A speechwriting manual for dictators on their way out

Where are Gaddafi’s speechwriters when he needs them, for that final Big Bang?

September 12, 2011 21:57

PHILIP BOYES 58. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Muammar Gaddafi’s tyrannical regime is in its death throes. Tripoli has been taken, escape tunnels torched and palaces plundered.

Recent broadcasts by the “Brother Leader” have been uncharacteristically bland, lacking pizazz and rhetorical fireworks.

Where are Gaddafi’s speechwriters when he needs them, for that final Big Bang? With his London School of Economics-educated son, Saif al-Islam, and others on the run, Gaddafi might have to stitch together a speech on his own. But what to say? Colonel, some quick thoughts.

1. Don’t mention rats, cats or dogs. Blood-curdling threats can work sometimes, but try to diversify your “drive-by” diatribes. Avoid rodents. Calling your enemies “greasy rats and cats” might infuse a certain rhetorical flow into your speech – but at the end of the day it sounds a bit too Dr. Seuss, when you should be thinking Dr. Goebbels.

Avoid describing the opposition in medical terms. It didn’t work for Syria’s Bashar Assad, who until recently called his dissidents “germs that must be fought off.” That just makes people angrier.

Keep it simple. Bashar now goes with “outlaws”, “vandals” and “takfiri [Muslims who condone violence against other Muslims, even rulers, they deem to be apostates] extremists.” That should do the trick.

2. Try to avoid blaming Israel for all human suffering – commonly known as Arab Leader Tourette’s Syndrome (ALTS). Or the West in general, for that matter. Yes, it’s an obvious crowd-pleaser and often guarantees applause. But blaming Zionists and their domestic lackeys for your country’s woes is too easy and it’s getting repetitive.

You can do better and, to be honest, other leaders in your region blame Israel better than you. The speechwriting team of Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah seems to have the monopoly on catchy anti-Israel one-liners. These include: “Israelis are the murderers of prophets” and “the Zionist entity, the state of the grandsons of apes and pigs.” In this category, Team Nasrallah even out-pen their generous Iranian sponsors, who come in a distant second place.

3. Drive home key words. Repetition of key words and phrases – formally known as anaphora – can help pummel the audience into remembering the core arguments of a speech. But be careful: sometimes it just draws attention to your past failings.

In his last-gasp address in February, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak used the word “dialogue” almost ten times – unfortunately reminding his citizens that his main dialogue over the decades had been with his Swiss bankers. Syrian despot Assad also seems to have discovered this rhetorical device. In his latest television appearance, Assad punctuated every second sentence with the word tagheer (change); to the extent that casual viewers thought they were watching a re-run of an Obama 2008 campaign speech.

4. Keep it short and crisp. Short speeches often work better than long, rambling ones. Stay on message.

Take note of Napoleon’s short “Farewell to the Old Guard” speech, given shortly before he was exiled to Elba. His last line sums up his speech nicely: “Adieu my friends. Would I could press you all to my heart.”

Colonel, quit the rambling. You might remember that your personal translator had a nervous breakdown towards the end of your long UN speech in 2009. Your famous speech in late February wasn’t much better, it went on for one hour and fifteen minutes.

This might be five hours and fifty-five minutes shorter than Fidel Castro’s longest speech (at the Third Communist Party Congress in Havana, 1986), but it is still far too long. Try to weed out non-sequiturs and make your speeches more YouTube friendly. Quality, Colonel, not quantity! You may never get another chance.

5. Location, location, location. Choose carefully where you give your speech. You seem to have got the idea when you gave your televised address at the “House of Strength” – the former presidential residence damaged, but not destroyed, by US bombs in 1986. The backdrop of the socialist realist sculpture of a fist crushing an American warplane was also a nice touch. You managed to weave this symbolism smoothly into your speech: “I am talking to you from the house which was bombarded by a hundred and seventy planes, by America and Britain.” Of course, if you are currently hiding in some tent in sub-Saharan Africa, this might not work.

Also, hand-pick your audience – Assad’s speech at Damascus University seemed to go down well with the students. If you can find one.

6. Let your people know that you love them. But don’t fall into the trap of Erich Mielke, the head of East Germany’s Stasi. Heckled by members of the Volkskammer, Mielke tried to win over his audience with the words: “But I love you. I love all people.” Mielke’s fellow comrades took a while to stop laughing. As you know, Colonel, we don’t do laughter.

7. Dress the part. Let’s face it, you’re a style icon. Headto- toe velvet togas, wrap-around blankets, swanky Louis Vuitton sunglasses. You never fail to disappoint.

What you need to do is match your outfit to your speech.

For example, take Yasser Arafat, who spoke at the United Nations wearing his (empty) holster. This helped him drive home what has become the most memorable line of the speech: “I come bearing an olive branch in one hand, and the freedom fighter’s gun in the other. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.”

Colonel, now’s the time to craft that final message to the world. Why wait until you face the International Criminal Court in The Hague? But stop threatening to martyr yourself. Someone might take you up on the offer.

And if all else fails you can always borrow a line or two from one of Obama’s speeches. That’s what most speechwriters do.

The writer is a speechwriter for a senior EU politician (not a dictator). The views represented in this article are his own.

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