Speeches For Uncertain Times

November 25, 2001

Mary Ann Travis
Phone: 865-5714

Uncertainty cries out for communication. Since Sept. 11, people have talked to friends, discussed with family the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington and shared with co-workers the latest startling anthrax information. We’ve also watched and listened to political leaders, looking for reassurance that our concerns are being addressed and hoping to gain insight into the unprecedented events of the past few weeks.

John Patton, professor of communication, says that uncertainty is a reason we attempt to communicate so that we can reduce uncertainty or find ways of handling it. Patton has studied many historical political speeches. And now he’s seen history in the making, especially in speeches by U.S. President George W. Bush and Great Britain Prime Minister Tony Blair as they have tried to help their constituents and people around the world process what has happened. What can we compare it to? That is one question Bush and Blair have had to answer, says Patton.

“We can only process things based on what we have some level of experience with or knowledge about in the past.” That’s why the round of applause was resounding when Bush in his televised speech to Congress on Sept. 20 compared al-Quida terrorism to the “murderous ideologies” of fascism, Nazism and totalitarianism.

The good-versus-evil explanation is simple and effective, Patton says. Everyone can understand Bush’s either/or message when he says, “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

But Bush has other, more complex messages to articulate. In order to form and maintain the international coalition and foster tolerance toward Arab Americans, he has to persuade audiences that the terrorists are not representative of the Muslim world. In his speech, Bush carefully made the distinction that “this is not a fight against the Islamic world; this is a fight against terrorism.”

Bush has to calm the fears of the American people while stiffening their resolve for what he predicts will be a long struggle. For a president whose public discourse before Sept. 11 often seemed “hesitant and cliche-driven,” Patton says, Bush has greatly improved his communication ability.

Patton pays attention to more than words in speeches. How a speech is delivered, the cadence and rhythm of a voice and the way a leader looks are crucial components of a speech’s impact.

“I think Bush’s overall impact visually is a positive and reassuring one,” says Patton. And especially in his speech to Congress, Bush “got into the script in a genuine and personal way,” Patton says. Bush spoke in “short, direct jabs,” says Patton, as he forcefully declared, “We will not tire, we will not falter, we will not fail.”

This negative phrasing seems “a deliberate choice of wording to underscore determination and convince listeners that he can demonstrate needed leadership,” says Patton. Tony Blair took a more comprehensive approach to the war on terrorism in an Oct. 2 address to a Great Britain Labour Party conference. He acknowledged that trying to understand the causes of terror—poverty, lack of hope—is worthwhile, yet left no room for equivocation about the evil perpetrated by the terrorists.

Blair said, “Let there be no moral ambiguity about this: nothing could ever justify the events of 11 September, and it is to turn justice on its head to pretend it could.” Patton says Blair’s speech was remarkable for its eloquence, which was partly attributable to his presence, his voice and “the clear sense that he wasn’t reading a teleprompter. This was coming from his own thoughts and feelings.”

Patton expects the speech will be on rhetorical scholars’ lists of the “most significant public addresses” of the early 21st century. With artful phrasing and fine crafting, Blair refuted a range of objections to British involvement in the war on terrorism, says Patton.

To those who would say, “Don’t kill innocent people,” Blair said, “We are not the ones who waged war on the innocent. We seek the guilty.” Blair had a message of healing and social justice, using the notion of memorial and the rhetoric that the victims in New York and Washington did not die in vain.

He said, “Out of the shadow of evil, should emerge lasting good: destruction of the machinery of terrorism … hope amongst all nations of a new beginning … greater understanding between nations and between faiths; and, above all, justice and prosperity for the poor and dispossessed.”

Daunting as the uncertain world situation is, Patton says that the “performed action” of Blair’s speech “gives us a clear argument and a direct pathway for moving in the direction of a reassessed and reconfigured world community.” Near the end of his speech, Blair said, “This is a moment to seize. The Kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us reorder this world around us.”

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000