Friday, April 29, 2011

What makes a speech great?

I am one of the minority in US who does not think great of Obama's oratory. Obama puts me to sleep. I've attempted to hear his speeches many times and I'd be snoring after 5 minutes. Before people jump at me saying "republican" let state unambiguously that I love to listen to Bill Clinton. If Bill Clinton and Barack Obama spoke about health care reform in 2 rooms I'd go to Bill Clinton's room. While I was mulling on this topic I wondered about how some speeches get to be called "great speeches". As an avid one-time debater and orator I've collected such CD's and read quite a few of the so called "great speeches".

Today every school boy in US knows about Lincoln's famous Gettysburg speech, "a government for the people by the people". A historian, Gary Wills, wrote a Pulitzer awarded book, just dissecting that speech alone. But in its day the speech was not reported prominently. The speech received mixed reception in the press, in fact there are several versions of the speech, Lincoln spoke for just 2 minutes. With the passage of time and with the perspective that time enable us to appreciate of events today the speech is one of the most celebrated. Any speech attains greatness primarily from the significance of the historical background in which it is delivered, secondly from the words chosen in that order. Lincoln's choice of words rose to the occasion and remains great.

Sometimes only a fragment of a speech will attain the status of a classic and would be oft quoted. When US was literally and metaphorically shell shocked after Pearl Harbor FDR gave his famous, "a date that will live in infamy" speech. Only those words remain etched in public memory because they perfectly captured the sentiment of a nation. Amongst the nearly hundred inaugural speeches only one American President's inauguration speech is noted and quoted (rather mis-attributed), "ask not what your country has done for you, ask what you have done for your country". JFK, rather his celebrated speech writer Ted Sorensen, had plagiarized the words of Lebanese-American poet Khalil Gibran and used the words out of context. Khalil Gibran addressed the words to corrupt Lebanese politicians thus "Are you a politician asking what your country can do for you or a zealous one asking what you can do for your country? If you are the first, then you are a parasite; if the second, then you are an oasis in a desert." Its a citizen asking a politician if he had done anything for the country. JFK, a politician, inverted it to ask citizens. Even Obama's ardent admirers felt let down with his inaugural address because in their mind he was inheriting JFK's mantle of orator-politician. 

Winston Churchill was the uber-historian-biographer-orator-politician. It was said that he took the English language to war against Hitler. Amongst his many speeches a couple stand out for some key passages that remain unrivaled in the history of public speaking. The first is his speech delivered to the House of Commons when he took over the reins from Neville Chamberlain delivering the immortal lines, "I've nothing to offer but blood and toil, tears and sweat". Hear him say the word "sweat" (near the minute marker 3:29), that's the bull dog warrior for you.

He is addressing a nation that was in dread. He does not promise anything easy, he lays it out clean and honest. He does not even promise a quick victory. He stated bluntly, "we have before us many, many, many long months of struggle". Faced with an enemy like Hitler Churchill could easily label him evil and say unequivocally, "you ask what is our policy, it is to wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the long and lamentable catalogue of human crimes". Note that Hitler's tyrannies for which he will be loathed by the ages were yet to begin and whatever he had done against Jews in Germany was yet not very well known to the outside world. I've often wondered why did Churchill choose to say "never surpassed" instead of just "unsurpassed". If we read the line again then the choice becomes clear, unlike saying 'tyranny unsurpassed' the words 'tyranny never surpassed' has a staccato stabbing effect. He then declares the goal very clearly, 'victory, victory at all costs'. The speech nevertheless finishes with hope, 'come, then let us go forward'. The speech itself could be analyzed for mastery of the art of rhetoric. 

During the course of the war Churchill would deliver many memorable speeches with lines that are now committed to memory by every student of history and literature. The last famous speech he gave was in US. After the war cold war had erupted and Churchill saw it with a clarity that was not apparent to many at that time. At Westminster College, Fulton he delivered what is now referred to as the Iron Curtain speech, "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an Iron Curtain has descended across the continent" . This speech is famous for the clarity of vision that was stated plainly without befuddling the issue. There is no Obama type "on the one hand and on the other hand" hand wringing. 

While I exult in Churchill's rhetoric I wonder too how come we never speak of Adolf Hitler's speeches. Hitler was known to be a great orator too. Hitler had charisma and a magnetism that did make him a successful politician. Yet by the nature of the evil he unleashed and that he was defeated perhaps has made pass by his oratorical skills. After all history is written by the victors.

All of the above pale into insignificance before Martin Luther King Jr's most famous "I've a dream" speech. (Aug 28th 1963)
A member of the oppressed class came to the capital of a country and flung rhetoric unmatched and shamed a nation's conscience. The speech was not extempore, parts of it had been delivered in earlier speeches. The language, the delivery, the structure and above all the historical significance, even its own day, all came together to create the greatest speech ever delivered in human history. 

Another of MLK's speech is marked out for reasons of sentimentality. The night before he was assassinated in Memphis, TN he delivered a speech that was prophetic. He delivered what is now called, 'I've been to the mountain top speech' . MLK, the preacher, alluded to how Moses died before entering the Promised Land. Moses could only glimpse it from a mountain top before the Lord took him. MLK in words that continue to haunt, said "Like everybody I like to live a long life, longevity has its place but I am not concerned about that now, I just want to do God's will. I don't know what will happen tomorrow,....I've seen the Promised Land, I dont know if I will get there with you but I want you to know that we as a people will get there". Next day MLK, aged 39, was assassinated. In 2009 Barack Obama paid respect to MLK saying that today "the dream of a King comes true". This speech is considered great because of what happened later thus rendering it a dreadfully prophetic speech.

In the vein of rhetoric matching a historical occasion, as an Indian-American, its impossible for me to not mention Jawaharlal Nehru's speech when India was born. Nehru, with his opening lines "Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny" soared effortlessly on scales of polished rhetoric and sentiment.

The lines "we redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure but substantially" alludes to the painful partition that was underway. Nehru is supposed to have told Padmaja Naidu "I was reminded of the images of our beloved Lahore going up in flames". Capturing the essence of the moment were the words, "a nation so long suppressed finds utterance". The speech was supposed to be extempore. Amongst all the speeches cited this is possibly the only extemporaneous speech. The second occasion when Nehru found the words to address the nation at a moment of exceeding tragedy was when he had to announce the death of his beloved Bapu.

Just as MLK's last speech is appreciated because a tragic event made it prophetic and hence lent a certain greatness likewise is Ronald Reagan's most memorable speech exhorting Gorbachev to "tear down this wall". The speech, as the wiki link quotes a Time magazine report says, was little noted in its own day. Yet, today when Communism is buried and the Berlin wall remains as dismantled pieces in museums across the world (and in people's homes too, my aunt who lived in Germany at that time has a piece).

Reagan was famous, or notorious depending on the readers political leaning, for labeling Soviet Russia as "Evil Empire". That moral clarity is brought out in this speech that he delivered in front of the Berlin wall. Reagan, in short simple lines, drew a contrast between the prosperity of the west and decrepit state of all communist states. Prisons and houses both have walls but with a key difference. The walls of a prison are there to prevent people from leaving of their own free will. Communist Russia erected such walls. Jamming radio waves, disallowing foreign broadcasts, severly restricting travels of its citizens and finally a wall to keep them inside. A wall complete with, as Reagan points out, "dog runs, barbed wires".  Suddenly he gets blunt and says in words that are simple yet forceful, "Mr Gorbachev, 'tear down this wall'". Listening to an American President challenge an oppressive regime with moral clarity and with words that are unambiguous the German crowd, waving American flags, erupts into an applause.

Amidst all these speakers where does Obama fit? Nowhere. His most famous speech, possibly the only one he will be remembered for, is the one he delivered in John Kerry's 2004 Democratic Convention. Obama, a partisan ideologue, waxed eloquently about how "there is no red America or a blue America, there is only the United States Of America". His body language and gestures betray a nervous speaker, which he was. The words are trite, given that it was said to a partisan crowd that was there only to applaud he naturally was rewarded with a raucous applause. The one other speech that his admirers might point to is his speech on "Race" that he delivered to defuse the Jeremiah Wright crisis that almost derailed his run for the presidency. I found it to be a pabulum yet his palanquin bearers ranging from Cornel West to the common voter thought it to be scholarly. Krauthammer, as always, differed.

The success of Obama the orator was chiefly possible ONLY because Bush had been President. Barack Obama owes his Presidency, Nobel Prize and his fame as intellectual etc only because there was George W Bush as president for 8 years. As Obama's ratings plummeted, especially during the health care reform, his supporters wondered where was Obama the candidate who could sway thousands. He was, in their view, talking more like a professor, endlessly prevaricating, endlessly hand wringing. It is a frustration that only seems to grow by the day.

 Historical background, latter day events, choice of words, clarity of vision, the indefinable chemistry that a speaker shares with the audience all go into making a speech as a great one for the times to come. Obama fatally falters in articulating a vision even when a historical revolution in Egypt comes across he delivers a speech that was shamefully inarticulate. Words are not a problem for Obama, articulating a vision is.

No comments: