Political Speeches And The Art Of The Jab

Aug 12, 2012
Originally published on August 12, 2012 9:40 am
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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Back to the presidential campaign for a second. Last week, the presidential candidates tried to crack wise. Here's President Obama on Monday, attacking his opponent...

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: He'd ask the middle class to pay more in taxes so that he could give another $250,000 tax cut to people making more than $3 million a year.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOING)

OBAMA: It's like Robin Hood in reverse.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: It's Romney Hood.

(APPLAUSE)

WERTHEIMER: Mitt Romney fired back in an interview a day later on Fox News.

MITT ROMNEY: Now, we've been watching the president say a lot of things about me and about my policies, and they're just not right. And if I were to coin a term it would be Obamaloney. He's serving up a dish which is simply in contradiction of the truth.

WERTHEIMER: Now, there's a pretty good chance those one-liners weren't exactly off the cuff. There's also a good chance the candidates did not write the lines. That's the job of a political speechwriter, and it can be gut-wrenching.

ELI ATTIE: I hated watching my speeches delivered.

WERTHEIMER: That's Eli Attie. He was a speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore.

ATTIE: Not only was there the occasional, you know, flubbed line, but it just never matches the sound and rhythm in your head.

WERTHEIMER: Today Attie writes on TV shows like "House" and "The West Wing." But actors are different from politicians. Politicians have nowhere to hone their jokes.

ATTIE: To do something like Romney Hood or Obamaloney or even in the year 1984, you know, the age and inexperience joke that Reagan used, I mean you can't test your material in advance.

(LAUGHTER)

ATTIE: It's basically comedy without a net, which no comedian would do.

WERTHEIMER: That Reagan joke was a response to concerns that he would be the oldest president ever. This was in a candidate debate.

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: Now, everybody laughed at that, including Walter Mondale.

ATTIE: Right, that's right, probably - he wasn't going to win anyway, but that was probably the moment he lost the election.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: So do you think a joke can do that? Do you think a joke can...

ATTIE: Absolutely.

WERTHEIMER: But Eli Attie is not convinced that the ability to sell a joke is an indicator of a great president.

ATTIE: Maybe there's more authenticity to a person who has more trouble selling things that are actually inauthentic; a line somebody stuck in his hand five minutes earlier. What does it mean, you know, when a politician has an incredible natural gift for insincerity? You have to wonder.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: That's former speechwriter Eli Attie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.