Friday, September 6, 2013

Famous Speech Friday: Jeane Kirkpatrick's "Blame America First" speech

On the face of it, she was an unlikely keynote speaker for the 1984 U.S. Republican National Convention: A lifelong Democrat, she'd never spent time with a Republican before she met Ronald Reagan, first as an advisor to his campaign, then as the first woman to serve as United States Ambassador to the United Nations, during the first half of the Reagan administration. She was still, on paper, a registered Democrat, and her career had mostly been spent as a professor of government at Georgetown University--not typical preparation for the speaker who'd put the name of the President into nomination at the convention. And her topic? Foreign policy, her specialty, but not a topic that you'd think would rev up the convention crowd.

It would not be the first time Jeane Kirkpatrick defied expectation. Despite her Democratic background, she was a favorite of Reagan, who told her she'd removed the "kick me" sign from America's back at a time when the Cold War was at its height. On this night, she employed simple, clear language and rhetorical devices intended to get the crowd to its feet again and again, including the line for which the speech is best known:
They said that saving Grenada from terror and totalitarianism was the wrong thing to do - they didn't blame Cuba or the communists for threatening American students and murdering Grenadians - they blamed the United States instead. 
But then, somehow, they always blame America first 
When our Marines, sent to Lebanon on a multinational peacekeeping mission with the consent of the United States Congress, were murdered in their sleep, the "blame America first crowd" didn't blame the terrorists who murdered the Marines, they blamed the United States. 
But then, they always blame America first 
When the Soviet Union walked out of arms control negotiations, and refused even to discuss the issues, the San Francisco Democrats didn't blame Soviet intransigence. They blamed the United States. 
But then, they always blame America first.
It was the first time in more than 30 years that a non-party member was invited to give the convention's keynote. As you may have guessed, Kirkpatrick changed her party registration the following year. What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Take advantage of your novel status. It's catnip for the audience to hear a member of one party speak in strong language about why she believes her own party is wrong--particularly when she goes to the opposing party to do that. Kirkpatrick took full advantage of that novelty in her speech, quoting Democratic presidents of yore to underscore her points about the current administration and why they weren't in step with American values. She refers repeatedly to the other party as "the San Francisco Democrats," a dismissive nod to their recent convention and an effort to make them seem out of step with the mainstream audience Reagan needed to reach.
  • Ask questions your opponent has omitted from the discussion: Another effective riff in this speech comes when Kirkpatrick runs through a series of questions that prompt the audience to imagine what would happen if the Soviet Union gradually took over different regions of the world. "What would become of Europe if the United States withdrew? What would become of Africa if Europe fell under Soviet domination? What would become of Europe if the Middle East came under Soviet control?" she asked, each question setting up another in a verbal game of toppling dominoes. "What then could the United States do?' she ended the list. "These are questions the San Francisco Democrats have not answered. These are questions they haven't even asked." It was one of many applause lines that night.
  • Take your time: Kirkpatrick's delivery is measured, not rushed. Even though she kept her language clear, her topic was complex and not one many convention attendees would likely know well. A measured delivery aided her ability to put her points across and keep the crowd with her. 
There's no video of this famous speech publicly available to share, but you can listen to the audio below, and read the transcript. You can learn more about Kirkpatrick in the 2012 biography, Political Woman: The Big Little Life of Jeane Kirkpatrick. What do you think of this famous speech?

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