From war protester to teaching the Vietnamese how to write speeches

One man's arc from antiwar demonstrator in college to holding a speechwriting seminar in Hanoi shows how far the US and Vietnam have evolved since the war. 

Courtesy of the Government of Vietnam
Bob Lehrman teaching speechwriting at a workshop in Hanoi, Vietnam.

"Have you seen the lake from your window?" asks Thuy, a graduate student assigned to help me, during dinner.

"I didn't look," I say.

"They gave you a room where you could see the lake."

"I was working."

Which I was. I'm giving a workshop for diplomats on speechwriting, with material I've used dozens of times. But this first day hasn't gone well in Hanoi.

Yes, Hanoi, capital of Vietnam, the country that once consumed me and my friends, then mostly left our minds in 1975, shortly after Marine helicopters lifted the last refugees and Americans off the roof of the US embassy. The country that in the past four decades has tripled in population, reduced poverty, and, not without missteps, created a nimble hybrid of communism and capitalism that's brought 6 percent economic growth a year since 2000.

My workshop is part of something relatively new: Vietnam's "reintegration" plan designed to create not just trade with the West but also warmth.

In my 20s, I spent years protesting the war that killed one friend, 55,000 other Americans, and as many as 3 million Vietnamese, and famously made a returning veteran ask US senators how you ask a soldier to be "the last man to die for a mistake."

Why don't I see more hostility toward America? I asked one Vietnamese student now living in the United States. She smiled. "We had the Chinese for a thousand years. The French. The Japanese. You were a blip."

Some blip. Now, I'm in Hanoi to help. Vietnamese speeches I've seen feature lots of dry recitations of economic data, unrelieved by storytelling or concrete detail. They're loaded with passive voice. I should be able to teach these budding diplomats something.

So far, though, they have been polite – diplomatic, but skeptical, whether it's been about using conversational tone, short sentences, repetition, pithy quotes, or a five-step structure that works well in American politics. I show them a computer application that calculates "readability" – how much passive voice they've used. Nobody's turned it on.

I show them a speech President Clinton gave when he visited Vietnam in 2000, astonishing people by quoting two lines from Nguyen Tu's "The Tale of Kieu," Vietnam's national poem. Quoting people listeners revere, I say, makes speakers likable. They seem only mildly interested.

I read aloud part of one speech by a senior Vietnamese official that uses storytelling well. He describes himself as 10 years old awakened several times each night by "piercing sirens" signaling the approaching American bombers.

"[A]nd then ... shootings and bomb explosions. And we all had to rush to an underground shelter ... and more often I would sleep in that small underground shelter."

Powerful. I see little reaction.

I use a clip from Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech to illustrate the power of repetition. That is good for Dr. King, one student says, hesitantly. "But ... would you use [this] for a serious speech?"

She knows King is serious. She means a "policy" speech. In Vietnam, she says, "elevated language is a sign of respect."

Clearly I need a new approach.

Fortunately, it's the day after President Obama's Sept. 11 speech about Syria's chemical weapons attack. During a tea break, I pull it up on my laptop. Great! Easy language. Concrete detail. Repetition. Passive voice? Seven percent.

Tomorrow, I tell them, we will look at that speech.

"Good," says one student. "Could you stop every two paragraphs?"

He surprises me. Slow down? Maybe I've just been going too fast.

The next morning Mr. Obama's face peers out from screens around the room. Students have a transcript to read as we watch. But I'm not optimistic.

Then, within the first two paragraphs, I see what might be a change. Obama's describing the gas attack. He uses the kind of raw detail you rarely hear from presidents ("[C]hildren lying in rows ... a father clutching his dead children, imploring them to get up and walk").

See how concrete detail wins attention? I ask. Some people actually nod. What about repetition? Obama does that, too. ("This is not a world we should accept. This is what's at stake.") More nodding.

Then, to get people talking, I ask a policy question. What's different about chemical weapons? What makes them worth a response?

Silence. OK. Maybe the issue doesn't interest them. Finally, one student says, softly, "Well, they aren't controllable." He hesitates. He asks whether Obama's argument is compromised. After all, Obama's country has used chemical weapons. Then, he stops. He looks up at me. His expression says: Did I insult my teacher's president?

It takes me a second to understand. Agent Orange. "You're right," I say.

From that moment, talk begins to flow. Repetition! Antithesis! The inspirational quote! In a way, Obama and his writers are the teachers. We move along, two paragraphs at a time. By lunch, they seem to see ways to be effective and serious.

Time to write a speech. The tables are buzzing. They've turned on the readability tool – and show me the result: no passive voice.

When one of the first students gets up to perform his table's speech, it seems so engaging, so powerful. His own table breaks into applause before he's done.

That night, I sit in my hotel room before heading to the airport. I've made some mistakes. I thought I saw disinterest. Most likely it was a difference in cultures, compounded by politeness. As I pack, I hear voices below my window. I still haven't pulled back the curtains. I do now.

In the Christmas bombings of 1972, the US dropped 20,000 tons of bombs on Hanoi and Haiphong. We saw Hanoi in the black-and-white photos of helmeted women carrying stretchers down the streets. Tonight I see Hanoi in color: two nicely lit green tennis courts, bordered in red. The voices come from doubles players, dressed in white.

Thuy was right. I see the lake. There's still some pink in the sky. The water shimmers. Lights twinkle on the other side. It's quiet. Peaceful. And I realize I've made one more mistake. I want them to show more hostility? How presumptuous.

"The past is only what precedes the future, not what determines it," Mr. Clinton said in 2000 before quoting "The Tale of Kieu": "Just as the lotus wilts, the mums bloom forth; time softens grief; and the winter turns to spring."

Spring can take many forms.

For Vietnam in 2013 it includes this: the kid who woke each night to air-raid sirens has become Vietnam's ambassador to the US; the angry veteran who told off the Senate has become the US secretary of State; streets that once rang with explosions now echo with the pock pock of tennis balls.

And it includes this: 35 young diplomats who want to build a country by refusing to let the past determine their future, even by learning English – and maybe even by using active voice.

Robert A. Lehrman is a novelist and former chief speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore. He is the author of 'The Political Speechwriter's Companion' and teaches at American University.

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