PRINT PAGEFinal Argument: Olbermann

Written by Roy Black

Henry Ward Beecher: “Not until human nature is other than what it is, will the function of the living voice — the greatest force on earth among men — cease  . . . .  I advocate, therefore, in its full extent, and for every reason of humanity, of patriotism, and of religion, a more thorough culture of oratory and I define oratory to be the art of influencing conduct with the truth set home by all the resources of the living man.”

Thomas B. Farrell: “Rhetoric is an acquired competency, a manner of thinking that invents possibilities for persuasion, conviction, action, and judgments.”

The amateur foolishly believes that public speaking is simple, just another type of communication, which we’ve all been doing all our lives. So what is the big deal? It comes naturally and is easy to do. But public speaking is a different genre from everyday conversation. It is far more formal and of high social importance. The writing is especially highly organized and intricately complex. We used to call this skill rhetoric before that word became an insult.

The study of rhetoric was a discipline in the classical Greek and Roman curricula and later in the medieval trivium. It was also prized in the renaissance humanist education, but its importance has diminished today. Classical rhetoric assumed that speaking and writing ability was not a product of inborn talent, but required instruction in theory and practice.

The rhetorical curriculum was based on the careful observation and analysis of successful communication. The speeches and writings of the best orators were always the principal focus. Rhetorical teaching requires two overarching activities: analysis and performance. The observation of successful speaking (“analysis”) precedes and improves one’s own speaking (“performance”).

Rhetorical analysis begins with the appropriate choice of a given model, and the selection is made with an eye both to the content and to the style of the writer. This is a complex and difficult idiom to master. There are good books on speech writing but before we get to them we will look at our best speech writers.

[Another ancient art we have abandoned is the study of Memory. I have already written on this here. The ability to memorize the speech goes hand in hand with the study of rhetoric.]

Frame the message simply and find the right words to convey it. The structure, and the stories make the message memorable. The ideas are developed from the case materials. For an idea to be a great idea, it needs to be clear. If your audience doesn’t understand what you’re talking about, then no matter how good their listening skills are, your final argument will be a failure. A failure to communicate. We don’t give speeches just to hear ourselves speak. Instead, we always have a goal in mind – to win the case. When you need to change how your jury views an issue, you can learn from Dr. King, Steve Jobs or from our example in this post – Keith Olbermann.

Olbermann’s “Special Comments”

Olbermann is a perfect candidate for the drafting section of the final argument course. For his MSNBC Countdown show he wrote special comments modeled after Edward R. Murrow. They were 5 to 7 minutes of biting criticism usually of the Bush administration. They are a model for the analytical section of our course. His rhetoric is articulate, passionate, brilliant and cutting, just like we want our final arguments.

He reminds me of the short pungent finals done in David Kelley’s The Practice. Because of time constraints they both cut out irrelevant and extraneous matter and go right to the core of the argument. Perhaps Olbermann is a little too hard-edged for the courtroom, but he is a model to learn from.

Olbermann is a great writer. He is persuasive, gets under people’s skin, and can deliver a scathing polemic albeit with style and wit. Olbermann wrote his special comments himself, which he has described as a two-day process that begins with “getting pissed off” (the perfect attitude), then going through numerous rewrites and rehearsals. Olbermann delivered a total of 57 Special Comments on Countdown.

The best part for us is that both the transcripts and videos of his special comments are fully available. They have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube. The MSNBC website also has all the special comments.

Some are collected in a book “Special Comments, Truth and Consequences: Special Comments on the Bush Administration’s War on American Values,” which was published on December 26, 2007, containing all the Special Comments that aired on or before September 4, 2007.

The first special comment, delivered on August 30, 2006, targeted Donald Rumsfeld. Olbermann later revealed that he wrote “Feeling morally, intellectually confused?” on the back of a travel itinerary while waiting for a flight in Los Angeles.  (Sounds like the myth of Lincoln writing the Gettysburg Address on the back of a postcard.)

His opening, as all great speeches do, grabs our attention:

“The man who sees absolutes, where all other men see nuances and shades of meaning, is either a prophet, or a quack. Donald H. Rumsfeld is not a prophet.”

Keith Olbermann is calm yet passionate, understated where heavy-handed words would have been used by a less masterful speaker.

Then on to the attack:

“From Iraq to Katrina, to flu vaccine shortages, to the entire “Fog of Fear” which continues to envelope this nation – he, Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney, and their cronies, have – inadvertently or intentionally – profited and benefitted, both personally, and politically. And yet he can stand up in public, and question the morality and the intellect of those of us who dare ask just for the receipt for the Emperor’s New Clothes.”

With his knowledge of history Olbermann turns the “Appeasement of the Fascists” argument around on Rumsfeld, Rove and their fellow travelers in the Bush Administration. (The best argument is when you can take your opponents’ strongest claim and turn it against them. Whenever you use an analogy or metaphor, be sure your opponent can’t turn it around.). He uses the discredited Neville Chamberlain against those who use him to their own purpose:

“In a small irony, however, Mr. Rumsfeld’s speechwriter was adroit in invoking the memory of the appeasement of the Nazis. For, in their time, there was another government faced with true peril – with a growing evil – powerful and remorseless. That government, like Mr. Rumsfeld’s, had a monopoly on all the facts. It, too, had the secret information. It alone had the true picture of the threat. It too dismissed and insulted its critics in terms like Mr. Rumsfeld’s – questioning their intellect and their morality.

That government was England’s, in the 1930s. It knew Hitler posed no true threat to Europe, let alone to England. It knew Germany was not re-arming, in violation of all treaties and accords. It knew that the hard evidence it had received, which contradicted its own policies, its own conclusions – its own omniscience – needed to be dismissed.

The English government of Neville Chamberlain already knew the truth. Most relevant of all – it “knew” that its staunchest critics needed to be marginalized and isolated. In fact, it portrayed the foremost of them as a blood-thirsty war-monger who was, if not truly senile – at best morally or intellectually confused.

That critic’s name . . . was Winston Churchill.

Sadly, we have no Winston Churchills evident among us this evening. We have only Donald Rumsfelds, demonizing disagreement, the way Neville Chamberlain demonized Winston Churchill.”

I love how he weaves in the examples of Nixon, McCarthy and Curtis LeMay:

“In what country was Mr. Rumsfeld raised? As a child, of whose heroism did he read? On what side of the battle for freedom did he dream one day to fight? With what country has he confused . . . the United States of America?

The confusion we – as its citizens – must now address, is stark and forbidding. But variations of it have faced our forefathers, when men like Nixon and McCarthy and Curtis LeMay have darkened our skies and obscured our flag.”  Here is a complete transcript of this special comment. It is worth studying for its brilliant rhetoric:

The man who sees absolutes, where all other men see nuances and
shades of meaning, is either a prophet, or a quack.
Donald H. Rumsfeld is not a prophet.
We end the countdown where we began, our #1 story.
with a special comment on
Mr. Rumsfeld’s remarkable speech to the American Legion
yesterday. It demands the deep analysis – and the sober contemplation – of every American.
For it did not merely serve to impugn the morality or
intelligence – indeed, the loyalty – of the majority of Americans who
oppose the transient occupants of the highest offices in the land;
Worse, still, it credits those same transient occupants – our
employees – with a total omniscience; a total omniscience which neither
common sense, nor this administration’s track record at home or abroad, suggests they deserve.
Dissent and disagreement with government is the life’s blood of
human freedom; And not merely because it is the first roadblock
against the kind of tyranny the men Mr. Rumsfeld likes to think of as
“his” troops still fight, this very evening, in Iraq.
It is also essential. Because just every once in awhile… it
is right – and the power to which it speaks, is wrong.
In a small irony, however, Mr. Rumsfeld’s speechwriter was
adroit in invoking the memory of the appeasement of the Nazis.
For, in their time, there was another government faced with true
peril – with a growing evil – powerful and remorseless.
That government, like Mr. Rumsfeld’s, had a monopoly on all the
facts. It, too, had the secret information. It alone had the true
picture of the threat. It too dismissed and insulted its critics in
terms like Mr. Rumsfeld’s – questioning their intellect and their morality.
That government was England’s, in the 1930’s.
It knew Hitler posed no true threat to Europe, let alone to England.
It knew Germany was not re-arming, in violation of all treaties and accords.
It knew that the hard evidence it had received, which
contradicted it’s own policies, it’s own conclusions – it’s own
omniscience – needed to be dismissed.
The English government of Neville Chamberlain already knew
the truth.
Most relevant of all – it “knew” that its staunchest critics
needed to be marginalized and isolated. In fact, it portrayed the foremost
of them as a blood-thirsty war-monger who was, if not truly senile – at
best morally or intellectually confused.
That critic’s name . . . was Winston Churchill.
Sadly, we have no Winston Churchills evident among us this evening.

We have only Donald Rumsfelds, demonizing disagreement, the way
Neville Chamberlain demonized Winston Churchill.
History – and 163 million pounds of Luftwaffe bombs over England
– had taught us that all Mr. Chamberlain had was his certainty – and his own confusion.
A confusion that suggested that the office can not only make the
man, but that the office can also make the facts.
Thus did Mr. Rumsfeld make an apt historical analogy
excepting the fact that he has the battery plugged in backwards.
His government, absolute and exclusive in its knowledge, is not the
modern version of the one which stood up to the Nazis. It is the modern
version of the government… of Neville Chamberlain.
But back to today’s Omniscient Ones.
That about which Mr. Rumsfeld is confused is simply this:
This is a Democracy. Still. Sometimes just barely. And as such,
all voices count – not just his. Had he or his president perhaps
proven any of their prior claims of omniscience – about Osama Bin
Laden’s plans five years ago – about Saddam Hussein’s weapons four years ago
– about Hurricane Katrina’s impact one year ago – we all might be able to
swallow hard, and accept their omniscience as a bearable, even useful
recipe, of fact, plus ego.
But, to date, this government has proved little besides its own
arrogance, and its own hubris.
Mr. Rumsfeld is also personally confused, morally or
intellectually, about his own standing in this matter. From Iraq to
Katrina, to flu vaccine shortages, to the entire “Fog of Fear” which continues to envelope this
nation – he, Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney, and their cronies, have –
inadvertently or intentionally –
profited and benefitted, both personally, and politically.
And yet he can stand up in public, and question the morality and
the intellect of those of us who dare ask just for the receipt for the
Emperor’s New Clothes.
In what country was Mr. Rumsfeld raised?
As a child, of whose heroism did he read?
On what side of the battle for freedom did he dream one day
to fight?
With what country has he confused… the United States of
America?

The confusion we – as its citizens – must now address, is
stark and forbidding. But variations of it have faced our forefathers,
when men like Nixon and McCarthy and Curtis LeMay have darkened
our skies and obscured our flag.
Note – with hope in your heart – that those earlier
Americans always found their way to the light and we can too.
The confusion is about whether this Secretary of Defense, and
this Administration, are in fact now accomplishing what they claim the
terrorists seek: The destruction of our freedoms, the very ones for
which the same veterans Mr. Rumsfeld addressed yesterday in Salt Lake City, so valiantly fought.

And about Mr. Rumsfeld’s other main assertion, that this country
faces a “new type of fascism.”
As he was correct to remind us how a government that knew
everything could get everything wrong, so too was he right when he
said that – though probably not in the way he thought he meant it.
This country faces a new type of fascism – indeed.

Although I presumptuously use his sign-off each night, in feeble
tribute . . . I have utterly no claim to the words of the exemplary journalist
Edward R. Murrow.
But never in the trial of a thousand years of writing could
come close to matching how he phrased a warning to an earlier generation of
us, at a time when other politicians thought they (and they alone) knew
everything, and branded those who disagreed, “confused” or “immoral.”
Thus forgive me for reading Murrow in full:
“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty,” he said, in 1954.
“We must remember always that accusation is not proof, and that conviction
depends upon evidence and due process of law.
We will not walk in fear – one, of another. We will not be
driven by fear into an age of un-reason, if we dig deep in our history
and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men;
Not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to
defend causes that were – for the moment – unpopular.”
And so, good night, and good luck.

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1 Comment to Final Argument: Olbermann

  1. Skeptical lawyer's Gravatar Skeptical lawyer
    September 17, 2013 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    Olbermann is terrible example of a persuasive speaker. His biased and absurd polemics excite his fellow travelers and persuade no one.

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