Reviews

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“The offerings in Michael A. Cohen’s “Live From the Campaign Trail” meet a need. They also help to define a genre worth paying attention to, since politicians speak differently from the stump than they do from their desks in the Senate or from the Inaugural podium. Campaign rhetoric in its more memorable forms, as Mario Cuomo once noted, is more poetry than prose, aiming at the heart instead of the head.

Mr. Cohen’s informed narrative and perceptive analysis illuminate the addresses he gathered, particularly the handful of speeches he unearthed from the near-oblivion of shorthand.” — David Shribman, Wall Street Journal

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“This is a perfectly timed compendium for anyone skeptical about the power of rhetoric during a campaign, or (come on, admit it!) anyone who’s been completely mesmerized. Mr. Cohen draws upon a rich context, from news accounts in The New York Times and The Nation at the turn of the century to interviews with J.F.K. speechwriter Ted Sorensen.” - The New York Observer

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“This is an ideal book for the campaign season.” —Publishers Weekly

Speeches are meant to be heard, not read. Even so, most of the ones Cohen analyzes in this lively work are consequential; not all, however, are “the greatest.” Edited versions of the speeches are included, and on the page, many are flat; others read better than they sounded (and still sound on recordings). Nixon’s “Checkers” speech now seems mawkish, the sentiments of Kennedy’s “New Frontier” speech overblown. Yet Cohen, a professional speechwriter, is a sure guide, starting with the words, which now appear prescient, of Williams Jennings Bryan’s 1986 “Cross of Gold” speech. Most important speeches are recognized as such when given, but Cohen doesn’t tell us why that’s so. He does, however, emphasize how campaigners have adapted their words and styles to changing media and audiences. What seems great in one setting (say, a convention) may fail in another (on television). What’s clear from these speeches is that the great ones take a risk and are given at a particular moment for a particular purpose. This is an ideal book for the campaign season.


“Cohen offers a timely source for understanding the craft behind this year’s oratory.” —Booklist

by Gilbert Taylor
First published June 1, 2008 (Booklist)

An anthology with commentary, Cohen’s selection of campaign speechmaking spans the century, from William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech of 1896 to Bill Clinton’s 1992 acceptance speech. Representing a declamation from most of the presidents of that period, plus several from unsuccessful candidates such as Adlai Stevenson and Barry Goldwater, Cohen’s volume demonstrates the rhetorical structure and political purpose of the speeches. A practitioner of and lecturer on political speechwriting, Cohen identifies the speakers’ general temporal pattern of connecting America’s past and present to an attack on whatever or whoever seems to be impeding her progress toward a better future. Pausing to digress on how the speaker has deployed stereotypical images of the Democratic and Republican parties, Cohen proves most insightful about the standard of success of these speeches: winning the election. For that, eloquence is secondary to aligning with the electorate’s mood, as Harding and Truman proved. With historical coverage indicating the images the candidates of 2008 must counter (Democrats as doves; Republicans as privileged), Cohen offers a timely source for understanding the craft behind this year’s oratory.