What makes a great orator? And is Obama one?

Clive Crook defends Obama’s oratory from accusations that it’s vapid and empty. “Of course it is” he insists. And when you think about it, he has a point. The great speeches, however uniquely crafted are usually simple exhortations. “We shall fight them on the beaches and all the other places they may turn up etc etc”.

Perhaps one problem for Obama is that – like all the other candidates, he gives what is essentially the same speech several times a day for weeks. The others great orators used repetition too, both within speeches and between them. But it is a problem. As Crook points out, those attacking Obama’s vapidity don’t quite come clean on this point.

Unwilling to argue that Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy gave lousy, empty speecheswhy is that, by the way?Gideon [whose attack on Obama’s vapidity Crook is criticising] has to assert that the fierce urgency of now meant something momentous when King said it but was meaningless when Obama quoted the phrase. And he has to say that JFKs Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country really amounted to something, whereas Obamas Yes we can is vapid. But all those expressions are impotent when excerpted from the speeches they were used in. They derive their force from the words that surrounded them, and from the circumstances in which they were spoken.

I agree with this as far as it goes . . . but I’m a bit uneasy about it because unlike lots of people I don’t think JFK was much of a speaker. He had some catchy phrases – mostly written by others. But while I can see a kind of simplicity and even a timeliness to ‘ask not’, it’s a pretty meagre sentiment – and schoolma’amish to boot. “Let us go forth to lead the land we love.” Well that’s a bit pathetic don’t you think.  Nice rhythm, but “go forth”? Isn’t that a tad pompous for 1960 – who does he think he is?  And those facile reversals “let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us not fear to negotiate” or whatever it was.  Well it’s nice enough, but it’s clever, not particularly good rhetoric.  (By the way, there must be some rhetorical term for the technique used in the last quote – does anyone know what it is?)

All this leads me to wonder what is it that I think makes a truly great speech.

First a little more of Clive Crook and then I’ll have a crack at what I think he leaves out.

Gideon lays great stress on challenging the audience: that is why King and Kennedy were great orators, he says, and Obama is not. But isnt Yes we can a call to actiona challenge to the audiencemuch like Ask not? Also, remember that Obamas main audience at the moment is the Democratic electorate. On some important issues, notably trade, he has pandered to party sentiment. But his theme of national unity really does challenge the Democratic base. This call is indeed, as Gideon muses doubtfully, less obvious than it sounds.

Many Democrats hunger for revenge after two terms of George Bush; the mutual loathing of the two parties would be difficult to exaggerate. When Obama calls on Democrats to reach out to Republicans and make common cause in addressing health reform and other issueswith his party controlling both houses of Congress and confident (maybe too confident) of winning the White House as wellyou bet he is challenging his audience. It tells you something that he has been the only Democratic candidate to do it. The strategy risked offending the progressive wing of the party; because of it, many of its members remain suspicious, despite his (from their point of view) impeccable voting record.

Why is this stuff so appealing? Gideon asks. Here is my answer. Obama understands rhetoric. (That repeated Yes we can, with variations, is called anaphora.) He has an appealing, positive and uplifting message. As I say, he (gently) challenges his audience. His timing is good: he promises a less combative style of politics, and this is something the country now wants. And lets not forget that he is black. The possibility, now becoming the probability, that Obama will be Americas first black president gives every speech a mighty extra jolt of excitement. People who listen to his speeches think that history is being made. Every orator should be so lucky.

So what makes a great speech or great speaker? I can get somewhere by identifying the problem I have with JFK. I don’t think he was particularly sincere.   He spent a lot of his time, as it has become commonplace to say these days, ‘positioning himself’.  He was making the point that though he was a Democrat, he was no ‘soft touch’ for America’s enemies.  Hence all that ‘bearing any price’ business.  It smacks of rhetoric in the normal (modern) pejorative sense of that word.  It’s mere rhetoric.

So let me work towards a solution in my own mind by asking myself who I think are incontrovertibly great speakers.  Three people come immediately to mind: Churchill, Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. What do they have in common?  Well sincerity surely. Sincerity in the particular moment during which their time had come. I think they had some some moment or moments in which there was some transcendental fusion of their own sincerity and egotistical fantasy – and that this was brought off – i.e. it was conveyed to their audience (which will often include not just the immediate hearers of the speech, but those who hear or read of it sometimes a long time after it was given).

Lincoln seems the hardest to fit into this formula because not only because the greatness of those speeches was not widely recognised when they were given, but also because one might say he was not egotistical. His trademark, what made him so unique as an orator and politician was his humility. But of course the very high mindedness of his rhetoric betrays his own egotism. Lincoln agonistes. If the great theme of Lincoln’s oratory is his own humility, Martin Luther King’s is the creation that can arise out of suffering born generously. With Churchill it’s his own fantasising about the great and glorious history of Western Civilisation set against the backdrop of the raw physical courage.  And each reaches back into their past – often in highly individual way – to provide his audience with some appreciation of the greatness of the historical moment of which it is a part, and of its historical possibilities.

And the point is that each of these great speakers is exhorting us to follow their example. Lincoln calls on his listeners to emulate his own humility so that the horror of war might ultimately be seen to have brought about some providential improvement for humankind, so that the South and the North don’t continue to tear each other apart with bitterness in peacetime as they’ve done by force of arms in war. Martin Luther King stands before his audience while the world swelters with injustice, and as he does so they feel they are before someone might somehow lead them to the promised land. And Churchill’s theme is his own indomitable aggression, his own foolhardy physical courage in the face of mortal attack.

So when these people give their great speech, they are embodying a kind of hyper-sincerity. Their own fantasies of themselves – sincerely fantasised that is – fuse with the possibilities of the historical moment and with their audience (either at the time, or some audience looking back from the future).  They have a moral seriousness which rises to a kind of transcendence.

When Bob Hawke gave his speech in the Great Hall in Parliament House after the Tiananmen Square massacre he was, I have little doubt, fantasising about himself as a great orator or at least someone who was expressing his sincere emotional reaction to the events. But it wasn’t a great speech, because its fantasy and play acting element was so contrived and stagey. Without being necessarily insincere, it’s hard not to think that it was not calculated posturing at the same time. It was a phoney kind of gravitas.  Churchill the fantasist referred to the Battle of France, as it raged as ‘sublime’!  He described in his memoirs the ‘white heat’ of patriotism that ran through Britain in 1940.  But he wasn’t fooling around when as he announced to a no doubt startled cabinet that was sure they’d all rather be lying in the gutter in a pool of their own blood than see Britain conquered.  He couldn’t wait to be part of it, and during the Battle of Britain had to be restrained from watching the fireworks on the roof of Number 10, or flying over the front on his way to meet de Gaulle in North Africa.

In each case the greatness of the orator is a kind of heroic serving up of themselves as potential martyrs to their own overwhelming conviction in the cause that is invoked in their rhetoric.  And the audience buys into the theatrics of it.  Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr became the martyrs their rhetoric foreshadowed (had they not done so, their speeches would not occupy quite such a high place in our history), and Churchill’s survival of World War II owed nothing to his own prudence.

By these standards, is Obama a great orator. I don’t think so. Perhaps he could become one, though he’d need the historical circumstances for that to occur – and of course for them to suit him – his being and his message.   Also, I don’t think any speeches of the kind I’ve referred to above have been electioneering speeches.  Certainly effective electioneering comes with its own compromises and speechifying on the level I’m talking about doesn’t really come with that.

But then I’m judging Obama by the highest historical standards. He’s a fantastic speaker by the standards of our times. And that has a lot to do with the same qualities I’ve mentioned. He is sincere in a way that Hillary is not and that McCain is merely egotistical. He is conveying a vision that is somehow uniquely his own.  Perhaps I should say that he is a great speaker. But he’s not a transcendentally great speaker.  He’s not a Lincoln or a Martin Luther King or a Churchill.  But then they and the circumstances in which they could rise to the level that they did don’t come along very often.

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9 Responses to What makes a great orator? And is Obama one?

  1. Guy says:

    I think you’re on to something there when you talk about great orators being made by circumstances and experiences rather than necessarily just the content of what they say. Obama’s fine speeches are loaded with rhetoric and he repeats himself often, but given how often the guy has to speak on the primary trail, that’s hardly surprising really. We also have a greater ability than ever before today to actually read the content of just about every one of someone’s speeches if we wanted to – this is not something that was always easily available. We have much more direct access to the evolving speech-making oeuvre of Obama than the previous generation did for Kennedy, and hence we probably notice the repetition a bit more nowadays.

    Getting back to the main point, Obama’s speeches so far, soaring as many of them have been, have all more or less been made in the cause of securing his nomination for president (and the presidency itself). I think it is only (hypothetically) when Obama has achieved this, and he is making speeches not just for political purposes but in support of a cause that he can back with tangible state action, that great use of language becomes a great political speech.

  2. Andrew says:

    I agree about sincerity. I also think that there is one name missing here, a certain German chap around in the 1920s and 30s, who had sincerity in spades in that he sincerely believed with all his twisted little soul that his grotesquely perverted ideas were worth convincing his country to follow. Disaster followed of course.

    I can understand why he isn’t on your list, but I don’t think that one can deny the quality of Hitler’s speeches as speeches – he would probably have been nothing without them. Similar problem to the Leni Riefenstahl question, only more so. But I suspect that if anything he only backs up your point – he had sincerity in the sense that he truly believed what he said, he had a historical moment to suit him, and he had the fantasy of himself that could fuse with his time to achieve transcendence. Even a moral seriousness, if you can accept his premise that the only people that qualify to be considered as worthy of moral consideration are ones like him – a premise which he unfortunately managed to persuade his countrymen to take seriously.

    The only wee point of difference being that he was a genocidal psychopath.

  3. Andrew,

    I agree – or I think I do. But I didn’t include him because I haven’t heard his speeches – or rather haven’t taken them in as a German speaker. And the people I was talking about were not demagogues. Hitler does however qualify on all the criteria I mentioned, though in an earlier draft I wrote about generosity also, which kind of rules him out.

    But Hitler was a bit of a rule breaker – to put it mildly – and he had all the other qualities I mention. But then he’s sui generis in this as in other ways and I won’t bother much more about him for these purposes.

  4. Michael Paleologus says:

    I think the criticism of Obama is exactly right. His speeches are vapid, stagey and over rhetorical. I think one of the reasons he is popular, and that his speech style has been so lauded, is in fact to do with race politics – he evokes Martin Luther King jr, and for those voters who are excited that 40 years on from the civil rights revolution, it might just be possible to elect a black president, Obama is credited with the mantle of King as a speechmaker. But in fact the context of his speechifying is somewhat tawdry – he is after all acting just like any old politician who comes alosn every 4 years and tries to get elected by putting together a carefully constructed campaign.

    Also absolutely right about JFK – a stiff, stagey, speechmaker who often had good speechwriters (as did Reagan, who at least delivered them far better).

    Now for really good speakers you have to look at LBJ – watch some of the documentary footage of him winning the south in the face of the race hatred civil rights policy had brought – be is feisty, inspiring and, most imprtnatly, concerned actually to change an audiences mind.

    The other contemporary US Presidential speaker who is superlative is Bill Clinton, and his style is almost the anti-Obama. What makes Bill a great speaker is that he does away completely with high blown rhetoric of the ponderous pauses (beloved of Tony Blair for example) – instead he connects, seems to be speaking off the cuff, and takes his audiences on an emotional journey. when you dont even realize the politician has been delivering a speech – then you know its been a good one.

  5. PeterC says:

    The rhetorical device used in the JFK quote “let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us not fear to negotiate” (it’s generally acknowledged that that line was contributed by Arthur M. Schlesinger jnr, not JFK himself) is antimetabole.

    The Greek ideal of rhetoric was the combination of logos, ethos and pathos – i.e. using logical, well-structured argument to propose some moral purpose in a manner that connects emotionally to the audience.

    Flowery language in lacklustre settings to discuss trivial issues is bathos.

  6. Ken Lovell says:

    I suspect the whole concept of a speech is rapidly becoming pass

  7. derrida derider says:

    Ah yes, sincerity is the main thing – once you can fake that you’ve got it made.

    And both Reagan and Clinton had the pathos in spades – people with very different politics but both with abundant charm that they could convey to a whole audience. A pity about the ethos, and modern voters of course are sadly uneducated in the logos.

    LBJ was not only a good speaker, he was a very complex character. Of course one part of that character was “war criminal”.

  8. James Farrell says:

    Nicholas, irrespective of whether it’s is sincere, doesn’t a great speech have to be in support of some noble cause? Doesn’t it have to be ‘fighting’ in some way –whether it’s exhorting resilience in wartime, standing up to repression in one’s own country, or challenging conventional wisdom? If Barrack Obama was calling for something concrete, like universal public healthcare, immediate withdrawal from Iraq, or an end to capital punishment, there would be something to admire. But at the end of the day, he’s just selling an amorphous product that boils down to his own personal indispensibility, isn’t he? No matter how smooth he is, he’s on the same plane as an evangelical preacher or motivational speeaker.

  9. You may be right James. I suspect you are. So I’m admiring his technique, his ability to simulate something. I’m being led to expect that I might get something more. But it’s far from clear that I will.

    So I’m just backing him because I prefer him to the other two on offer and wondering aloud about the rest.

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