On Reading Dennis Glover’s “The art of great speeches: and why we remember them”

I bought my daughter a very enjoyable book The art of great speeches: and why we remember them by my friend Dennis Glover for Christmas. The book manages the triad of rhetorical tasks very nicely – it delights as it instructs as it persuades – and so I read it too.

Be that as it may, its many examples of fine rhetoric simply confirm my existing view that there are two, perhaps three orators that I know of that stand above the pack. Dennis cites JFK, whom I’ve never liked as a speaker. I never liked him because the rhetorical tricks are too formulaic. “Let us not negotiate out of fear, but let us not fear to negotiate”. Thanks JF, but behind the cutsie juxtaposition it’s a pretty banal thought. So too, “Ask not” is no great shakes IMO. As for choosing to go to the moon because it is hard, not because it is easy, spare me. We didn’t choose to build submarines out of popcorn and use them to invade Russia, but that would have been hard too.

By contrast, as the book points out, his quintuplet “let them come to Berlin” (the last time in German) in his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech is a good example of JFK at his best and of anaphora at its best. See me slipping into the rhetoro-lingo that Dennis bathes us all in as we read his book.

I met Dennis a long time ago and we rapidly figured out that we’d both studied history and both written theses on similar topics. Mine on puritan sabbatarianism in late sixteenth century England, he – if I recall correctly – on the Levellers sixty years later in the British Civil War. Dennis learnt a lot about classical rhetoric to understand the Levellers’ speeches, and has brushed up some more to deliver this book which takes you through great speeches and shows how they – consciously or unconsciously – follow the rules of rhetoric laid down by ancients from the Sophists and Aristotle to Cicero and beyond. It’s pretty interesting and if you don’t want to take notes, you still get carried away by his explanations of what made speeches great.

But still as I was reading it and numerous other speeches, the greatness of some oratory hit me over and above the others. For instance Dennis uses Mark Anthony’s speech in Julius Ceasar as an exemplar of great rhetoric.  Of course it is, but it’s also a great example of rhetoric as tricksterism. All Anthony’s protestations to be no orator, and Shakespeare’s (and Glover’s) point is that this bit of dissimulation makes him a far better orator than Brutus who is the one known for his fine oratory. The point is that oratory is always (often) a hair’s breadth away from vanity and demagoguery.

In the background of Dennis’s book is a frustration with the current lacklustre literalism of his preferred party – the ALP. Kim Beazley, you can almost hear him thinking, wouldn’t be able to say “We decide who comes here and the terms on which they come” because he’s too wedded to truthtelling, and a kind of literalism. Dennis is saying that politics is a dirty business, and if you want to ply that trade you have to get your hands dirty – at least somewhat.  I agree with him and if I could put it in my own way I would say this: Politics is always and everywhere an endlessly difficult practical business in which one is trading off means and ends every moment of the day.  Pretty much any practical activity involves this to a substantial extent – at least when it involves working with many other people, but politics involves obtaining and harnessing power over others – with rhetoric being the handmaiden of soft power. One does it for good or otherwise.

But great rhetoric, really great rhetoric I think doesn’t really have this element of deception. It has technique – it moves its audience – but that’s because the great orator is also a great leader and truly great rhetoric is the occasion on which this leadership is cashed out as a kind orgiastic union between the speaker and their audience in which all stand together, finding themselves somehow in the eye of the storm of history defending the right. This is a moment that elevates people, fully aware of their own fragility as moral human beings and yet nevertheless now part of something far greater than themselves – or as one orator put it “with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.”

Is JFK in this league? Here’s the most memorable passage in his Berlin speech captured by the You Tube clip above:

Two thousand years ago — Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was “civis Romanus sum.” Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is “Ich bin ein Berliner.” . . .

There are many people in the world who really don’t understand, or say they don’t, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world.

Let them come to Berlin.

There are some who say — There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future.

Let them come to Berlin.
And there are some who say, in Europe and elsewhere, we can work with the Communists.

Let them come to Berlin.
And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress.

Lass’ sie nach Berlin kommen.
Let them come to Berlin.

This is truth-telling. But it’s actually quite brash and aggressive – pretty up itself. It’s speaking truth to power, but only from a position of greater power. Ronald Reagan was doing the same many years later, but I much prefer his words which were a plea – for decency and straightforwardness “Mr Gorbachov, tear down this wall”. It’s simpler, more pedestrian, and so as Orwell might suggest, clearer in its meaning, and also more compelling.

Still, none of this really does it for me. It’s good, well-crafted rhetoric. But it is nevertheless unsurprisingly, the work of a good speech writer.  It turns out, as I write this, I discover that none of the speeches that really really do it for me were written by speechwriters. They were written by self-styled speechifiers who often slaved over their speeches.

And the great events they led others through were being experienced as intensely as anyone by them. And they found in their extraordinary oratory a way of fusing their own vision of what mattered most in life with their audience. Here oratory is the practical mastery of ethical life. A kind of psychedelic art in which the leader imagines (fantasises about?) themselves at the epicentre of life and somehow finds the words to bring their audience into the experience. As Shakespeare did in the mouth of Henry V addressing his soldiers about to fight a French army that vastly outnumbered them at Agincourt:

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Of course, speechifiers try these tricks all the time. But perhaps one reason why these kinds of speeches are so compelling – is that not only do they have life and death to play on, but the speakers are at the battle.  The speakers are likely to personify the courage they are seeking to instil into their soldiers.

By comparison, JFK is not really invested in his Berlin speech, or at least not at the level of intensity I’m talking about. He was doing his job as President well. That’s what he wanted to do. He was (probably) a courageous man as a soldier in WWII, but he’s still a bit of a pretty boy, and a bit of a preppy boy in his speech.

The kind of speech I’m talking about is difficult (for me) to read aloud without my voice breaking. Henry V does it for me at Agincourt. Dennis quotes a passage from Churchill that I’ve run into before. Yet it’s not so canonical that I remembered it, and so I read it afresh. It’s from that time when, to quote Churchill in his subsequent history of WWII:

I was sure that every Minister was ready to be killed quite soon, and have all his family and possessions destroyed, rather than give in. In this they represented the House of Commons and almost all the people. It fell to me in these coming days and months to express their sentiments on suitable occasions. This I was able to do because they were mine also. There was a white glow, overpowering, sublime, which ran through our island from end to end.

(He didn’t just use the word ‘sublime’ in retrospect, you’ll find it in his oratory about the battle of France. He – rather unfortunately for the record – described French efforts in the Battle of France as ‘sublime’.) But note in this BBC broadcast, how Churchill infuses the moment with apotheosis. Not just an elemental struggle between their country and another, and not just the struggle of good against bad.  And not just a struggle against a new, monstrous and potentially world-dominating or even obliterating kind of evil. They become the defenders of what they love – and that is not just England, and not just decency, but the whole heritage of Christendom. Here they were. All of them. At the epicentre of World History. And so they were.

And now it has come to us to stand alone in the breach, and face the worst that the tyrant’s might and enmity can do. Bearing ourselves humbly before God,* but conscious that we serve an unfolding purpose, we are ready to defend our native land against the invasion by which it is threatened. We are fighting by ourselves alone; but we are not fighting for ourselves alone. Here in this strong City of Refuge which enshrines the title-deeds of human progress and is of deep consequence to Christian civilization; here, girt about by the seas and oceans where the Navy reigns; shielded from above by the prowess and devotion of our airmen – we await undismayed the impending assault. Perhaps it will come tonight. Perhaps it will come next week. Perhaps it will never come. We must show ourselves equally capable of meeting a sudden violent shock or – what is perhaps a harder test – a prolonged vigil. But be the ordeal sharp or long, or both, we shall seek no terms, we shall tolerate no parley; we may show mercy – we shall ask for none.

I love the last clauses “we may show mercy – we shall ask for none”. It is a reminder that the struggle is for something which goes well beyond survival. It makes me think of the frat boy war against Iraq and Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo – where the powerful show no mercy. And the thing about Churchill is that he was foolhardily brave – to the utter dismay of his ‘minders’. When flying to meet with other leaders he asked his pilots to fly over the Western front so he could take a look. He ran up the stairs to the roof during the blitz so he could take a peek at the action. In WWI, disgraced as a Minister, he took to the trenches for three months. Not too many other ministers of the crown there, I imagine! Churchill would have liked nothing better than to die a hero’s death.

And here’s Churchill making my point for me about greatness at the epicentre of human experience. It is the end of his address to the pupils of his old school Harrow.

You sang here a verse of a School Song: you sang that extra verse written in my honour, which I was very greatly complimented by and which you have repeated today. But there is one word in it I want to alter – I wanted to do so last year, but I did not venture to. It is the line: “Not less we praise in darker days.”

I have obtained the Head Master’s permission to alter darker to sterner. “Not less we praise in sterner days.”  …

These are not dark days; these are great days – the greatest days our country has ever lived; and we must all thank God that we have been allowed, each of us according to our stations, to play a part in making these days memorable in the history of our race.

Or here:

The destiny of mankind is not decided by material computation. When great causes are on the move in the world, stirring all men’s souls, drawing them from their firesides, casting aside comfort, wealth and the pursuit of happiness in response to impulses at once awe-striking and irresistible, we learn that we are spirits, not animals, and that something is going on in space and time, and beyond space and time, which, whether we like it or not, spells duty.

A wonderful story is unfolding before our eyes. How it will end we are not allowed to know. But on both sides of the Atlantic we all feel, I repeat, all, that we are a part of it, that our future and that of many generations is at stake. We are sure that the character of human society will be shaped by the resolves we take and the deeds we do. We need not bewail the fact that we have been called upon to face such solemn responsibilities. We may be proud, and even rejoice amid our tribulations, that we have been born at this cardinal time for so great an age and so splendid an opportunity of service here below.

So for me Churchill is Up There in the Pantheon.

Another, of course, is Abe Lincoln for his Gettysburg and Inaugural Addresses – and much else besides (I read a letter he wrote to a mother who had lost all five sons in the war.)

Executive Mansion,
Washington, Nov. 21, 1864.

Dear Madam,

I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,

A. Lincoln

So Lincoln. So plaintive and simple. And showing how something so simple is quite naturally and quite necessarily connected intimately with our highest possibilities. In Lincoln’s case we do not have raw courage, but his sympathy, his famous humility. The beauty and modesty of his words poetically embrace the grief suggesting, with great care to the one he is addressing, that it might be transformed. His humanity – our humanity – shines through.

So too for me Martin Luther King is Up There. How could he not be? King’s last speech was given in 1968 in Memphis, and he wasn’t going to speak that night – he was either tired or sick. But people in his entourage rang him, telling him of the packed audience and urged him to come. He spoke for an hour. He spoke of nearly dying after someone stabbed him with a paperknife, and it came within millimetres of his heart. He was told later that if he’d sneezed, he would have died. He spends quite a bit of time on this story and (from memory) uses this as the introduction to the peroration to come. He concludes this part of the speech saying something like, “So I’m glad I didn’t sneeze”. Like so many great speeches, the best bit is at the end where, as with the ‘I have a dream speech’ King simply extemporised, as he could do so effortlessly with all the practice he’d had, and the way in which he could summon up biblical references in his signature gospel cadence like a skilled pianist reaches for and strikes just the right key on his piano.

And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t really matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.

Then suffused with emotion and (I reckon) an orgasmic and messianic fantasy of himself, he concluded in just the way a rock star would conclude a concert – with an all encompassing crescendo.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Indeed this rock-star flamboyance is captured as he turns away from the audience before he’s quite finished what he’s said.

You can’t fault some people’s timing. He was assassinated the next day. Those were the last words he spoke in public. We were there at the epicentre of human experience. The person who took us there was a person of great moral and physical courage, an exemplar to our species and a flawed person at the same time of course.

These three people all have something else in common.  Their hankering for the mountaintops came to them with an understanding they acquired from a lifetime spent in contemplation of the valleys as they battled the black dog of depression.

Glover also talks about his own experiences in writing speeches. He’s written some excellent ones and he’s a fine exemplar for his craft. Yet in choosing the passage below that he wrote for Julia Gillard, it seems to me he lets his case down.

I end by asking you to remember that hard decade in opposition. How tough it was to climb the summit to government. And how good it feels to finally be on top. Kevin Rudd helped us get there. But staying there is the responsibility of every single one of us in this hall. And of every party member across the country.

So let’s commit ourselves over the course of the next three days, and then over the next months and years that follow . . .  to keep up our work rate 1  . . .  keep our minds of the big picture . .  .  remain true to our beliefs . . .   never be averse to risk . . .  and always maintain our ethical beliefs and reforming impulse.

If we do these things, delegates, we will stay at the top of the mountain and be able to achieve all the great possibilities we can now see stretched out before us.

It would be easy to make jokes about what she says about Kevin – something which seems to be acquiring an uncommon topicality as I type. But I want to make another point. The speech is essentially dishonest. There’s nothing wrong with her urging the ALP not to be too risk-averse. But saying that it should “never be averse to risk” is actually to be averse to candour. The words stand as a subtle travesty to their own content. The rhetorical canon typically accepts new content slowly – often some time after a speech has been delivered. And likewise, poor rhetoric gets exposed for what it is over time – often just ‘mere rhetoric’.

Another speech that does it for me is Bobby Kennedy’s speech on the death of Martin Luther King. Why? Because it takes us to a genuine engagement with the historical moment. RFK had been a tough bastard for his brother in lots of ways, but he had an ability to speak with great simplicity and plangency. He seized the moment in a very memorable way. In all these cases, rhetoric can’t be divorced from some honest and extraordinary expression of something of great importance to us. The great speaker giving the great speech persuades us that we are there observing the motions of the planet and the human heart, and that the speaker is somehow uniquely qualified to take us there to witness the drama and indeed to transcend it. When I first heard it, I heard it on an mp3 file and didn’t realise it had been filmed. Watching it just the other night, the vision makes the directness of RFK’s engagement with his shocked audience, his sympathy and the way in which he seized this moment to show his leadership more evident.

* Note, Churchill wasn’t really a believer, though I don’t think he would have called himself an atheist. When once described as a ‘buttress’ of the church, he suggested he was a ‘flying buttress’ supporting the church from the outside.

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Mr. Eyesore
Mr. Eyesore
12 years ago

The muted audience response to Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” is because many in the audience would have heard it as “I am a processed-meat product”. Still, it could have been worse – if that speech had been made in Frankfurt or Hamburg for example.

12 years ago
Don Arthur
12 years ago

I think you’re right to say that great rhetoric moves its audience:

because of the utter heartfeltness of its sentiments and the eloquent way in which the speaker embodies his or her own character and convictions. It involves a kind of orgasmic sense of oneness between the speaker and the listener – when they somehow become one.

The greatness isn’t in the speech itself, it’s the combination of the words, the speaker and the audience.

A speech that sounds sincere and powerful coming from one speaker will sound phony and limp coming from another. Without necessarily being conscious of it, we interpret a speaker’s words through what we know about them as a person.

I can imagine a politician pledging allegiance to everything I believe in and my being utterly repulsed. And I can imagine another saying things I disagree with, and coming away impressed.

12 years ago

Kennedy said “I am a jam donut”

12 years ago

Mr Gorbachev, tear down this horrible post.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
12 years ago

How about Cassablanca with Ronald Reagan instead of Ingrid Bergman.

12 years ago

Indeed MLK is one of my all-time favourites, as is Lincoln. I have re-read the letter from Birmingham Jail as much as anything else, and the Gettysburg address was the first (and almost the last, prayers excepted!) thing I ever learnt by heart.

I never ‘got’ the Kennedys, especially not John. He always just seemed like a hypocrite to me – sacrifice for thee but not I.