Whither American Oratory?

My column over at First Things this week was the result of watching excerpts of Martin Luther King’s soaring speeches and then listening to our current batch of the “best and brightest.”:

Our presidential choices are not much better. If a recent GOP debate was notable for Newt Gingrich’s populist smackdown of the press, every candidate took a turn at tongue-tumbling and homina-homining his way through a response. Our current president—who, sans teleprompter, is as prone to stumble-stuttering as his predecessor—has not managed a memorable phrase since “yes we can.” His remarks this week on the anniversary of Roe v Wade were so disinterested and vague that they could have been called empty, except where they displayed insensitivity.

Great oratory is about more than being able to smoothly read a teleprompter, or sufficiently rehearse (or over-rehearse) a bit of rhetoric. Great oratory requires both a love of ideas and the words that bring them forth and make them seem not just plausible but noble, not just noble but unstoppable. Great oratory can so enlarge a thought that everyone listening wants to ride on its wings to the soaring heights. Could Winston Churchill have inspired Britain during World War II with some mealy, designed-not-to-give-offense sentence promising mere protection?

We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender. . .

Fine structure; powerful imagery, delivered in a voice full of certitude: great oratory.

You can read the rest here. You might be surprised by the direction of my praise.

When I was a kid, we had to learn recitation and poetry. Do schools still require that?

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About Elizabeth Scalia