today's events did not happen spontaneously. The president, who promoted conspiracy theories and motivated these thugs, the president who exhorted them to come to our nation's capital, egged them on – who hardly ever discourages violence and more often encourages it – this president bears a great deal of the blame. This mob was in good part President Trump's doing, incited by his words, his lies. This violence, in good part his responsibility, his ever-lasting shame. Today's events certainly – certainly – would not have happened without him. Now, January 6 will go down as one of the darkest days in recent American history. A final warning to our nation about the consequences of a demagogic president, the people who enable him, the captive media that parrots his lies and the people who follow him as he attempts to push America to the brink of ruin.
Listen to the way Schumer exploits that last phrase: it’s at 4.47 in the YouTube clip. “I used to keep track of the words that sang in his Brooklyn accent,” said Josh. “The way he pronounces ru-in with two distinct syllables always stood out to me.”
4: Point the way forward.
The peroration was the hardest part to write. (It often is.)
He tries to plug into his feelings of heartbreak and turns for inspiration to Lincoln’s first inaugural address, in 1861: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”
Schumer rejects it. Too soft.
Josh tries again, this time channelling anger. He attempts a homily: more enargia, in an effort to embed the horrors of the day in the audience’s memory.
Three hours after the attack on January 6th, after the carnage and mayhem was shown on every television screen in America, President Trump told his supporters to ‘remember this day forever.’ I ask the American people to heed his words: remember this day forever. But not for the reasons the president intends. Remember the panic in the voices over the radio dispatch; the rhythmic pounding of fists and flags at the chamber doors. Remember the crack of the solitary gunshot; the hateful and racist Confederate Flag flying through the halls of our Union; the screams of the bloodied officer crushed between the onrushing mob and a doorway to the Capitol, his body trapped in the breach…
And so on.
Schumer rejects it. Too hard. And why tell the audience to remember? It's far too early to forget.
Time is running out.
Last throw. What to do?
As we reconvene tonight, let us remember, in the end all this mob has really accomplished is to delay our work by a few hours. We will resume our responsibilities now, and we will finish our task tonight. The House and Senate chambers will be restored good as new and ready for legislating in short order. The counting of the electoral votes is our sacred duty. Democracy's roots in this nation are deep, they are strong. And they will not be undone ever by a group of thugs. Democracy will triumph, as it has for centuries.
“I can tell I wrote this quickly,” Josh explained, “because of the verb/noun pairings. The verb I want for the second sentence is 'uproot' but it’s so similar to the first that I opt for 'undone', which is something you can do to democracy but not its roots. Too late to fix, though!"
(My own view, for what it’s worth: ‘uproot’ or ‘tear out’ would have worked fine. If you set up a metaphor, follow it through. Subtly, of course.)
“This was an intensely political speech,” Josh told me. “I was supremely aware of the many audiences this speech needed to address or mollify.
“The first few paragraphs are written for a national audience – straight down the middle.
“The next two are written for the Democratic base, our most important source of political support. The fellow Republican leaders are named in gratitude as an olive branch to the centre-right.
“And the close goes back to the general audience.
“There has to be enough for everyone to say, ‘Ok, he sees it a bit like I do.’ Sometimes, you have to select the audience for the message you want them to pay attention to. Hence that tactic: ‘to my fellow Americans…’ I wanted to tell them that whatever message was about to come next was intended just for them.
“I was really writing to myself. But also to everyone who felt like I did that day.”
So, to my fellow Americans who are shocked and appalled by the images on their televisions today and who are worried about the future of this country, let me speak to you directly: The divisions in our country clearly run deep, but we are a resilient, forward-looking and optimistic people, and we will begin the hard work of repairing this nation tonight. Because here in America we do hard things. In America, we always overcome our challenges.
‘Hard things’ echoes, deliberately or otherwise, Kennedy’s 1962 ‘We choose to go to the moon’ speech. But this is a sober ending: no attempt to rouse or enthuse; rather, a sense of gritty determination and quiet optimism.
For me, the real achievement of this speech is that Josh trusts his imagination and intuition to guide him. ("Well, yes," he conceded; "and years of speechwriting experience.")
Unlike Mike Pence and Mitch McConnell, who spoke before him – you can see their tight-lipped speeches here and here – Schumer frames the appalling events of January 6 in a wider context that offers the reassurance of meaning in the face of the incomprehensible.
Just as Josh intended: order out of chaos.
And what did he learn from this experience? “Focus on the facts,” he replied. “What you’re writing is the first draft of history.”
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