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.

Photo: Getty Images/AFP
Show Hide image

Is Yvette Cooper surging?

The bookmakers and Westminster are in a flurry. Is Yvette Cooper going to win after all? I'm not convinced. 

Is Yvette Cooper surging? The bookmakers have cut her odds, making her the second favourite after Jeremy Corbyn, and Westminster – and Labour more generally – is abuzz with chatter that it will be her, not Corbyn, who becomes leader on September 12. Are they right? A couple of thoughts:

I wouldn’t trust the bookmakers’ odds as far as I could throw them

When Jeremy Corbyn first entered the race his odds were at 100 to 1. When he secured the endorsement of Unite, Britain’s trade union, his odds were tied with Liz Kendall, who nobody – not even her closest allies – now believes will win the Labour leadership. When I first tipped the Islington North MP for the top job, his odds were still at 3 to 1.

Remember bookmakers aren’t trying to predict the future, they’re trying to turn a profit. (As are experienced betters – when Cooper’s odds were long, it was good sense to chuck some money on there, just to secure a win-win scenario. I wouldn’t be surprised if Burnham’s odds improve a bit as some people hedge for a surprise win for the shadow health secretary, too.)

I still don’t think that there is a plausible path to victory for Yvette Cooper

There is a lively debate playing out – much of it in on The Staggers – about which one of Cooper or Burnham is best-placed to stop Corbyn. Team Cooper say that their data shows that their candidate is the one to stop Corbyn. Team Burnham, unsurprisingly, say the reverse. But Team Kendall, the mayoral campaigns, and the Corbyn team also believe that it is Burnham, not Cooper, who can stop Corbyn.

They think that the shadow health secretary is a “bad bank”: full of second preferences for Corbyn. One senior Blairite, who loathes Burnham with a passion, told me that “only Andy can stop Corbyn, it’s as simple as that”.

I haven’t seen a complete breakdown of every CLP nomination – but I have seen around 40, and they support that argument. Luke Akehurst, a cheerleader for Cooper, published figures that support the “bad bank” theory as well.   Both YouGov polls show a larger pool of Corbyn second preferences among Burnham’s votes than Cooper’s.

But it doesn’t matter, because Andy Burnham can’t make the final round anyway

The “bad bank” row, while souring relations between Burnhamettes and Cooperinos even further, is interesting but academic.  Either Jeremy Corbyn will win outright or he will face Cooper in the final round. If Liz Kendall is eliminated, her second preferences will go to Cooper by an overwhelming margin.

Yes, large numbers of Kendall-supporting MPs are throwing their weight behind Burnham. But Kendall’s supporters are overwhelmingly giving their second preferences to Cooper regardless. My estimate, from both looking at CLP nominations and speaking to party members, is that around 80 to 90 per cent of Kendall’s second preferences will go to Cooper. Burnham’s gaffes – his “when it’s time” remark about Labour having a woman leader, that he appears to have a clapometer instead of a moral compass – have discredited him in him the eyes of many. While Burnham has shrunk, Cooper has grown. And for others, who can’t distinguish between Burnham and Cooper, they’d prefer to have “a crap woman rather than another crap man” in the words of one.

This holds even for Kendall backers who believe that Burnham is a bad bank. A repeated refrain from her supporters is that they simply couldn’t bring themselves to give Burnham their 2nd preference over Cooper. One senior insider, who has been telling his friends that they have to opt for Burnham over Cooper, told me that “faced with my own paper, I can’t vote for that man”.

Interventions from past leaders fall on deaf ears

A lot has happened to change the Labour party in recent years, but one often neglected aspect is this: the Labour right has lost two elections on the bounce. Yes, Ed Miliband may have rejected most of New Labour’s legacy and approach, but he was still a protégé of Gordon Brown and included figures like Rachel Reeves, Ed Balls and Jim Murphy in his shadow cabinet.  Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham were senior figures during both defeats. And the same MPs who are now warning that Corbyn will doom the Labour Party to defeat were, just months ago, saying that Miliband was destined for Downing Street and only five years ago were saying that Gordon Brown was going to stay there.

Labour members don’t trust the press

A sizeable number of Labour party activists believe that the media is against them and will always have it in for them. They are not listening to articles about Jeremy Corbyn’s past associations or reading analyses of why Labour lost. Those big, gamechanging moments in the last month? Didn’t change anything.

100,000 people didn’t join the Labour party on deadline day to vote against Jeremy Corbyn

On the last day of registration, so many people tried to register to vote in the Labour leadership election that they broke the website. They weren’t doing so on the off-chance that the day after, Yvette Cooper would deliver the speech of her life. Yes, some of those sign-ups were duplicates, and 3,000 of them have been “purged”.  That still leaves an overwhelmingly large number of sign-ups who are going to go for Corbyn.

It doesn’t look as if anyone is turning off Corbyn

Yes, Sky News’ self-selecting poll is not representative of anything other than enthusiasm. But, equally, if Yvette Cooper is really going to beat Jeremy Corbyn, surely, surely, she wouldn’t be in third place behind Liz Kendall according to Sky’s post-debate poll. Surely she wouldn’t have been the winner according to just 6.1 per cent of viewers against Corbyn’s 80.7 per cent. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.