It’s a prerequisite for every fresh-eyed new arrival in the DC political world. If they want to hold their own with pop culture references at the never-ending carousel of office happy hours, they have to watch The West Wing.
Aaron Sorkin’s political fantasy series has probably done more good than harm on average. In a time of deeply ingrained cynicism for every American institution, there’s something sweetly inspiring about the earnestness and good intentions of his characters. In an era when dark conspiracy stories like House of Cards and Scandal dominate the popular imagination when it comes to political shows, I’m left with nostalgia for such a straightforward paean to the democratic process.
Where shows like The West Wing can lead viewers astray is failing to separate narrative convention from reality. Many would-be speechwriters have gleamed a vastly outsized idea of the influence that real speechwriters play. The reality is often a much more bureaucratic process than a lone tortured artist cranking out high rhetoric late into the night.
The biggest misconception that movies and televisions often push about speeches is that they solve challenges on their own. This can have harmful real-world consequences – as we arguably saw throughout the Obama presidency, in which the administration often seemed to overtly rely on the boss’s powers of oratory – overestimating his ability to persuade large swaths of the country that consume all coverage of his speeches through an ultra-conservative media echo system. Obama’s staff was famous for jokingly calling for a “race speech” when any given issue reached a boiling point, harkening back to the President’s widely lauded Philadelphia speech on race relations that helped ease concerns about extremist views held by his pastor. The difference between campaigning and governing – and by extension, between entertainment and reality – is that the final achievement can be supported by a great speech; but the speech itself cannot be the final achievement.
This is where movies lead us astray by positioning “the big speech” as the climactic moment. It’s an understandable device for screenwriters telling stories that can’t easily be resolved by a car chase or shoot-out. As far as stories with talking heads go, speeches are inherently dramatic events – especially when the speaker is telling hard truths or breaking decorum to call out an opponent directly.
Think of Sorkin’s screenplay for The American President, in which Michael Douglas finally ends his political rivals’ relentless assaults on his personal life – and wins back his girlfriend - with a rousing appearance at a press conference. His speech is laced with the finely-tuned barbs that have made Sorkin the rare screenwriter who is a household name.
America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You've gotta want it bad, 'cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say, 'You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.' You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag. The symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest.
Sydney Ellen Wade has done nothing to you, Bob. She has done nothing but put herself through school, represent the interests of public school teachers, and lobby for the safety of our natural resources. You want a character debate, Bob? You better stick with me, 'cause Sydney Ellen Wade is way out of your league.
And if you want to talk about character, Bob, you'd better come at me with more than a burning flag and a membership card. If you want to talk about character and American values, fine. Just tell me where and when, and I'll show up. This is a time for serious people, Bob, and your fifteen minutes are up. My name is Andrew Shepherd, and I AM THE PRESIDENT!
Phew! No doubt this speech would indeed light up Twitter and YouTube today. It would doubtlessly dominate water cooler discussion and late-night monologues for the week.
But would it alone solve the President’s credibility and trust issues in real life? What movies don’t have the narrative space to highlight are all of the attacks that would follow after the end credits have rolled. We don’t see the right-wing media cabal pointing out hypocrisies in the speech; we don’t see the voters who simply turn the channel and tune out any words from a politician they have already decided to hate.
In short, movies condition us to overestimate how persuasive big speeches can be.
You even see similar instances in romances, like Jerry Maguire, in which Tom Cruise can ease months of marital strife with a heartfelt impromptu speech. (“We live in a cynical world…)Would this smooth talking alone be enough to fix a deeply dysfunctional marriage?
The lesson we should take away is that speeches can create big moments that move audiences to take action – but they aren’t enough on their own. In the real world, they have to be supported by action.