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16 June 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 2:18am

Disaster Speechwriting 101

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

By John Guenther

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”.

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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.