The public’s love-hate relationship with political speeches is not merely a matter of record; it is an historical fact. It’s also an observably mutable one.
On word, for example, that a young Winston Churchill, primping and posing in the early years of the 20th century, was about to speak, his fellow parliamentarians (of all ideological bents) could not flee the Commons’ chamber fast enough.
Today, of course, we recognize the late Prime Minister of Great Britain as one of the all-time great speechifiers in english
His famous quips inspired (“to build may have to be the slow and laborious task of years; to destroy can be the thoughtless act of a single day”), assured (“success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts”), motivated (this is no time for ease and comfort; it is time to dare and endure”), advised (if you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. . . use a pile driver. . . hit the point once. . . then come back and hit it again. . .then hit it a third time-a tremendous whack”), and amused (“I may be drunk, Miss, but in the morning I will be sober and you will still be ugly”).
Prior to winning the presidency of the United States, Barack Obama had been considered a worthy successor of Churchillian oratory – certainly, a breath of fresh and invigorating air, given his immediate predecessor’s preternatural talent for issuing verbal gaffes and malapropisms.
Ah, yes, George W. Bush, we continue to miss your skilled use of language from
“I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully,” to “rarely is the question asked, is our children learning?”
And we have not forgotten this: “They misunderestimated the compassion of our country. I think they misunderestimated the will and determination of the commander in chief, too.”
Or this: “There’s no doubt in my mind, not one doubt in my mind, that we will fail.” Or this: “Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.”
Or, finally, this: “There’s an old saying in Tennessee I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee that says, fool me once, shame on shame on you. Fool me you can’t get fooled again.”
In the dim light of such unintentional tom-foolery, Obama has presented himself as a virtual oracle of hope and promise (which is his deliberate brand statement). In fact, giving speeches, some critics have observed of his term-and-a-half as president, is about the only thing he does well. As for follow through. . .well, not so much.
Still, in last week’s sixth State of the Union address he was, as political speechwriters like to say, on fire; and sitting here in the frigid northern reaches of North America, it’s hard not draw comparisons with our own latter-day Ciceros.
“At every moment of economic change throughout our history, this country has taken bold action to adapt to new circumstances and to make sure everyone gets a fair shot,” he thundered. “We set up worker protections, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid to protect ourselves from the harshest adversity. We gave our citizens schools and colleges, infrastructure and the Internet – tools they needed to go as far as their effort and their dreams will take them.
“That’s what middle-class economics is – the idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, everyone plays by the same set of rules. We don’t just want everyone to share in America’s success, we want everyone to contribute to our success.”
In Canada, our version of a call to citizen action sounds a lot like this passage from the 2013 Speech from the Throne: “(Ours) is now among only a few countries in the world with a triple-A credit rating. By taking decisive action, Canada has stayed strong where others have faltered.
“But we cannot be complacent. The global economy still faces significant risks from factors that we do not control. We must stay the course. And sound management remains our Government’s guide.”
Who knows? Maybe this will be remembered someday as a glittering example of 21st Century oratory.
“Staying the course” may be every government’s boring, old bread and butter, but
a political speech that doesn’t over-promise. . .well, that’s something to commemorate.