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.