This Month's Speeches, Part 1: @Schwarzenegger
A remarkable matching of message, messenger, and moment. Will it matter? We can't know. But it was a demonstration of high rhetorical art.
This post is the first in a three-part series about speeches or statements this past month that I think deserve another look, as parts of the “permanent record” of how leaders, societies, and institutions are responding to the crises of the moment. All the speeches were in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But they also suggest broader points about communication, motivation, persuasion, connection.
Two of the speeches were given by heads of state, and two by people trained as actors. (From a total of three people.) All received varying degrees of in-the-moment coverage—especially, though in an unfortunate way, the most recent, which I’ll list third. I’ll take them in little bite-sized daily installments, and then suggest what they collectively show us about this moment and beyond.
Let’s start with the one that was not by a current political leader, and that appeared with virtually no advance warning. That was the nine-minute-long online video message from Arnold Schwarzenegger, which was addressed to “my dear Russian friends” and appeared on his @Schwarzenegger Twitter account and other outlets two weeks ago, on March 17.
The video was a direct-to-camera appeal by Schwarzenegger to viewers and listeners in Russia. He spoke in his familiar accented English, but with Russian subtitles. While Twitter itself is banned in Russia, Schwarzenegger released the video also on Telegram and other channels that might circulate there. Within a day or two it appears to have reached at least some of its intended audience.
It was more carefully put together than most rhetoric we encounter, which is what I hope to illustrate now.
‘The Hidden Persuaders’
We often hear that artists, actors, musicians, and of course advertising and “communications” experts understand human motivations in a way that debaters and other logic-choppers never will. Half of the appeal of Mad Men was seeing our hopes, dreams, and fears through Don Draper’s eyes. The non-logical shapers of belief were also the subject of Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, a runaway bestseller of that mid-1950s Mad Men era.
Eons ago in college, I was in a course that spent several sessions examining this unspoken-persuasion power of Frank Capra movies in WWII-era America, along with Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will in Hitler’s Germany. And the likes of Mrs. Miniver and Best Years of Our Lives in shaping attitudes before and after the U.S. entry into the war, or the songs and plotlines of South Pacific.
A nine-minute online video cannot be of similar scale. But years from now, I hope a course like the one I took will have a mention of what Arnold Schwarzenegger produced in March, 2022. You can read the full text courtesy of The Atlantic, but it’s worth hearing it from the man himself. Assuming you’re busy now, please make time at some point to spend nine minutes and 16 seconds this way.
@Schwarzenegger’s overlapping identities
What makes this so notable? I think it is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s clear-eyed understanding of what he, as a messenger, could uniquely bring to this, as a message. That is, he recognized the thoughts a broadcast by him would convey, without his having to say them.
Schwarzenegger’s audience was the Russian public, especially its soldiers. And its explicit, spelled-out message was: You are better than this. You Russians have a spirit and culture and character that I admire. You Russian soldiers pride yourselves on defending the motherland, not on being on the attack.
So I am here to warn you: You’re being tricked and misled into actions you will always regret.
Trust me, I know. [I’m still paraphrasing.] My own father was a Nazi soldier, and he was tricked and misled in just the same way. Learn from his shame and failure. Live up to the greatness of your culture and your nation. I know you well enough to be sure that you’d never do the things you’re doing now, if you knew the real facts. Which I’m about to share.
“This is not a war to defend Russia like your grandfathers and your great-grandfathers fought,” he says near the end. “This is an illegal war. Your lives, your limbs, and your futures are being sacrificed for a senseless war, condemned by the entire world.”
That was the out-loud part of the message—the text, if you will. The subtext was: and Arnold Schwarzenegger is telling you these things. Which mattered because of the overlapping identities that go with whatever he says or does.
What Schwarzenegger didn’t have to take the time to say, because his presence said it, was the following:
I am strong.
Arnold Schwarzenegger is world-famous as a real-life muscle man, and an on-screen action hero. The advantage of being seen as strong, is that you don’t have to prove it all day.
A man who gained screen fame as The Terminator could dare to sound gentle. He could warn today’s warriors about the pain of long-term guilt and shame.
“When my father arrived in Leningrad, he was all pumped up on the lies of his government,” Schwarzenegger said, referring to Gustav Schwarzenegger’s service with the besieging Nazi troops. “When he left Leningrad, he was broken physically and mentally. He spent the rest of his life in pain: pain from a broken back, pain from the shrapnel that always reminded him of those terrible years, pain from the guilt that he felt…
“I don’t want you to be broken like my father.”
A message of personal family pain in the past, and of concern for others’ pain in the future, from a man whose franchise role was as an android executioner, invulnerable inflictor of death and pain.
I understand you, and I respect you.
Speakers everywhere try to ingratiate themselves by beginning with some connection-flattery to their audience. “It’s so wonderful to be here in [StateName], whose fine [apples / automobiles / country music / scenic beaches] I have always enjoyed, and where my [cousin/mother-in-law] spent so many happy years.” A U.S. president once began a talk in Saudi Arabia by noting how the two countries were linked by their “wide-open desert spaces.” Unfortunately I know this first-hand.
On top of his global renown, Schwarzenegger has been a familiar figure in Russia from his long-standing involvement in sport, culture, and business. In beginning this message, he didn’t have to strain or pander to establish a connection, because he could throw out allusions that did the job.
These included: The Soviet-era weightlifter Yury Petrovich Vlasov who had been his childhood hero, and whose hand he shook when Schwarzenegger was 14. His chance to spend a day with that same Vlasov decades later, when Schwarzenegger was in Moscow filming Red Heat. Mentions of the World War II battles and losses that loom so large in Russia’s own self-awareness. Among them was the siege of Leningrad, where the Nazi force that included his father “did vicious harm to that great city and to its brave people.” While he was mentioning these in a tone of reminiscence, photos of his time in Russia and with Russian friends appeared on the screen. At the end of this section, around time 2:20 of the video, Schwarzenegger held up a coffee cup he said he drinks from every morning, which was a present from his idol-turned-friend Yury Vaslov.
Then Schwarzenegger got to this part of the address where he explicitly told his Russian audience that he respected them and was their friend. But by that point he had already shown them—through stories and photos and vocal tone and facial expression—that he thought of Russians as “we,” not “they.” It was the setup for the pivot of the address, when he says he’s staging an intervention:
“The reason I’m telling you all of this is that ever since I was 14 years old, I’ve had nothing but affection and respect for the people of Russia. The strength and the heart of the Russian people have always inspired me.
“That is why I hope that you will let me tell you the truth about the war in Ukraine. No one likes to hear something critical of their government. I understand that. But as a longtime friend of the Russian people, I hope that you will hear what I have to say.”
I am getting old.
Arnold Schwarzenegger will turn 75 this summer. He has lived long enough to have witnessed the lasting effects of war. He was not alive under the Nazis. But he grew up in the Europe they had destroyed, with a father they had “broken.”
And as someone raised in post-war Austria, he understood without seeing The Sound of Music about the predicament of “good” people faced with bad governments—and what happens when good people don’t stand up. He didn’t have to imagine that, or read about it in a textbook—and he didn’t have to spell out this part of his awareness to listeners in Russia. It comes with his identity as an Austrian Nazi’s son.
The audience would also understand it as the backdrop to the closing words of his address:
And to the Russians who have been protesting on the streets against the invasion of Ukraine: The world has seen your bravery. We know that you have suffered the consequences of your courage. You have been arrested. You have been jailed and you’ve been beaten.
You are my new heroes. [This last word an important one, from the star of The Last Action Hero.] You have the strength of Yury Petrovich Vlasov. You have the true heart of Russia.
Other people have given meatier and more rousing speeches, which will make a larger mark on history. We don’t know how many minds or hearts this broadcast might change in Russia.
But when you see something this well crafted, and someone rising to an occasion this well, it pays to stop and notice. As a deliberate combination of message, messenger, and moment, I don’t know how it could have been improved. My admiration to all involved.
Next up: some of those meatier speeches, and their use of the moment.
What a wonderful speech, and a great idea for a series of columns. We don't often discuss the power of speech, and not only the words and ideas conveyed by them but also the speaker and the audience. I enjoyed this so much.
Zelensky's speech to the UK Parliament, coming before his other ones to other legislative bodies, seems particularly notable among those others. Hope you include it!