Friday, March 3, 2017

A Note on Great Political Speeches

"We choose to go to the moon..."

Two days ago, I called Trump's Address to Congress, "tremendous" and "the speech of the century."

A liberal friend of a friend bombed onto my Facebook wall and said:
I can read from a teleprompter too, and make vague statements without getting into any details. Does that make me tremendous as well?
I actually thought that was a concession. And it's been echoed by other anti-Trumpers on Twitter. Instead of calling the Address "dark" or "fascist" or whatever, as they did for the Inaugural, they're essentially saying: okay, anyone can make a speech, but does he really mean it, and will he actually keep his promises?

Translation: it was a good speech.

Obviously, one's political predilections to some extent shade one's opinions on the matter. Historians say that Hitler was a "mesmerizing" orator, but few would call any of his speeches "great." That's because we don't like him and what he represented.

But still, outliers aside, when one evaluates a speech, one is generally evaluating . . . the speech. Was it interesting, entertaining, inspiring, profound and so on.

And no, not anyone can read a good speech. Delivery is important. And of course, while modern American politicians do not singlehandedly write their own speeches from scratch, their direction, choices, distinctive turns of phrase, changes (or decisions on what not to change) matter.

Reagan was told not to say, "tear down this wall." He didn't take that advice.

And history was made.

I'm pretty equal opportunity. I liked Trump's speech. I liked Reagan's speeches. But I thought those of the Bushes were generally pretty bad.

I thought Clinton and Obama were vastly overrated as speakers. Does anyone remember anything Obama actually said in the hundreds of speeches that he made? Does anyone remember a Clinton turn of phrase, other than, "I did not have sex with that woman . . . Ms. Lewinsky"? Clinton was almost booed off the stage during his excruciatingly tedious first national speech.

John F. Kennedy was a mediocre president and a distinctively problematic moral example. But I thought some of his speeches were amazing. I could listen to his "moon shot" speech for hours.

Roosevelt was one of the worst things to ever happen to this country. But he was often a very inspiring orator.

What makes a great speaker? In terms of delivery, I would say that "smoothness" can be a disadvantage. Clinton and Obama were smooth but boring.

A good salesman doesn't sound like a salesman.

Kennedy had a Boston accent. Churchill - one of the greatest orators of all time - had a speech impediment. Listen to his classic speeches on YouTube. He often sounds like that cartoon character, Sylvester the Cat.

Trump also is distinctive. He's a brash New Yorker who uses girly phrases like, "it will be a beautiful thing." You either find it endearing or it fills you with rage. But it doesn't put you to sleep.

But I think ideological commitment also counts. I honestly do not think that the Bushes or Clinton or even Obama felt anything very deeply in their core, so to speak. That's not a criticism per se, just an observation. We can't all burn with ideological zeal, at least publicly. And it's sometimes (depending on the historical context) better to have a leader who doesn't do that.

Okay, maybe Obama had ideological zeal for himself.

And I'm using "ideology" in the wide sense. Reagan was a libertarian conservative. Churchill was a believer in Western civilization. Roosevelt, Kennedy and, yes, Trump, each in their own ways, were and are dedicated proponents of what we might call, "Americanism."

Sure, they all had and have strong egos. That's a given. But they also believed, or at least appeared to believe in some principle or thing outside of themselves.

Who are the great Catholic orators (no, Kennedy doesn't really count)? Were Pope Pius X or Blessed Karl good speakers? I have no idea. YouTube doesn't go back that far.

But John Paul II had it. Say what you like about his sometime Modernism, but he could move crowds. When he first visited Poland as pope, people followed him home and went to sleep under his balcony. He had to come out and tell them to go away.

1 comment:

  1. Charisma is an elusive quality. Great speakers usually have it. Some things can't be described very well, we respond as human creatures to other human creatures in different ways. Example, we all know "cool", when we see it, even elderly people can id it. But what is it. There are qualities of attraction and well, not.
    President Trump has a quality. Part of his appeal is simply that he's made it despite all the odds. He's tough, certainly mentally tough, and likely far more intelligent than he is assumed to be. He's tall and has such a confidence presence he comes off cool, which doesn't hurt him. Everybody admires a real man when they see one. But the Left enjoys making juvenile cracks about how "dumb" presidents in the other party are, as liberals do believe if you disagree with them, by definition you must be an imbecile.
    Americans want a good-looking president. Not just handsome, but presidential and looking the part. We are very superficial in that way. As is said, Lincoln could never have made it, UNLESS, Lincoln had that elusive charisma, that quality of being such that if he is in the room, all eyes are on him, and when he opens his mouth, he can hold the room and persuade others. We can't tell that from still pictures.
    We want a smooth talker. He can say nothing, be vague, even be idiotic, lie, we just want glib. We prefer a good speech giver who lies over a less glib speaker who is moral and tells the truth. This does not speak well for the quality of our own morality or thinking, but I believe it's true.
    So, attractive liar (Obama) is okay, for a lot of Americans.
    President Trump is glib enough, and he's going to improve as he does this more and more. He is a leader, and I hope he gets a full chance to be the great president for America that he clearly wants to be.