Monday, September 27, 2004

Debate Preparation Began With a Professor at Yale

NY Times
Debate Preparation Began With a Professor at Yale


People may think they have heard enough about the things that President Bush and Senator John Kerry have in common - Yankee ancestry, distant relatives, Skull and Bones. But there is one more shared experience, if readers can bear another ramble down the byways of Yale, which is of no small relevance in a week when the two presidential candidates face off in their first debate.

It turns out that Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry, two years apart in New Haven, shared the same oratory teacher and debate coach, Rollin G. Osterweis. Their training in speaking and thinking under Professor Osterweis influenced the kind of candidates they became, and will be part of their performances in Coral Gables, Fla., on Thursday.

Professor Osterweis, who died in 1982, was a courtly Yale professor who taught a popular and easy class, History of American Oratory, for a quarter-century. Both Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry took the course, which consisted of studying famous addresses by William Jennings Bryan, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, among others, as well as delivering a speech to Professor Osterweis and the class. Mr. Kerry, as is well known, went one step further and became a star on the Yale debate team, with Professor Osterweis as coach.

Aides say that Mr. Bush, who never tried out for the team, nonetheless took from the class lessons that he uses today: the importance of direct language, organized speeches and connecting with crowds.

"He actually gave me a lecture once," Karen P. Hughes, Mr. Bush's close adviser, said at the White House last week. Ms. Hughes was referring to the president's demands on his speechwriters, who get drafts of major addresses sent back with heavy markings from the president's Sharpie marker. Mr. Bush is not known for his elocution on the stump, but he has clear ideas about how his speeches should sound.

As Ms. Hughes recounts in her book, "Ten Minutes From Normal," Mr. Bush calls at all hours with small-bore speech instructions: "Paragraph five on page two says the same thing as paragraph four on the page before." "This whole page is too repetitive." "That section is way too passive; I'm not bobbing along like some cork; I want active verbs."

Ms. Hughes writes that she was once so frustrated that she asked Mr. Bush how a speech should be written. He scrawled out for her, she recounts, that it should have "an introduction, three major points, then a peroration - a call to arms, tugs on the heartstrings," then a conclusion, which "is different from a peroration." When Ms. Hughes asked how he knew all that, Mr. Bush replied, "The History of American Oratory, at Yale."

David Boren, a former United States senator and a 1960's Yale debater who is now the president of the University of Oklahoma, said that Professor Osterweis, his mentor, taught students two main lessons. "First, you have to have substance - values and principles that are worth conserving," Mr. Boren said. "Then you have to communicate them in a way that makes the audience feel that they have ownership of the ideas. It's almost like you have to become part of the crowd, and have them go away adopting the ideas as their own."

Mr. Boren, a Democrat who knows both Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry, said that the president, with his colloquialisms and regular-guy style, had clearly learned the second lesson. "Bush puts himself inside the head of the person listening to him," he said.

In contrast, Mr. Boren said, Mr. Kerry is all policy and expertise. "I think Kerry obviously uses his speeches to be a teacher and to go into the nuances and complexities," he said. Professor Osterweis, he added, "saw the role of the president in part as being a teacher."

So far, no record has surfaced of the speeches Mr. Kerry and Mr. Bush delivered in the Osterweis course, and neither campaign was forthcoming over the weekend.

But Professor Osterweis's daughter Ruth Osterweis Selig said her father had often talked of Mr. Kerry, whose most well-known Yale debate was in February 1966, when he defeated a previously unbeaten traveling British team with a topic he may well have to revisit Thursday: a defense of the United Nations. Mr. Kerry's argument 38 years ago was that the organization had "supplied a meeting place for harmonizing differences."

Not incidentally, Mr. Kerry's accent in those days was far more upper-class than it is now, at least according to Aaron Zelinsky, a current Yale debater who has spent the past month studying the campus oratorical history of both candidates.

"He ditched the Brahmin lilt a while back," said Mr. Zelinsky, a Kerry supporter. "Now he just has to stop speaking in semicolons."

So what will happen Thursday? As James Fallows wrote in a recent article in The Atlantic Monthly, Mr. Bush will get high marks for personality and Mr. Kerry for substance, but the spectacle will amount to "asymmetric warfare" between two wildly dissimilar candidates, neither of whom has ever lost a debate.

One thing is certain: Professor Osterweis, had he lived, would be watching.

"He would be so proud," said Ms. Selig, his daughter. "He would be like a father of newborn twins."