Though mostly regarded as a form of entertainment, movies oftentimes contain powerful examples of rhetoric and quality writing, especially cinematic classics. In “The American President” (1995), Michael Douglas plays President Andrew Shepherd running for reelection against Senator Bob Rumson. Well-structured and well-argued, Shepherd’s speech at the end of the movie features a series of strong motives building off one another that explains why his speech is significant and needs to be presented in that moment. Shepherd begins by addressing Rumson’s attacks on his character head-on, then transitions into discussing the fragility of the state of freedom, both heated issues in the election campaign that Shepherd must immediately handle. He then returns to the question of character by defending his girlfriend’s character, which had been attacked by Rumson. His speech ends with two concrete actions he is prepared to undertake to fix certain problems in the country, concerns brought up in the campaign trail. Throughout his speech, his motive builds and expands, as the audience comes to understand Shepherd’s purpose in delivering the speech: to clear his name from the attacks of his political rival and to prove to the American people that he is the best person for leading the nation.
“For the last couple of months, Senator Rumson has suggested that being President of this country was, to a certain extent, about character. And although I’ve not been willing to engage in his attacks on me, I have been here three years and three days, and I can tell you without hesitation: Being President of this country is entirely about character.
For the record, yes, I am a card-carrying member of the ACLU, but the more important question is “Why aren’t you, Bob?” Now this is an organization whose sole purpose is to defend the Bill of Rights, so it naturally begs the question, why would a senator, his party’s most powerful spokesman and a candidate for President, choose to reject upholding the constitution? Now if you can answer that question, folks, then you’re smarter than I am, because I didn’t understand it until a few hours ago.
America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You’ve gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say, “You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.” You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag. The symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms.
Then you can stand up and sing about the land of the free.
I’ve known Bob Rumson for years. And I’ve been operating under the assumption that the reason Bob devotes so much time and energy to shouting at the rain was that he simply didn’t get it. Well, I was wrong. Bob’s problem isn’t that he doesn’t get it. Bob’s problem is that he can’t sell it!
We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things, and two things only: making you afraid of it, and telling you who’s to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections. You gather a group of middle age, middle class, middle income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family, and American values and character, and you wave an old photo of the President’s girlfriend and you scream about patriotism. You tell them she’s to blame for their lot in life. And you go on television and you call her a whore.
Sydney Ellen Wade has done nothing to you, Bob. She has done nothing but put herself through school, represent the interests of public school teachers, and lobby for the safety of our natural resources. You want a character debate, Bob? You better stick with me, ’cause Sydney Ellen Wade is way out of your league.
I’ve loved two women in my life. I lost one to cancer. And I lost the other ’cause I was so busy keeping my job, I forgot to do my job. Well, that ends right now.
Tomorrow morning the White House is sending a bill to Congress for it’s consideration. It’s White House Resolution 455, an energy bill requiring a twenty percent reduction of the emission of fossil fuels over the next ten years. It is by far the most aggressive stride ever taken in the fight to reverse the effects of global warming. The other piece of legislation is the crime bill. As of today, it no longer exists. I’m throwing it out. I’m throwing it out and writing a law that makes sense. You cannot address crime prevention without getting rid of assault weapons and hand guns. I consider them a threat to national security, and I will go door to door if I have to, but I’m gonna convince Americans that I’m right, and I’m gonna get the guns.
We’ve got serious problems, and we need serious people. And if you want to talk about character, Bob, you’d better come at me with more than a burning flag and a membership card. If you want to talk about character and American values, fine. Just tell me where and when, and I’ll show up. This a time for serious people, Bob, and your fifteen minutes are up.”