The Nation's Pulse

A Return to Oratory

A Churchill exhibition in Manhattan reminds us of what's missing in our politics.

By From the July - Aug 2012 issue

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I WAS NEVER A BIRD ON THE UNPINIONED WING,” the elderly Winston Churchill once told a young, aspiring politician. “You see, my boy, when I got up to speak, I always knew precisely where every noun and adjective would go, and how every piece of punctuation would bed into my speech. By contrast, the best parliamentary orators, like Lloyd George, F.E. Smith, or even that shit Aneurin Bevan, their phrases were dictated by some inner God within.”

Why is the inner God within so totally absent from today’s political oratory? Why does the prospect of listening to either candidate in this coming presidential election, let alone both of them, seem so unedifying to so many Americans? The standard of our political discourse is presently as low as at any time in living memory; so where have all the orators gone?

The issues are as pressing and dramatic as ever. The GDP of the United States will soon be overtaken by that of China—possibly even within the term of the next president. The Iranians are building a nuclear bomb and publicly threatening to use it against Israel. Today’s recession has been longer than any since the Great Depression. Statesmen of an earlier era of public speaking would be able to fashion from these crises a living body of words that would have stiffened the electorate’s sinews and summoned up its blood.

Yet in the last State of the Union address, this was all President Obama was able to say: “Anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about.” To imagine how a Churchill or a Frederick Douglass or a Ronald Reagan would have ended that sentence after the comma, with wit or fireworks or evisceration, is to appreciate the dearth of genius in modern political oratory.

Once touted as a rhetorician in the mold of JFK, President Obama has been a sore disappointment oratorically. The fluency seems to come only when he’s seeking votes, rather than attempting to inspire the nation. His inaugural address, Cairo speech, Nobel acceptance speech, and four State of the Unions ought each to have throbbed with phrases that speak to the ages, yet can you quote even a single sentence from any of them? By contrast, consider the quotable lines that simply flooded from a single speech of JFK’s, his inaugural: “Let the word go forth… that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” “Let every nation know… that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.” “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” “All this will not be finished in the first 100 days…” And so on and so thrillingly on.

In a sense, it’s our own fault. We let our politicians get away with their appalling clichés, truisms, cringemaking personal references, and unfunny jokes by awarding them with ecstatic applause because they are celebrities who have turned up to speak. President Obama’s utterly banal commencement address to Barnard College recently—“Never forget that the most important example a young girl will ever follow is that of her parent.” “I wanted to do my part to shape a better world.” “We look forward, not back.”—was interrupted by applause (including whoops and highpitched shrieks) no fewer than 36 times, and by respectful laughter 22 times. Small wonder that politicians think they can say anything, however cringemakingly mawkish. After the shootings in Tucson and the tragic murder of a 9-year-old girl there, Obama thought it fit to say: “If there are rain puddles in heaven, Christina is jumping in them today.”

By a sad lack of contrast, the self-laceration inflicted by the Republican Party in its 27 presidential primary debates between May 2011 and March 2012 proved the almost total paucity of great oratory on its side of the aisle too. Admittedly, there is little opportunity to show Churchillian rhetorical skills when given only 30 seconds for a rebuttal, let alone five seconds to say “yes” or “no” to a reporter’s question. Yet even when Mitt Romney had the podium entirely to himself for his recent commencement address at Liberty University, he still came out with remarks such as “Among the things in life that can be put off, being there when it matters most isn’t one of them,” and “It is not a matter of what we are asking of life, but rather what life is asking of us.” Swap “life” for “country,” and you’ve got what JFK said in his inaugural address, except that President Kennedy said it half a century ago, and better.

There is a real possibility that the real issues at stake in these elections—nothing less than a great clash between the Keynesian and Hayekian economic philosophies—will be fought out in a pedestrian and occasionally toe-curlingly embarrassing Vernacular that will fall desperately below the level of events, while the media convinces itself that only a candidate’s gaffes can be considered newsworthy.

HOW WONDERFULLY REFRESHING and timely, therefore, that the Morgan Library in New York is putting on an exhibition of the political writings and speeches of perhaps the greatest orator of the 20th century. Between June 8 and September 23, it is hosting “Churchill: The Power of Words,” which I believe to be the single most impressive collection of Churchilliana to arrive in America since Churchill himself left her shores for the last time in 1961. Dozens of original documents, artifacts, and recordings relating to his mastery over the spoken and written word underline how it was possible for Churchill, by the use of language alone, to warn the world of the rise of Nazism and subsequently to steel it to the sacrifices needed for victory.

You can see the handwritten notes of his speech from—eerily enough—September 11, 1940, delivered during the London Blitz, about how Adolf Hitler “hopes by killing large numbers of civilians, and women and children, that he will terrorize and cow the people of this mighty imperial city.… Little does he know the spirit of the British nation.” There are Churchill’s letters to his Brooklyn-born mother about fighting in Afghanistan, a letter from his doctor after he was run over on Fifth Avenue (“the postaccident convalescence necessitates the use of alcoholic spirits especially at mealtimes”), the Iron Curtain speech that warned against Communism, and the grant of U.S. citizenship signed by JFK, among other fascinating documents.

They show that although Churchill might not have spoken “on the unpinioned wing,” but rather with the notes carefully curated at Churchill College, Cambridge, and now displayed at the Morgan, he most certainly did have “the inner God within” when he growled his spirit of defiance against Fascists and Stalinists alike. Nor did his power of words require warfare and hostility for them to enthuse and inspire; they worked in peacetime too. Never having employed a speechwriter, Churchill spoke to his audience words that his listeners therefore knew came unalloyed and unaltered directly from his heart. Our modern politicians should try it sometime. And he didn’t even have a teleprompter.

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About the Author

Andrew Roberts is the author of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900 and, most recently, The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War