The Best Way to Argue with the President

In the Public Speaking Club’s Outstanding Speaker Series, Robert Barnett reveals his secrets to helping presidential ticket candidates prepare for nationally televised debates and shares his opinion on the upcoming presidential nominations.

Attorney Robert Barnett spoke to an audience of about 350, which filled the Spangler Auditorium, on January 27. The event was the first of the HBS Public Speaking Club’s Outstanding Speaker Series for 2007. MBA students, Harvard undergraduates, Kennedy students, Executive Education students, and communications students from Emerson College and Suffolk University learned about Mr. Barnett’s experience as a trainer for presidential ticket candidates, helping the politicians prepare for nationally televised debates. Ever since the 1960 debate between Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy was credited by many for swinging the election and shaping history, the presidential debate has been a central event in American politics.

Mr. Barnett, ranked amongst “The 100 Most Influential Lawyers in America” by The National Law Journal, has worked on seven presidential campaigns from 1976 to 2004. This work included being the debate coach for Bill Clinton, Geraldine Ferraro, Michael Dukakis, Joe Lieberman, and John Edwards for their national campaign debates. During his presentation, Mr. Barnett showed footage of Al Gore’s debating performance and explained how focus groups are used to see how the politician’s statements influence audience members from Republican, Democratic, and independent backgrounds. The audience had the opportunity to learn a little more about how Mr. Barnett launched a career in debate and the art of persuasion by his daughter’s introduction at the beginning of the speech. Meredith Barnett (OC) revealed that her father was the captain of his high school debate team, and his first date with his wife of thirty-five years included proposing marriage.

The presentation was characterized by a series of interesting and personal anecdotes related to the unpredictable young Jack Edwards (presidential candidate John Edwards’ son), the off key singing of Hillary Clinton, and others. Entertainment Weekly selected Robert as “one of the 100 most powerful people in the entertainment industry” because of his representation of key figures on both sides of the aisle in multi-million book deals. Alan Greenspan, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, and Lynne Cheney are among the heavy-hitters who have come to Robert Barnett in the past few years to negotiate on their behalf with publishing houses.

As a representative of five of the 2008 presidential candidates (Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, Bill Richardson, and James Gilmore), Mr. Barnett was able to give us some insights into the upcoming election. He reminded the audience that no one can predict the future-after all, who had heard of Bill Clinton before 1992? However, he felt that given today’s atmosphere, Hillary Clinton would clinch the Democratic nomination, and her most likely opponent would be Republican maverick John McCain. Only time will tell if the political insider’s predictions will come to pass.

Audience members provided enthusiastic feedback on Mr. Barnett’s presentation, which is the first in the second semester of a year-long series designed to expose the Public Speaking Club and the rest of the HBS community to some of the greatest speakers in the world.

The next events of the Outstanding Speaker Series include two more speakers with ties to the American government. First, General Barry McCaffrey, who served as the drug czar in Bill Clinton’s cabinet, will be coming to Spangler Auditorium on February 13, 2007 at 4:00pm. The following week, Ray Semko, a veteran of U.S. counter-espionage, will be presenting. Ray was the most captivating and sought-after speaker on the government payroll during his 35 years of service, and has spoken to hundreds of thousands of people throughout his career. His talk in Spangler will be on February 20, 2007 at 4:00pm. Finally, world-famous motivational speaker Tony Robbins will be coming to Burden Auditorium on March 29, 2007 at 4:15pm.

Any questions? Email the Public Speaking Club’s Vice President of Operations, Constance Jones, at

February 12, 2007
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