Friday, March 14, 2014

Famous Speech Friday: Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer's SB1062 veto

In February, the Arizona legislature passed the controversial SB 1062 bill, an expansion of a 1999 Arizona law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The bill's backers said it would protect the rights of individuals to refuse service based on religious grounds. But it was widely held by civil rights and business leaders to be a broadly written law that would lead to discrimination based on religious beliefs, particularly against LGBT individuals.

By the time the bill reached Arizona Governor Jan Brewer for her signature or veto, the debate over the bill had gone national and become increasingly vitriolic. Significantly for the Republican governor, Brewer was pressured to veto the bill by several leaders in her own party, from the national level as well as in the state. She was also hearing it in both ears from Arizona businesses terrified that the National Football League might make good on its threat to pull the extremely lucrative 2015 Super Bowl out of the state if the law was enacted.

Under this intense spotlight, Brewer gave what may have been the speech of her career as she announced her veto of the bill. It's quite a short speech, and it isn't delivered in the most compelling manner. Brewer is not known as a dynamic public speaker, and on this occasion, she spoke mostly from her prepared script with her head down. But the speech itself is powerful and clear and exactly what the moment called for. Here's what you can learn from it:
  • You have a job to do when you give a speech. This sounds like an easy enough idea, but speakers sometimes take the podium without a clear sense of what they want or need to accomplish in the time they have allotted. Brewer lays out her points here in a precise and economical fashion. This crisp accounting makes the governor appear as if she has taken the time to sort through the controversy and narrowed her focus to address only the critical issues.
  • Your word choice matters. In The New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg has a nearly line-by-line analysis of the speech that is an excellent read. There's plenty of political nuance in the speech that he catches, but he also notes the places where a word or two creates that nuance. For instance, there's the place where Brewer says that the bill purports to solve the problems of religious liberty. As Hertzberg points out, it's a fairly loaded word that allows her to comment on the intent of the legislators behind the bill. Speechwriters--and anyone who has labored to craft a speech--will especially appreciate this lookback at the wording.
  • If you can't make everyone happy, make everyone heard. Brewer is a polarizing political figure in Arizona and throughout the U.S. (It's hard not to get tagged as such when cameras capture you wagging a finger in the president's face.) So how did she manage to pull off a speech that drove straight up the middle on this issue? I think part of her success came from pairing statements in a way that allowed her to acknowledge differing viewpoints. The most widely played sound bite from the speech is this pairing:
Religious liberty is a core American and Arizona value.
So is nondiscrimination.
The speech itself is much more tuned to the middle than her official veto letter, by the way, which had much more to offer to proponents of the bill.

Here's the video of Brewer announcing her veto. How do you think she did with this famous speech?

(Arizonan freelance writer Becky Ham contributed this Famous Speech Friday post.)

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