In this extraordinary political season, last week introduced a new dimension: a minute examination of one candidate’s rhetorical skills. Barack Obama was put under the microscope to see whether he could produce a transcendental speech that would nullify the excesses of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.
That this should be is extraordinary in itself. We have heretofore judged politicians on their religious affiliation, but not on the utterances of a particular clergyman.
More, as a people, we have shied away from lofty rhetoric, favoring meat-and-potatoes speech. Our best orators have not played well with the electorate, although sometimes they have handed down memorable thoughts. William Jennings Bryan comes to mind as the preeminent orator of his day. We still remember his mesmerizing “Cross of Gold” speech, but we also remember him as being baited and brought down by Clarence Darrow in the “Scopes Monkey Trial.” Today, we adore the cascading cadences of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But his was a voice of protest, a cry of pain, not a solicitation for votes.
One of our best orators was Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois, who filled the Senate chamber with speech but changed no minds. In that, he was like Winston Churchill before World War II. According to Roy Jenkins’s detailed book on Churchill’s parliamentary life, members of the House of Commons revered Churchill’s eloquence but resisted his logic. Jenkins reports that when it was known that Churchill was to speak, the House would fill up with enthusiastic members who came for the show. But that was all they came for.
Rhetoric had its birth, and maybe its finest hours, in the ancient Greek democracy. The ability to argue brilliantly in public was revered as established as an art form. It continued, but was modified, in the Roman Forum. As the Roman state became more important than the individual, the nature of public oration changed: disputation surrendered to the triumphalism of Julius Caesar.
Through history there were great speakers from the thrones and the pulpits. But the growth of parliamentary democracy in England brought the art of public persuasion back to life, as it had been in Greece and Rome.
Initially, when British parliaments reflected only a small part of the population, debate was erudite with many references to the classics. As the franchise expanded in the 19th century, the language was modified to be more comprehensible to the public.
The House of Commons provided an arena, and rhetorical success there meant success in politics, witness H. H. Asquith, David Lloyd George, F.E. Smith, Charles Parnell, and Daniel O’Connell. The Liberal William Gladstone and the Conservative Benjamin Disraeli, the great rivals, went about it with scholarship and wit, enhanced by their personal antipathy to each other. Gladstone was the greatest orator (he could speak without notes for four hours), but Disraeli excelled at repartee—the quick thrust and the lethal turn-of-phrase were his weapons. So popular were Gladstone’s speeches that he had to employ shouters: men who stood just in earshot and repeated the great man’s words so that people could hear them.
Broadcasting has banished the thundering speech in favor of a more intimate conversation between politician and voter. Franklin D. Roosevelt understood this and changed political speech from big, bold oratory to a crowd to intimate communication to individuals. He also understood the value of scarcity and addressed the nation infrequently, compared to today’s presidents who broadcast once a week to an inattentive nation. Ronald Reagan, always referred to as a great communicator not a great orator, followed the FDR example of delivering big ideas in soft, informal language.
Whether Obama becomes the Democratic nominee and president or not, he has raised the rhetorical stakes. He has melded something of the eloquence of the 19th century with the collegiate delivery of today. He has also raised expectations for his future speeches. People will expect them to be as well crafted and as nuanced as his Philadelphia speech. As a speaker, Obama will always be compared to himself—and that is a high standard.