Sept. 8, 2008

Skorton uses the power of words to get out the vote

"As you listen and think in this campaign season and beyond, remember the power of an emotional delivery and commanding presence to influence people's perceptions," said Cornell President David Skorton to about 40 people in 3330 Carol Tatkon Center, Sept. 6, as a kickoff for Educate the Vote, Cornell's fall election series, as well as a part of this year's New Student Reading Project.

In addition to reading the Gettysburg Address, first delivered by Abraham Lincoln with its resounding "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth," Skorton weaved connections to other prominent orators in American history, from Martin Luther King Jr. and Franklin D. Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy.

According to Skorton, Lincoln drew on a shared heritage for the North and South to create a shared context for the country to move forward from the Civil War. The Gettysburg Address reinterpreted the situation with tremendous persuasive power, he said. Almost 100 years later, at the Lincoln Memorial, King charged Americans with the failure to live up to the very same ideals that Lincoln had promoted, deliberately alluding to the Gettysburg Address with the phrase "Five score years ago" in his "I have a dream speech."

King's powerful delivery, Skorton said, captivated his 1963 audience and is an example of how presentation and delivery can make a profound difference. Referring to the 1960 televised debates between Kennedy and Richard Nixon, Skorton pointed out that viewers overwhelming agreed that the victory went to the personable Kennedy while those who hadn't watched the debates disagreed. "The performance aspect of delivery in cadence, tone and meaningful pauses and gestures that appear natural or forced can be critical," said Skorton.

Closer to home, Skorton lauded Cornell President Emeritus Frank Rhodes' speaking abilities. "As president, he had the powerful words and powerful delivery to sway alumni to volunteer, philanthropists to donate and administrators and faculty to cooperate," Skorton said.

"There are so many examples of powerful words. Find the ones that inspire you, and respond to those words. But respond with both your mind and heart. Engage with your mind and engage with your heart. The place to start is here, today, with the voter registration tables," said Skorton, referring to the registration drive under way at Tatkon Center.

"I wish there had been a greater turnout [here]," said Erin Szulman '12, who worked for her county legislator in high school and plans on getting more involved in politics at Cornell. "If not [in] college, where else are people going to hear about how to get involved."

Skorton's presentation was part of the daylong Jam the Vote event, which featured musicians from Just About Music, Yamatai Taiko Drumming, local bands and Cornell dance troupes. It continued in Robert Purcell Community Center and on Rawlings Green and the North Campus quad, where students spent the night watching "Glory" and "Wag the Dog" and sleeping outside.

Nina Zhang '09 is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.