Former U.S. president Barack Obama is known for being a master orator, his rise in politics marked by momentous speeches that captivated audiences across the country. Thirty-seven-year-old Sarada Peri, senior speechwriter on his team, worked on many Obama addresses during his second term. Peri’s favourite was the keynote Obama gave at the United State of Women Summit last year in Washington D.C., a few months before his term ended, and Donald Trump took office. (The speech, which tackled why Americans need gender equality and what that actually looks like, made news, including a headline in the Washington Post that declared “President Obama just said we shouldn’t shame women for having sex.”)
Watching the political situation in American unfold over this past year has been a been a bit surreal for Peri, who started her career as an English teacher in New Orleans and is a Harvard Kennedy School grad. “The first time I went back to the White House after exiting the gates for my job was to protest the Muslim [refugee] ban and the wall that Trump claimed he was going to build,” she says.
“On one hand, it was super depressing that [was the reason] I was there — but on the other hand, [I realized] people are mad and we’re not going to take this lying down.” She’s now writing speeches for a number of different clients (none of them Republican) and is also a Visiting Global Fellow at the Ryerson Leadership Lab, which brought her to Toronto in late October. In an interview with Chatelaine, she offered some sharp insights on the best and worst ways to communicate, and how we’re seeing them play out in U.S. politics.
On how men and women are expected to communicate
“As a speechwriter I’ve never considered writing for a woman in a way that’s different from a man but I’m aware of the fact that it’s received differently.
People often say Bernie was great and was so real and authentic and Hillary was more packaged. Does anybody really think Hillary could have gotten up on the stump, hair wild, no makeup, screaming at the top of her lungs about inequality? Does anybody really think that would have passed muster and the American people would have been like, “that’s our gal!” What nonsense.
She’s held to a different standard. She has to be perfectly coiffed and made up. Any time she did say anything that was unfiltered, like that time during Bill Clinton’s campaign when she said ‘I’m not staying home and baking cookies,’ it’s completely blown up. And so over time she’s had to become somebody who is more measured and more careful. And cynics will call that calculated but you have to be as a woman.
Whenever women say something in public life, we are ripped apart in a way that is personal, often sexual, in a way that does not happen to men. And [that fact that] it’s on us to police ourselves is really sort of a fundamental problem.”
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On why it’s important for powerful men to speak up on gender issues
“If they are not saying it and if it is not ingrained in men, then nothing will change. And, frankly, the stereotypes that hurt girls are the same ones that hurt boys. The notion that boys have to be strong and assertive and also never shed a tear, while girls are supposed to be nice all the time — that hurts boys. I would argue that men can grow up to be emotionally stunted when they aren’t encouraged to work through their emotions at a young age.”
On why Obama’s declaration of feminism at the United State of Women conference was so effective
“He [went] after stereotypes directly, something I’ve never seen a president do. It shouldn’t have been revolutionary, but it was. It was more than just platitudes on women’s empowerment, which is the kind of B.S. Ivanka is feeding us, hoping to distract us from [how Trump’s policies are impacting] women’s bodies. It wasn’t the normal, ‘we believe in girls’ education,’ which of course is important, but is often just lip service. It was actually tackling the reasons why we don’t have [equality].”
On Ivanka’s espousing of faux feminism
“I think she genuinely believes she’s a feminist. I think once upon a time she was pretty liberal, and she’s probably genuinely shocked that people think she’s reneging on those principles that she supposedly espoused. What is so distressing is that the White House is putting her out there and they’re really good at planting stories in the media, like ‘Ivanka marched up to the Hill and asked for an expanded child credit as part of the tax reform plan and she won’t budge,’ and all this nonsense. She has no power up there. She is saying all these things to support working women, but her plan is actually terrible for working women who aren’t as rich as she is.
She talks about women’s empowerment abroad while her father is reinstating the global gag rule. She talks about her own postpartum depression, and, meanwhile her father wants to take away healthcare from millions of women and members of her party want to take maternity care out of required essential benefits. They have her doing this song and dance — and she’s willing, she’s complicit in this. And that galls me.”
On the different ways to approach ‘authenticity’
“What people see in Trump as authenticity is shooting from the hip. Obviously it’s unrehearsed and unpackaged and some people can find that appealing and I can see why — if his unfiltered id reflects your views, I can see why people find that appealing. But I think we get into a dangerous territory when people think writing and rehearsing the things you say is somehow inauthentic.
The Obamas were authentic, and are authentic. They say what they mean and also are very thoughtful about that. They just wanted to make sure what they were saying was clear and correct. You would never expect a doctor to perform surgery without practicing it. The notion that we expect our politicians to just talk off the top of their head is dangerous, and we see that because Trump’s statements are often riddled with inaccuracies, sometimes intentional sometimes not. He clearly doesn’t understand policy, and maybe people enjoy that but that’s not the way to govern.”
On how to communicate ‘across the aisle’ in divided times
“It is still our job as communicators to listen to the other side. To try to figure out where people are coming from and why they feel the way they feel. I can’t believe that the percentage of the people that voted for Trump are bad people. I think some of them decidedly are. Some of them are white supremacists. But the others who voted for an apologist for white supremacists, who are tolerant of it, I can’t believe that they are all horrible people. We need to figure out why they [voted the way they did]. . . . And I don’t think [turning a deaf ear] is the answer.”