Disaster Speechwriting 101

Can the Gulf Coast of the US take any more disasters or speeches about disasters?

A disturbing trend has appeared in the successive US presidencies of George W Bush and Barack Obama: making speeches to show they are in charge of disasters in the Gulf region of the country.

On Tuesday night, with pressure coming from all sides and oil still gushing from a busted undersea well, Obama made his first televised speech from the Oval Office in the White House. During the weeks leading up to the speech, some pundits began calling the oil disaster "Obama's Katrina", referring to the 2005 hurricane that struck the Gulf Coast region and overwhelmed the New Orleans flood defences.

Check the score: the US has experienced two disasters in the same area in five years with two sets of sagging ratings of the government's response. Before Obama delivered his address, an Associated Press-GfK poll was released, showing that 52 per cent of respondents said they did not approve of Obama's handling of the spill.

In the US president's speech on Tuesday, two other similarities between the 2005 disaster and 2010 event popped up, one in the realm of "eerie".

On 15 September 2005, Bush made a speech from the dark, empty Jackson Square in New Orleans, Louisiana, to address the country about the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Katrina.

In his speech, made 17 days after Katrina flooded the city, Bush made this pledge to reassure the country that someone will get to the bottom of the issues that plagued the government response:

So I have ordered every cabinet secretary to participate in a comprehensive review of the government response to the hurricane. This government will learn the lessons of Hurricane Katrina. We are going to review every action and make necessary changes so that we are better prepared for any challenge of nature, or act of evil men that could threaten our people.

Sitting at his Oval Office desk 57 days after the 20 April 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil platform, Obama made a similar decree:

And so I've established a national commission to understand the causes of this disaster and offer recommendations on what additional safety and environmental standards we need to put in place. Already I've issued a six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling.

More uncanny is the similar co-opting of a local tradition by both presidents. The technique of creating a metaphor out of the disaster and recovery is, I suppose, an attempt to end with a poetic flourish and help the country and the region "carry on".

Wrapping up his speech, Bush made use of jazz as a cultural touchpoint:

In this place, there is a custom for the funerals of jazz musicians. The funeral procession parades slowly through the streets, followed by a band playing a mournful dirge as it moves to the cemetery. Once the casket has been laid in place, the band breaks into a joyful "second line" -- symbolising the triumph of the spirit over death.

Obama in 2010 made reference to the ritual carried out by local fishermen:

Each year, at the beginning of shrimping season, the region's fishermen take part in a tradition that was brought to America long ago by fishing immigrants from Europe. It's called "the Blessing of the Fleet", and today it's a celebration where clergy from different religions gather to say a prayer for the safety and success of the men and women who will soon head out to sea, some for weeks at a time.

Final words from Bush 2005:

Tonight the Gulf Coast is still coming through the dirge, yet we will live to see the second line.

Final words from Obama 2010:

Tonight, we pray for that courage, we pray for the people of the Gulf, and we pray that a hand may guide us through the storm towards a brighter day.

Is this what they teach in speechwriting class when they get to the "Disaster" chapter? Do a Google search for a local tradition to bring the speech on home and then end on a hopeful note? The people of the Gulf region can only hope that the next president won't have to continue this new trend. I don't think they can take much more.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder