The passing of his federal holiday gave me an opportunity to ponder what my friend Lisa Mladinich calls the “holy courage” of Martin Luther King, Jr, who found strength in knowing that his cause was a just one, despite threats, despite difficulties. Watching the old videos, I found myself as moved as ever by his stunning oratory. King was capable of using imagery; he understood the power of cadence; how to energize an idea with the forward-thrust of repetition. He knew how to prompt the memory retention of a listener with alliteration: “. . .they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
There are no more grand orators in America, and nothing could illustrate that better than the sometimes incoherent, woefully delivered remarks made in the days before and after King’s holiday. Attempting to analyze Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent address to the United Nations, writer Russell Shaw quotes a not-untypical muddled passage–one that reads like the first half of the “Barney” song, as explained to lobotomized apes—and writes, “With all due respect, what on earth does [it] mean? The strikingly confused venture into reasoning in this passage would provide rich material for a logician’s intellectual scalpel.”
Mrs. Clinton makes a great many speeches, and sometimes they contain a memorable phrase, but even when they do, her delivery is uneven; it can range from shrill to schoolmarmish. You’d think she would be more persuasive from the podium.
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.
I think what is missing from our current crop of gushers and gasbags is the ability to find poetry in their texts, or even to purposely include it. Whether this is because there is something lacking within them or because they believe their audiences too stupid to appreciate a well-struck image or relate to metaphor, I cannot say. These are all highly credentialed people, but I am not sure that is the same thing as being broadly educated.
Bill Clinton was a very good speaker, indeed; his well-documented love of talk, and the clear delight he took in using words—in pronouncing them, teasing them, timing their release and even droppin’ the occasional “g”—made him an entertaining speaker, if one ultimately conviction-hobbled by a need to be loved. Ronald Reagan was also very good, and with his actor’s training he was capable of putting across the powerfully poetic image, as he did when eulogizing the Challenger astronauts. Thanks to his then-speechwriter, Peggy Noonan—the Fairleigh Dickinson graduate who knew and drew upon on the words of John Gillespie Magee and placed them perfectly into context—Reagan pronounced, “Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth . . . put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”
And in those scant lines, with the economy of language only poetry brings, the president lifted a nation off its knees and into wonder.
Perhaps the last great American orator was Bobby Kennedy; like King, he (and for that matter his brothers) understood the techniques of oratory: cadence, repetition, alliteration. But RFK also had the ability to extemporaneously pull poetry out at the appropriate moment, and insert it into his remarks in a way that was constructive, instructive, and ultimately bracing. Upon learning of the death of Reverend King, Kennedy had to announce the terrible news to a campaign crowd, and his remarks were breathtaking. They were real; they hit every point that needed making, and then they they applied an immediate balm of respect and shared grief to a stricken crowd he trusted to understand:
For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond, or go beyond these rather difficult times. My favorite poem, my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
After a few more consoling and temperate words, Kennedy concluded, “ . . . let’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.”
Overpopulated with over-polished politicians whose careful, empty words lull-into-stultification even the most besotted listener, America might be well-served by a voice that can speak to her with a respectful erudition that assumes she can understand, and with a naked passion for encouraging her to all she can yet be.
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here.
The Holy Courage of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Hillary Clinton and the Laws that Teach
Hillary Clinton's memorable phrases
Obama's Roe v Wade remarks
Robert Kennedy's remarks on the death of Martin Luther King
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.