Politico

Shenanigans: That tone of voice

By Anne Schroeder Mullins
12/11/07

The Great Debaters

We say “The Great Debaters”; you do not say “the presidential contenders.”

“Debate” is practically becoming a taboo word around these parts — much like “caucuses” — mainly because there’s talk of nothing else.

Ah, but come Christmas, the movie theaters are going to be showing “The Great Debaters” — which, thankfully, has nothing to do with who got the best zinger at the latest back and forth but, rather, is about the Wiley College Debate Team in the Jim Crow South of the 1930s. Directed by and starring Denzel Washington, the film was produced by Oprah Winfrey’s company and written by D.C. speechwriter and communications strategist Jeff Porro, the same guy who has written a few speeches for Kofi Annan and Jimmy Carter, along with Hollywood screenwriter Bob Eisele.

So we asked Porro a few questions:

Best movie about D.C.?

“‘All the President’s Men,’ head and shoulders above the rest. I love ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,’ too. Corny but inspiring.”

Did you meet Oprah/Denzel? Use one word for them each.

“Sorry. Didn’t meet either one. The assistant to Oprah’s assistant’s assistant was very cordial, and my screenwriter pal did let me hear Denzel’s message on his answering machine.”

Craziest D.C. story that happened to you.

“It was my third day on the job as a young assistant to Sen. Howard Metzenbaum. He called me to his office and asked me to take a package to a certain room number in the Capitol. Assuming it was a batch of important legislative material, I rushed to the room, guarding the package with my life. The door opened, and it was the senators’ gym. I had delivered Metzenbaum’s workout clothes.”

Who is the best political debater?

“When he’s focused, Newt Gingrich is very, very good. But if I had to bet the mortgage on one person, it would be Jesse Jackson. Amazing blend of emotion, brains and style, plus I love the rhymes.”

What do your movie, Jimmy Carter and Kofi Annan all have in common?

“I think they all convey great messages about the need to keep struggling against the odds to achieve real progress.”

What’s the best communications advice?

“To connect with an audience, tell stories about people, don't recite — yawn — statistics.”

So, what’s really the difference between Hollywood and D.C. — and don't say the weather or looks.

“In one, it’s all about how much you paid for your haircut. The other is in California.”

Anything else you’d like to add?

“I confess, I have thought about my Oscar remarks, just in case.”