Friday, November 25, 2016

Famous Speech Friday: Helen Gahagan Douglas & the "Pink Lady" speech

Some speakers do what we speaker coaches refer to as "throat-clearing," taking the long way to their topic with lots of preamble, greetings, and other filler. But in 1946, Helen Gahagan Douglas, a Democratic member of Congress from California, cut right to the chase in a floor speech. "Mr. Speaker, I think we all know that communism is no real threat to the democratic institutions of our country," she said. And in 1946, those were fighting words.

That's true even though she quickly followed with, "But the irresponsible way the term 'communism' is used to falsely label the thing that majority of us believe in can be very dangerous." These were the days when alleged communists were brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee for investigation. Her speech preceded, by four years, Sen. Joe McCarthy's famous 1950 speech alleging that communists had infiltrated the State Department, and Sen. Margaret Chase Smith's Declaration of Conscience speech, also delivered in 1950 and a part of The Eloquent Woman Index of Famous Speeches by Women.

Gahagan Douglas, in this speech, sought a middle ground. She posited that conditions under communism were not all bad, and that conditions under democracy were not all good. But the speech, titled "My Democratic Credo," put her squarely on the side of democracy:
I do not think we value democracy highly enough. The great mass of the American people will never exchange democracy for communism as long as democracy fulfills its promise. The best way to keep communism out of our country is to keep democracy in it-to keep constantly before our eyes and minds the achievements and the goals which we, a free people, have accomplished and intend to accomplish in the future under our own democratic system.
Provocative, bold, and forward-thinking for its day, the speech nonetheless produced bitter fruit for Gahagan Douglas when she later campaigned for the Senate in 1950 – the year when attacks on communism were at an all-time high. A primary opponent dubbed her "the pink lady" and said she was "pink right down to her underwear" on the strength of the speech and other remarks. She faced none other than future U.S. president Richard Nixon in the general election, and he built on the pink lady image by having flyers about her printed on pink paper, and comparing her to a pro-Soviet member of Congress. The dirty tricks worked, and Nixon won the Senate election with 59% of the vote, effectively ending Gahagan Douglas's public service career – the allegations proved too controversial for her to win future appointments. One of her supporters, Democratic National Committee vice chair India Edwards said Gahagan Douglas couldn't get appointed dogcatcher.

Gahagan Douglas, however, may have gotten the last laugh on Nixon: she coined for him the durable nickname "Tricky Dick," which outlasted them both, and later proved to be true. What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Use the "Russert test" when you're stating a strong position: In Washington, media interview subjects are often advised to use the test recommended by the late Tim Russert, an NBC political presenter who advocated turning your points around as if your opponent were saying them and using them against you. That kind of test might have occurred to Gahagan Douglas, but if so, she apparently ignored it, believing in the strength of her argument. It's a good exercise, if only to anticipate how you will be challenged, sometimes using your own words.
  • The middle ground takes more explaining: One of the reasons many speakers choose to paint their issues in stark tones of black and white is that it's easier to pull off. The middle ground, the more nuanced argument, take more explaining. You'll notice that this is not exactly a short speech, nor should it have been.
  • Leaven the negative with a hopeful vision: Much of this speech focuses on the negative, criticizing the voices of opponents and describing in stark terms their negative views. Gahagan Douglas herself expresses her feelings by describing herself as "jealous" for various democratic institutions that had been dubbed communistic. (An example is "I am jealous for democracy. I do not like to see the things that democracy can accomplish credited to communism.") Gahagan Douglas attempts to balance that negativity with paragraphs like this one: "We must make democracy work. We must realize the greatness that is in America. We are proud of our past and proudest because of what we can build upon the past. We do not want to turn our eyes backward and to keep the dead hand of the past upon our growth. And above all we want to shake off the deadening hand of monopoly." But the difficulty of the speech lies in its effort to attack the attackers of communism, which requires a negative tone.
In the end, it's a brave speech and one of the early efforts to fight against the Communist witchhunts. Unfortunately, its fame results more from the way it was used against the speaker than for the speech itself.

This speech is not available in video or audio formats, but you can find the full text here.

(U.S. Congress photo)

Join me in Edinburgh, Scotland, on October 20 for a new workshop, Add Meaning with Metaphor: Improve your Speeches with the Most Powerful Figure of Speech. It's a pre-conference workshop at the Edinburgh Speechwriters and Business Communicators Conference, designed to help both speakers and speechwriters use this powerful tool. You can register here for just the workshop, the conference, or both, and you'll get the best discount if you sign up by August 1.