State of the Union: Choosing the right words to bring a nation together

Words can harm. Words can heal. The best speeches ever delivered asked not for anything but the better angels of our nature.

Jason Reed/Reuters
A couple shares a late-night moment at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

By my back-of-the-envelop guesstimate, the Monitor publishes 120,000 to 150,000 words a week in print and online. We are but one news organization out of thousands that together manufacture billions of words a day in the never-ending quest to make sense of the world.

And that’s just the news business – a thin membrane atop the vast ocean of knowledge coded into words that encompass Socrates and Psalms, “Goodnight Moon,” and the repair manual of the International Space Station.

Each word is supposed to be carefully chosen to exactly represent a thought. Mouths and typing fingers sometimes move faster than that, of course. We get caught up in the moment and speak or write before knowing what we want to say. We are careless with
words. A friendly audience smiles and looks down, embarrassed with us. A hostile audience takes offense.

Sometimes we purposely use words to harm. In sports, this is an established strategy for rattling a rival. A coach for one team trash-talks the quarterback of another, hoping to disturb the opponent’s equilibrium. Muhammad Ali was a master of the memorable put-down at weigh-in. Like sticks and stones, words can harm you. People fight, fall in love, seal business deals, experience hope, and run as fast as they can on the strength of words.

The more prominent the individual, the more hangs on each word – which is why the commentariat spends so much time parsing what a politician says and how he or she says it, distilling sound bites and hashing over meaning. We could have a long debate over what was the best string of words ever uttered – a poem, a eulogy, a call to arms. Probably Abraham Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg would be on the list. It was only 272 words.

[Editor's note: The original version of said Lincoln scrawled the speech on the back of an envelope. Historians believe that is a myth.]

Almost 150 years after it was delivered, it still stirs awe. The speech is simple enough and short enough that even a 6-year-old can get through it. Winston Churchill’s “we will never surrender,” John F. Kennedy’s “ask not” inaugural, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” do that as well. Each is about putting aside self-interest in service of a greater good.

The best speeches have a single purpose and focus, which makes an address like the State of the Union difficult to love. Robert Lehrman’s exploration of the SOTU (read it here) shows how these annual addresses can have their moments – a deft turn of phrase, a pregnant pause, the singling out of a hero in the audience – but the laundry list of things being done in a big, boisterous nation inevitably dilutes eloquence.

Mr. Lehrman, who teaches speechwriting at American University in Washington, has lived deep in the web of words. He has written speeches for Al Gore and other politicians. Storytelling and concrete detail are essential ingredients, he says. But what the audience is thinking, if that can be discerned, is crucial as well.
If, as with the 2011 State of the Union, the audience is likely to be feeling particularly sensitive and divided, the speech must have a tone that unites and a purpose higher than partisan agenda. Gettysburg was not a SOTU, but it was pitch perfect in the higher-purpose department.

Lincoln delivered it to a local audience honoring the war dead. He predicted the world would little note what was said that day. And at first he was right. The local crowd applauded politely. But his words went viral, as we say today, inspiring a nation by reminding Americans of the nation’s original purpose and by promising that the awful fight they were engaged in would lead to “a new birth of freedom.”

Words can start fights. And end them. In the right hands and at the right moment, words reach us beyond where we think we are. They remind us (Lincoln again) that we can all be touched by the “better angels of our nature.”
John Yemma is the editor of 
The Christian Science Monitor

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