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?

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Mark

    Of course we have changed as well in our world of twitter and sound bites and focus groups. If someone gave a great speech today, few would probably listen waiting to hear on the internet the “important parts” or sound bites pulled out for them to digest. While the speech was going on, many would focus on how they looked. In the JFK Nixon debates it is well known that the people who listened on the radio thought Nixon had trounced Kennedy, but those who watched TV were more focused on JFK fake tan and Nixon pale sweaty look. Many do not even communicate anymore outside emails. Who writes letters and mails them? I remember when I served in the military and my then girl friend Greta would send letters each day. Nothing better than getting a letter that went into detail on what was going on back in the real world. I can’t remember the time when someone sent me a letter. In schools, kids are more and more surrounded by technology and white boards. Our politicians reflect what the people respond too as seen with the massive use of negative advertising people say they hate but which always prove effective to the winners.

  • dry valleys

    Yes, I do think that in particular people should read great speeches made centuries ago, and also the King James Bible. I don’t believe in using it for theology, or morality, but as literature and to get an understanding of where our language and ourselves come from. (Fascinatingly enough, this is a view shared by Richard Dawkins, who writes beautifully himself).

    We were never taught poetry or recitation when I was at school in the 1990s. We weren’t taught English grammar either, if I make fewer (NOT “less”!) mistakes than most it’s just because I read more. I remember, German was my worst subject because I couldn’t understand German grammar, which was a consequence of not understanding English grammar. It didn’t stop me excelling at English- draw your own conclusions from that!

    The other thing is, though, people like our forefathers didn’t walk around quoting Virgil and Dante, they were illiterate. They got a good enough grounding from the Bible and hymns, but stil they were mentally impoverished compared to some teenager who is learning Mandarin online.

    They say that Anthony Blair was a great orator (perhaps someone who has heard his speeches can tell me what they think), but it didn’t make what he said right. I read speeches sometimes, but there’s never enough detail as to what the speaker plans on doing for me.

    As for Mark’s comments about TV debates. They brought in US-style debates in Britain, the leaders of the three main parties arguing against each other. I didn’t care for them, I thought they were just a circus and the ability to perform well in such a context has little/nothing to do with the ability to lead well.

  • Steve Colby

    How can you write this:

    “Arise, daughters of America, and build your dreams upon the slaughter of your progeny; some say the fullness of our humanity was built upon the flesh and blood of one woman who said “yes” to a daunting and difficult proposal, but I say your fulfillment, your dreams and your future are better built upon the garbage heaps of “no” we’ve encouraged you to form out of your own flesh-and-blood in the empty landfills of government compassion, hope and change.”

    And then suggest that oratory is over and done? Granted, you are in an ironic “speechwriter for the Devil” mode, and no one has yet given this speech, but at least rhetoric is alive and well.

  • http://victor-undergo.blogspot.com/ Victor

    (((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. . .)))

    (((Could Winston Churchill have inspired Britain during World War II?)))

    Victor I’ll have you know that not even Bill Clinton speaches inspired “Brintain’s Prostitutes” more cause they loved Winston Churchill speaches so much and as a matter of spiritual fact, one of their godly alien prostitute cells told U>S (usual sinners) about a speach that he once gave to a group of his mirrored reality cells and “IT” went something like this….

    “IT” will be long and hard and we will love to the end and we shall fight for our country 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 have our UP’s and DOWN’s but we will never retreat and/or surrender. . .

    I hear ya! That will be enough out of ya sinner vic!

    Ya and that goes for me, myself and i also sinner vic!

    Piece? :)



    P.S. Yes folks “I” agree, “IT” takes “ONE” to know “ONE”?!


  • dry valleys

    Delingpole is always good for rhetoric. You have to admire his mastery of the language, albeit it’s a bit terrifying to consider what his mental state must be.

  • conservativemama

    Mandatory testing in the public schools leaves no time to learn recitation and poetry. It’s all about passing a multiple choice test at the end of the year. It’s sucking the life and joy out of teaching. It’s deadening. Students are so bored, and if you sat in some of their classes, you’d have to agree with them.

  • Reg

    Everybody’s wrong. We are a jaded people with overdeveloped love for irony and sarcasm. If Churchill delivered that speech now, he’s be laughed at and mocked on SNL. Rhetoric now means doing it with a wink and acceptance that “yes, I know I sound a little ridiculous, but bear with me. “… It’s not just politicians, compare todays preachers and attorneys to those from earlier generations and its the same.

  • RodW

    Churchill didn’t “enlarge a thought”. He made it more concrete. Obama seems to think abstraction = smart.