Kamala Harris’ Five Magic Words
“That little girl was me.” With those carefully chosen words Harris’ speech writer launched her onto the national stage and an historic moment in American politics.
Those five words were a cynical, cheap shot that may end up propelling Harris into the office of vice president – and in four years, perhaps president of the United States. Whoever in Harris’ cadre of speech writers came up with that one deserves a healthy raise.
As a speech coach for most of my professional life, I’m very attuned to the use of language. Word choice at a particular time and place can go down in history as game changers:
“Ask not what your country can do for you…” unusual phrasing made this memorable for all time.
“A day that will live in infamy…” FDR used the word “infamy” rather than “history.”
“Four score and seven years ago…” rather than saying 87 years ago.
In the cutthroat blood sport of American political debate the only rule is, “take no prisoners.” Those of you with gray hair will remember several verbal atom bombs that changed EVERYTHING.
Reagan vs. Mondale (1984), the moderator asked Reagan if his age (73) should be a concern. Reagan’s reply: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” At that point, Mondale was toast.
VP debate Lloyd Bentsen vs. Dan Quayle (1988) After Quayle compared himself to Jack Kennedy in terms of age and experience, Bentsen replied with this verbal torpedo: “Senator, I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine, and senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Game over for Quayle.
Both of these debate “atom bombs” had been carefully prepared by the candidates’ handlers who had done their homework. Reagan knew age would come up, and Quayle had compared himself to Kennedy in other speeches.
During her run for president in 2019, Harris shoe-horned in a reference to Biden’s position on school busing in the 1970s. At the time, I thought it seemed like a stretch. Clearly, Harris wanted to bring this up so she could deliver her zinger:
“There was a little girl in California who was a part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bused to school every day,” and that little girl was me.”
When I heard that line, I choked on my Sutter Home Chardonnay. I thought, “Oh, come on Kamala, what disingenuous bullshit.”
Harris used a popular, very, very effective speech writer’s trick to kill it. Here is how it works: you describe a difficult or dangerous situation in the abstract, and then drive it home with this killer line:
“you see, that girl / boy / father / accountant / therapist / teacher (fill in the blank) was me.” BOOM. Audience knocked back on their heels. Works every time.
When I heard Harris let ‘er rip with that cynical line, I lost respect for her as a contender. Too slick. Too superficial. Don’t get me wrong, it was HUGELY successful. It is what people remember from the debate. It tripped up Joe Biden momentarily.
In a less gamey and more authentic way, Harris could have said, “Joe I should know about the effects of busing, because as a schoolgirl in Berkeley, I was bussed from my neighborhood to….It affected me…” Very forgettable. If she had said that, she would still be a senator from California.
Bottom line: never underestimate the value of a good speech writer.
There once was a speech coach in Silicon Valley who risked everything to start a coaching business. With no business and no executive experience, he jumped into the chaos of the fast-moving high-tech arena. He risked it all by offering his coaching services to top level CEOs. His C-level clients thanked him for what he did to help them succeed in a highly competitive marketplace where everything was on the line.
You see, I should know. That speech coach was me.
(audience falls into each other’s arms crying tears of joy)
P.S. I think Harris was a good choice, and I support the Biden/Harris ticket completely.
16 thoughts on “Kamala’s Bombshell”
While I agree with your analysis Rick that this was a good speechwriter at work, I’m very perturbed that you say you lost all respect for Kamala as a contender with her use of a good one liner, but didn’t in any way say the same for Reagan or Bentsen. Had she said what you later wrote, it would indeed have been forgettable. Would she be more respectable somehow? maybe, but she’d also be less successful. Why dis her because she’s smart enough to hire good a good speech writer? If you don’t like her or her policies, fine, or if you want the speechwriter to get credit, fine, but don’t call her out for being an effective user of words. If what she said was true, then more power to her to deliver the words in the most effective way possible.
I’ll point out that once again it’s a woman who;s getting the BS on this one, but the men not. You sound very respectful of them of all the others you quote, who are all men. I don’t know you or you politics well, but, just take a moment when things like this come up to ask if you’re objecting so vehemently because you don’t like these qualities/actions in a woman or woman candidate, as opposed you just don’t like the qualities‘actions. If the latter, then make the case with all (including men) whom you quote, don’t just take down the woman. Thanks for listening.
Brilliant analysis. Have you read Stuart Steven’s “It was all a lie”?
The speech technique was used effectively in the defense’s closing argument of trial from the film “ A Time to Kill “.
Jan and I supported Harris financially from the beginning donating some big bucks. I like this ticket. For the first time in a long time maybe there is hope to get America on the road to recovery from our racist, war mongering, white male dominating sexists past.
Good article Rick.
Good one, Rick. I had similar reactions to that story telling strategy.
It’s going to be interesting going forward …
You’re not only a great speech coach but quite entertaining as well!
I was listening to that speech and took as bit contrived. Doubting the sincerity., I Later watched the same exchange, and found it perhaps rehearsed, but with some sincerety. It was her delivery that marked it, permanently.
Almost immediately after hearing the announcement of the Harris VP slot I received a text from an elderly New York woman of few words:
“Times up fatboy. Get out!”
Good bumper sticker for you!
As always, you’re a showoff, but you’re right !
I think you give too much credit to the speech writer. Someone has to deliver the lines. I didn’t support Reagan, but thought his delivery was perfect. In my view, the best speech writers channel the spirit of their clients. What is cynical are the use of words one didn’t write that don’t ring true. Just look at the current mango king for daily reminders of cynicism as he mumbles his way quickly through the script so he can get to the fun stuff. His riffs.
I also felt a little uncomfortable about Kamala’s zinger. Now I wonder if my uncomfortableness could have been partly due to the sight of watching someone as “nice” as Joe get zinged so publicly and unexpectedly. I also wonder, to my deep shame, if I would have had a different view of that exchange if that were an other older white man letting Joe have it. For example, I loved it when Benston zapped Quayle. Everyone, we are in a new world.
Glad to see you support the ticket. Go Biden and Harris!
I am reposting. I never saw my first version show up.
Provocative article Rick. As I have learned to expect and appreciate.
The article made me think more deeply about two topics. Speechwriters and women in politics.
You may be giving too much credit to the speechwriter. Someone has to deliver his or her lines. I remember the Reagan line to Mondale that you highlighted. While I did not support him, I found the delivery quintessential Reagan. A time-tested delivery from the soft-spoken actor. Playful, self-effacing, and charming. My sense is that the best speechwriters work collaboratively and iteratively in order to channel the spirit of their clients. Nothing is more cynical than hearing words from a speaker that don’t ring true. We only need to look at the orange king to see that level of that cynicism daily. He stiffly mouths the prepared text so he can get to the stuff he likes. Grievances and attacks.
I have to admit that I was also uncomfortable when I watched Harris during that debate with Biden. For me, the discomfort may not be just her attempt to score political points. I think I was uncomfortable for Joe. I see him as a nice guy who didn’t deserve to have an old record of his used that way. Since then I have thought of something else. Something I am embarrassed to admit. I wondered if I would have felt the same way if an old white man took Biden on. Like Bernie? Do we treat Bernie, who could lay into people too, differently? I think it is harder for us men (and maybe some women) to see a way for a woman to participate in what you called the blood sport of politics. Only men were included in all of the examples you provided in your blog on classic political bombs.
Having Harris on the ticket is a game changer. We are in for a ride in these next 82 days and beyond.
Thanks again for engagement with and insights about our most consequential election of our lifetime
GO BIDEN AND HARRIS!
Actually, I just watched the PBS documentary on Ronald Reagan which is a stretch for me politically. But I found it refreshing after 4 years of DJT. I think and PRAY that it turns out to be a ticket that wins unless DJT is successful in his efforts to sabotage the Post Office. Biden could have picked Minnie Mouse( isn’t she a Black woman too?) just as long as they can defeat Trump. That’s my goal even if it takes less than precise speech to do it.
Rick and all,
Just after I pushed the SEND button it occurred to me that some readers might take offense at my comment about” Minnie Mouse being a Black woman too.” None intended. And for those who did find it offensive, I’m sorry. I was being facetious, but went off the rails. ( Actually Minnie has endured longer than most of us and brought pleasure and humor to many))
I support the ticket too, with all hope that they can defeat DJT.
I did not hear her one liner the same way that you did and was shocked to read your interpretation. She is a woman of color and her speech will more often be heard through a racist or sexist filter by white men as a result. Would you analyze her comment the same way if she was a man? Even when I went back to it, I again heard it markedly different than you.
“… the only thing we have to fear is fear itself …” (FDR in his inaugural address Mar. 4, 1933)
Disingenuous (contrived)? Of course, she was on stage. Bullshit (false)? Nope.
So I, too, have been following Harris for a while. I have, and had, been wondering about her pretty tough “in your face” manner and was unsure of her ego.
Biden and Harris are up against shrewd, cynical and intelligent forces (not referring to Tronold Dump) who have shown inflammatory material against the pair in some outrageous video clips spiced with manically composed backgrounds having little or nothing to do with the individual’s original presentation. I now understand how Harris will need very thick skin, which she has, and a very stable and confidant manner which will aggravate and, hopefully, put her debate opponent on the skids. Pence is way too quiet and will watch the two in their verbal sparring with great hope and optimism. So-damned right. Harris is really necessary for the team. And I do believe she will have Joe’s back. The race is on. Hang on! Onward!