In the Crowd-In the Dark

President Obama delivers the State of the Union AddressThere’s a story speechwriters love about a man who drowned in the Johnstown Flood. When he got to Heaven he told St. Peter the flood was such an interesting experience he thought folks there might want to hear a speech about it.

St. Peter said, “Okay – but don’t make it too big a deal. Noah’ll be in the crowd.”

It’s best not to look too closely at these stories. Can’t Noah stay home if he wants? It’s Heaven! Still, it’s good to have listeners who know a lot. They have insight. One imagines Noah scowling in his seat or during the Q&A asking why the guy didn’t build an ark.

Which is why it was so disappointing to read the response to last week’s State of the Union speech by two former speechwriters turned pundits, Charles Krauthammer and Michael Gerson.

Obama’s State of the Union was unusually good. But it wasn’t free from fault. There were holes to poke. Krauthammer and Gerson should know a lot. But they miss the holes and—more important—criticize in misleading ways.  Here are a few of their classic fallacies:

  • Straw man: To face down the Chinese, Krauthammer says, “Obama wants to sink yet more monies into road and bridge repair … teachers—with a bit of high-speed rail tossed in for style. That will show the Chinese.” If that was Obama’s argument he’d have a point.  But there were many, many other Obama ideas about staying competitive.  They may be wrong.  But to pretend Obama thinks those four things by themselves will “show the Chinese” is classic straw man: rebutting an argument Obama didn’t make.
  • Red herring: Krauthammer sees irony in Obama’s call for a “Sputnik moment” when he’s killed NASA’s manned space program. If Obama’d killed NASA he’d have not an irrelevant point but a good one. But Obama just agrees with the carefully considered idea that exciting discoveries no longer need people risking their lives to blast off. That’s not ironic.  Just good science, and fiscal restraint.
  • Reductio ad absurdium: Gerson uses the old trick of parodying an analogy by substitution. To ridicule Obama’s idea of pointing to one achievement as evidence that we could accomplish others, he says, “If we can send a man to the moon, why can’t we bring Twitter within reach of every disadvantaged child?”. But Obama’s idea was more like: why can’t we unleash investment in “biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology”? You can make anything ridiculous by using ridiculous examples. Obama might be wrong. His not-original analogy wasn’t ridiculous.  Only Gerson’s examples were.
  • Either-or: If the “threat of debt” is exaggerated, Gerson says, “then [Obama] makes sense. If the threat is real, Obama … is being irresponsible.” In fact, there are many more likely possibilities than those. One example: what if the threat is genuine but the State of the Union is an impractical event to suggest a deal?

That might be the case. Both ex-speechwriters bemoan Obama’s lack of “break-through ideas” (Gerson), or saying “practically nothing” about entitlements (Krauthammer). Well, how detailed was Paul Ryan in the Minority Response? Actually the word “entitlement” never appears in Ryan’s speech. And break-through ideas?  The closest Ryan comes is a call for “limited government.” Ryan is even vaguer than Obama.

With at least some reason, though. The State of the Union has a laundry list of proposals but it is essentially the inspiration part of presidential rhetoric. Detailed proposals are the perspiration part.  Like most of us, neither party wants to look sweaty in public.

There are other fallacies and examples space won’t allow. Still, to me, the most disappointing part of their responses were not the fallacies. It came when, as Gerson ridiculed Obama’s “investment” ideas, he admitted that he once wrote a similar proposal for a State of the Union by his hero, George W. Bush.

After detailing it, Gerson says, “I have no idea if these ‘investments’ passed or made much difference.  I doubt if anyone knows.”

Am I the only ex-White House speechwriter that brought up short?

If Gerson has so little knowledge about proposals he wrote, what’s the likelihood that he knows enough to be skeptical about Obama’s?  And if Obama’s idea was similar to a proposal from a President he admired, what about taking a paragraph to consider the idea that it might be a good one?

Finally, Gerson doubts “anyone knows?” There are people who spend their careers working on those very proposals. Why not call them?

There are people who have pointed out flaws in the Obama speech. Two examples:, or Robert Samuelson, who (I think) is wrong on what’s politically possible but cogent on issues.

But the Gerson/Krauthammer approach?  Guys!  You’re giving speechwriters a bad name.  Obama also had to ride out a big flood last November. You should be incisive about the mistakes you think he’s making, not in the dark—and deceptive about why he’s still afloat. PunditWire Initials

Bob Lehrman Former White House Chief Speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore, Lehrman has written thousands of speeches for Democratic politicians at the highest levels, as well as for nonprofit heads, corporate CEOs and entertainers.

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  • Bob Griendling

    Nice analysis of what was said. But what about how the president said it? Are you as enamored by his oratorical skills as so many are? I find his delivery somewhat mechanical, and with a distracting habit of ending each line with a downward inflection, making him sound condescending.