The Art of Great Speeches

It's no surprise, half a century into the mass-media age, that Presidents and politicians usually don't write their own speeches. If a candidate can use a TelePrompTer 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 in the first place? Yet even today, there is a certain primal expectation that the words a leader uses should come from his own heart and mind, that they should express him. The Gettysburg Address is sacred in part because Abraham Lincoln wrote it; if it were discovered tomorrow that he had paid someone to write it for him, we would feel betrayed. Yet the most famous speeches of, say, Ronald Reagan—his call to "Mr. Gorbachev" to tear down the Berlin Wall, his D-Day eulogy for the "boys of Pointe du Hoc"—are well known to be the work of speechwriters like Peggy Noonan. Do those speeches reflect credit on Reagan, or on Noonan, or both—or neither?


Dennis Glover is well equipped to wrestle with such questions in The Art 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 are something in between heartfelt self-expression and mere work-for-hire. It is a rule, Glover notes, that "a true speechwriter never writes for the political opposition": unlike pollsters, who can work for any candidate, a speechwriter is expected to have convictions, to serve a cause rather than a client. And Glover strongly believes that the speechwriter plays an important role in making democracy work. Politicians' failure to communicate effectively, he writes, "rob[s] our democracy of energy, and the cost is paid in the wreckage of governments and political movements unable to enthuse their followers or provide an adequate riposte to their opponents."


In his book, Glover weaves a history of oratory together with a defense of it, while offering many practical tips along the way. Starting with ancient Greece, he shows how oratory has always been both an important tool in public life and a source of suspicion. The Greeks developed an elaborate vocabulary of rhetorical techniques, which Glover uses to analyze a number of famous speeches, down to the present day. Barack Obama's acceptance speech at the 2008 Democratic Convention, the reader learns, made use of "tricolon," "polysyndeton," and "praeteritio," among many others.


Glover points out that the mood and beliefs of the audience are just as important as the skill of the speaker—as Brutus learned to his cost when he failed to win over the Roman public after the murder of Julius Caesar. And he insists that oratory can't finally change the way the public thinks about a speaker. While he regards Sarah Palin as a masterful orator, he concludes that her vice-presidential nomination speech, for all its "brilliant empathetic appeal," could not give her "the two things she couldn't project: experience and gravitas."


Glover never quite comes to terms with the fact that oratory can be used for evil just as easily as for good (Hitler, of course, was a brilliant orator.) Conversely, goodness is sometimes tongue-tied: Socrates refused to beg for the jury's sympathy at his own trial, and ended up getting the death penalty. Glover's comment on this is comically condescending: "Anyone who has worked in politics for any length of time would have come across people like Socrates, who manage to combine a bleak view of their fellow men with rather unworldly idealism. The history books warm to them, but in a practical way they tend to achieve little except martyrdom…." But who has a bleaker view of mankind—Socrates, who spoke the truth plainly and expected his judges to listen, or Glover, who thinks men are deaf to truth unless it has a good speechwriter?




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