The Art of Great Speeches

It’sno surprise, half a century into the mass-media age, that Presidents andpoliticians usually don’t write their own speeches. If a candidate can use aTelePrompTer to read a speech and hire a make-up artist to make him look good,doing it, why not hire a professional wordsmith to put the words together inthe first place? Yet even today, there is a certain primal expectation that thewords a leader uses should come from his own heart and mind, that they shouldexpress him. The Gettysburg Address is sacred in part because Abraham Lincolnwrote it; if it were discovered tomorrow that he had paid someone to write itfor him, we would feel betrayed. Yet the most famous speeches of, say, RonaldReagan—his call to “Mr. Gorbachev” to tear down the Berlin Wall, hisD-Day eulogy for the “boys of Pointe du Hoc”—are well known to be thework of speechwriters like Peggy Noonan. Do those speeches reflect credit onReagan, or on Noonan, or both—or neither?

Dennis Glover is wellequipped to wrestle with such questions in TheArt of Great Speeches: And Why We Remember Them. As a speechwriter for Australian politicians,including the current Prime Minister Julia Gillard, he knows that speeches aresomething in between heartfelt self-expression and mere work-for-hire. It is arule, Glover notes, that “a true speechwriter never writes for thepolitical opposition”: unlike pollsters, who can work for any candidate, aspeechwriter is expected to have convictions, to serve a cause rather than aclient. And Glover strongly believes that the speechwriter plays an importantrole in making democracy work. Politicians’ failure to communicate effectively,he writes, “rob[s] our democracy of energy, and the cost is paid in thewreckage of governments and political movements unable to enthuse theirfollowers or provide an adequate riposte to their opponents.”

In his book, Glover weavesa history of oratory together with a defense of it, while offering manypractical tips along the way. Starting with ancient Greece, he shows howoratory has always been both an important tool in public life and a source ofsuspicion. The Greeks developed an elaborate vocabulary of rhetoricaltechniques, which Glover uses to analyze a number of famous speeches, down tothe present day. Barack Obama’s acceptance speech at the 2008 DemocraticConvention, the reader learns, made use of “tricolon,” “polysyndeton,”and “praeteritio,” among many others.

Glover points out that themood and beliefs of the audience are just as important as the skill of thespeaker—as Brutus learned to his cost when he failed to win over the Romanpublic after the murder of Julius Caesar. And he insists that oratory can’tfinally change the way the public thinks about a speaker. While he regardsSarah Palin as a masterful orator, he concludes that her vice-presidentialnomination speech, for all its “brilliant empathetic appeal,” couldnot give her “the two things she couldn’t project: experience andgravitas.”

Glover never quite comesto terms with the fact that oratory can be used for evil just as easily as forgood (Hitler, of course, was a brilliant orator.) Conversely, goodness issometimes tongue-tied: Socrates refused to beg for the jury’s sympathy at hisown trial, and ended up getting the death penalty. Glover’s comment on this iscomically condescending: “Anyone who has worked in politics for any lengthof time would have come across people like Socrates, who manage to combine ableak view of their fellow men with rather unworldly idealism. The historybooks warm to them, but in a practical way they tend to achieve little exceptmartyrdom….” But who has a bleaker view of mankind—Socrates, who spoke thetruth plainly and expected his judges to listen, or Glover, who thinks men aredeaf to truth unless it has a good speechwriter?


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