Friday, August 31, 2012

Famous Speech Friday: Elizabeth Glaser and Mary Fisher convention speeches on HIV/AIDS

Election season can bring out the big speakers, and 20 years ago it was two women who commanded the national stages. Their topic was HIV/AIDS, and the speakers were Elizabeth Glaser and Mary Fisher. Both women had been diagnosed as HIV positive, and they spoke out at a time when treatments promised little hope. Their white, young and affluent faces were a shock to many Americans who still saw AIDS as "a disease of others."

Glaser spoke first, at the Democratic National Convention held in July 1992, and some news accounts speculated that Fisher's speech at the August Republican National Convention was meant as a counterbalance to Glaser. You could see them as dueling speakers--and there are notable differences in their approaches--but it's the similarities that stand out 20 years later. In both cases, the women brought the noisy shuffling of the convention halls to an unusual and stunned silence (Listen for this in the videos below--it's a dramatic shift.). Roving cameras captured open weeping in the audience as the two mothers spoke of their children. They finished to thunderous, standing ovations normally reserved for the presidential candidates themselves.

Glaser's speech is the more overtly political, in keeping with her role of speaking in front of a party eager to take back the White House. Her speech directly condemns the George H.W. Bush administration and Congress for what she saw as their inaction, with lines like this: "I believe in America," she said, "but an America where there is a light in every home. A thousand points of light just wasn't enough. My house has been dark for too long."

Fisher's speech had a less pointed but equally urgent purpose, to bring the face of HIV/AIDS before an audience that she felt had looked away for too long. "Learn with me the lessons of history and of grace, so my children will not be afraid to say the word 'AIDS' when I am gone," she concluded. "Then, their children and yours may not need to whisper it at all."

What can you learn from both of these famous speeches?
  • Don't worry about the happy ending. We've said it before, but it bears repeating. Sometimes it's the stories you can't share at first that become the most compelling. It's painful--but remarkable--to hear Glaser describe the lessons she learned from her daughter Ariel as the little girl was dying from AIDS. It's similarly painful and striking to hear that Fisher's 84-year old father refuses to believe that nothing can be done to stop the virus from overcoming his daughter.
  • Leave them with one idea. There's a theme in each of these speeches, and Fisher and Glaser carefully choose their words to keep the focus on these themes. For Glaser, it's "leadership"--how leadership can fail and how it can be renewed. Fisher's theme is "silence." Count how many times she compares the "whisper" or "quiet" surrounding HIV to the "voice," messenger," and "call" that she hopes will replace them.
  • It's OK to "nudge" your host. Glaser and Fisher are invited guests at these conventions, so how did they get away with criticizing their audiences? You may not want to try this in an everyday speech, but this was no ordinary stage for the two women. Both of them were facing the chance of a lifetime to speak from their hearts and advocate for real change. In Glaser's case, she acknowledges that her Democratic audience knows that HIV is a problem, but chides them that good thoughts alone "won't save my family." Fisher points out that in a Republican party touting family values, "...we do the President's cause no good if we praise the American family but ignore a virus that destroys it."
  • Consider your accessories. Fisher and Glaser both wear the red ribbon for HIV/AIDS, but with a not-so-subtle difference. Glaser's ribbon is pinned to her lapel and blends into her suit. It's as if she expects her audience to accept it as a matter-of-fact part of her wardrobe. Fisher wears a dress with a broad white collar. It resembles a choir robe--and convention correspondent Norman Mailer even called her a "Republican angel." Her red ribbon is huge and prominently displayed on the collar, in keeping with her goal of no more silence.
Which speech do you think is more compelling? Share your thoughts in the comments.