Bob Kerrey, president of the New School, has analyzed the structure of effective political applause lines: Reagan in a "debate" saying that he wouldn't hold Mondale's youth against him; Lloyd Bentsen telling Dan Quayle that he bears no resemblance to John Kennedy; Ann Richards's observation that George Bush #41 was born with a silver foot in his mouth. We tend to remember the line itself but forget the set-up. Here is Bob's analysis of how it gets done. And Bob knows: remember, he represented Nebraska in the US Senate for two terms and before that he was the state's governor. And yesterday was his birthday!
Take it away, Bob.-- DL
First and foremost, an applause line must sound good. The cadence is crucial. When Al Gore said, "it's time for them to go," he relied on an iambic trimeter line to galvanize the crowd.
The ideal applause line measures 24 to 26 seconds and can, as a result, be converted into a 30 second television or internet ad. The structure has three parts:
Part One: An observation, eg Most rooms in America have four sides.
Part Two: An assertion that the thing observed is good or bad, eg Square rooms are turning our children into walled-in squares
Part Three: A promise to end the negative or implement the positive, eg When I am elected I will see to it that kids burst out of the walls of inhibition into the open air of freedom.
If the observed phenomenon is obvious and the speaker is pretty confident that the audience is hip, then Part Three may be all that is needed: "And I shall not cease from mental fight until we build a university without walls" or "With your help I will make sure that the city of the future depends not on the squares of the past but the circles of perfection."
My favorite example from Tuesday night's DNC convention was Brian Sweitzer's: "The petro dictators will never own American wind and sunshine!" He had a set up line, but he didn't need it.
Challenge to readers: Make a three-part applause line in favor of free sunglasses for everyone, because the August sun can be blinding.
-- Bob Kerrey