I just hitched my Typepad account to FeedBurner. I have no idea what this means in terms of what readers (all 4 of them) will see on the off chance they actually look at what’s here, and I somehow doubt that I have hordes of fans who are busily linking a number of RSS feed readers to this site. If they are, and if I’ve just done a majorly stupid thing that prevents access, I apologize in advance.
All of which is a long excuse for describing how Lara and I spent last evening, listening to Jeff Feldman, author of "Framing the Debate: Famous Presidential Speeches and How Progressives Can Use Them to Change the Conversation (and Win elections)" (which got a very interesting if strange review here and an even more interesting response to that review here) and Bill Keeler, who’s run for the New York Senate, utilizing those ideas. Both gentlemen kindly agreed to a book reading event which was held at the Barnes & Nobel on 8th Street and 6th Avenue in Manhattan at the request of Robert Lasner, who owns Ig Publishing, the press that published Jeff’s book. (Disclosure: Robert’s my brother-in-law and I’m an investor in Ig. I know that disqualifies me for running for public office, but there it is.)
Anyway, the gig got off the ground around 7.30 pm and lasted for about an hour. Keeler moderated the panel (of one) basically fielding questions and getting Jeff to describe the book in detail.
What Feldman did–I haven’t read it yet but I did buy a copy which Feldman autographed–was reproduce 15 presidential speeches from Washington to George W. Bush, pointing out where the big ideas were and how they were derived for the purpose of framing. Frames, he pointed out, don’t just happen. They’re the product of some incredibly bright and creative people in expensive advertising and marketing firms who have a particular line of thinking to sell to the general public. The speech is merely the vehicle for getting the idea into the mainstream realm of public thought.
Plenty of examples are out there but one that I remember from high school was an exercise in speech writing. Fast quiz: which day in American memory lived "in infamy?" If you guessed December 7, 1941, you’re right. The original line from Roosevelt’s speech was "This is a day that will live in history." "History" got replaced with "infamy" because let’s face it, FDR was gearing the American public to beat the living crap out of the Japanese Empire and an enemy that is "infamous" is considerably easier to hate than one that is not. The frame worked and the USA got very gung-ho very quickly.
Feldman gave two examples from the book of how framing works that stuck in my mind. The first (paraphrased) comes from the case that many Republican congressmen and senators make for staying in Iraq, namely that if we leave now, the troops who have paid for our policy with their laves will have "died in vain." I put that in quotes not because it’s untrue (which is surely a debatable point), but because that’s a line taken from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. ("There’s enormous power in channeling Lincoln," said Feldman.)
The Gettysburg Address is a great speech, not merely because it was written on the back of an envelope shortly before it was given to a live audience, and not merely because it’s short (fewer than 300 words delivered in less than two minutes). It’s a great speech because it puts forth the idea of what American soldiers have to actually do to "die in vain." Namely they’d have to die for a cause other than that around which the United States was founded–life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, the idea that all men are created equal. Dying while defending their native soil from attack or invasion is consistent with those lofty and worthwhile ideals. Being sent to a foreign land to die for rather more dubious causes–securing oil, deception for the sake of political power, or removing "weapons of mass destruction" which apparently are never found–is not. So by that token, every single American who has died in Iraq since 2003 or will die in Iraq before January 20, 2009, has in fact died in vain.
The second example that he used that I remember clearly was FDR’s bit about having nothing to fear but fear itself. Context is important here–Roosevelt didn’t deliver those words in response to Pearl Harbor’s destruction. The speech was from his inaugural address of 1934. The gentleman had been elected on a platform of relief and reform and had genuinely believed (or appeared to believe) that if the banks and big business would not invest in the future of the United State’s productive capacity, the government had to. The fear that he spoke of in that phrase was the bankers’ fear that the nation had lost is competitive edge, which was why they generally had not seen fit to invest in new infrastructure, plant or equipment. Now, in fairness to businessmen, when things look grim, it’s understandable to horde what cash you have and hunker down to wait for better times. But it doesn’t necessarily get a country out of a major depression. The frame at stake: people need help and the federal government has the power to do so.
Now, whether these ideas were worthwhile or not is something that history will judge, and is really beyond the scope of Feldman’s book. His message is simple: it’s the manner in which the ideas are dispensed that lends them the power they need to multiply and spread. Neither is this something which George Lakoff has discovered–Feldman goes back to George Washington’s speeches to find evidence that it’s the delivery that counts most in communication.