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The Decline of Oratory

The fault is in the speakers, and in the hearers, too.

Be a craftsman in speech, for the tongue is a sword to a man, and speech is more valorous than fighting. --Akhtoy III

ONE DOES not usually think of the ancient Egyptians as orators. So I was surprised when I first came across this sensible advice of King Akhtoy to his son. King Merikare, and I at once began to revise my opinion of their political arts. Yet on reflection I realized that my surprise was unwarranted. The Egyptians' not very distant neighbors, the ancient Hebrews, were always making speeches from mountaintops; and although the Old Testament gives the best speeches to Joseph, and later to Moses, we have to assume that the Egyptians were no slouches in replying. The fact is that until our own time it was impossible to think of the practice of politics without the eloquence with which kings and politicians tried to move individuals and multitudes. Only today, and especially in America, does oratory have no place in politics.

If you wished to summon a nation to defend itself, how would you address it? As the Armada approached the English shores. Queen Elizabeth resolved to visit her army at Tilbury. On August 8, 1588, according to a contemporary, "full of princely resolution . . . she passed like some Amazonian princess" among her soldiers, and on the following day, mounted on a stately horse, with a truncheon in her hands, she addressed them:

My loving people, we have been persuaded by some that are careful of our safety, to take heed how we commit ourselves to armed multitudes, for fear of treachery. But I assure you, I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people. Let tyrants fear. I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good will of my subjects; and therefore I am come among you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of battle, to live or die amongst you all, to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and for my people, my honor and my blood, even in the dust. I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which, rather than any dishonor shall grow by me, 1 myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.

This is not a speech put into her mouth by Shakespeare, like those of Henry V before Harfleur and Agincourt. Although monarchy was then a very elevated institution, this is manifestly a speech by a woman who knew her people. "Nothing could surpass the felicity of the speech that she made," says her best biographer, J. E. Neale, and we have to ask when any of us last heard a speech we called felicitous.

These reflections were stirred by a friend who recently read a copy of the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates, in which two candidates for the Senate began to thrash out the issues raised by slavery and the expansion of the nation to the West. My friend had also been listening to this year's campaign debates, and his reaction was predictable. Could any such extended debates as those of 1858 take place today, and if they did, how would they he reported? Our politics is starved not only of eloquence but of argument as well. Why? If anyone doubts that oratory has all but been silenced in politics, he need read only the annual volumes of Public Papers of the Presidents: six for Richard Nixon, a stout two for Gerald Ford, and a whopping nine (all of them very fat) for Jimmy Carter. One's blood will not be stirred, one's mind will not be pricked or elevated, by a single speech in any of them.

Some things about the Lincoln-Douglas debates seem quite familiar. Just as today various sponsors draw up elaborate rules for tbe campaign debates, so a strict formula was laid down in 1858. Abraham Lincoln challenged Stephen A. Douglas to joint debates, and Douglas agreed to appear with him in six of Illinois' eight Congressional districts. (Both candidates had spoken already in the other two.) Douglas was to open the first debate--in Ottawa on August 21—with a speech of an hour's duration; Lincoln was to have an hour and a half for his reply; and Douglas was to close with a speech of thirty minutes. In the following debates, they were to take turns in opening the discussion, the same rules being followed. Thus a "fairness doctrine" was applied even then.

The most obvious difference between then and now was the length of the speeches. But first consider the audiences. They were popular audiences. In Ottawa, according to Horace White in The Chicago Tribune, "the crowd was enormous. . . Crowds were pouring into town from sunrise till noon in all sorts of conveyances, teams, railroad trains, canal boats, cavalcades, and processions on foot, with banners and inscriptions. The town was covered with bunting, and bands of music were tooting round every corner." The debate was held in the town square. The second debate, in Freeport, was held in a grove on the outskirts of town. There the candidates addressed a crowd of fifteen thousand people. So it continued with crowds of much the same size to the last debate at Quincy. Today any candidate who could draw a crowd of fifteen thousand in a small town for a debate of three long speeches in three hours would be hailed as a miracle worker.

Then there was the wider audience to be reached by reporting. The headlines in the local papers suggest that neither television news today nor even The New York Post have much for which to apologize. The Chicago Times, Douglas's organ, proclaimed:


The Chicago Tribune, Lincoln's organ, put it differently:


In both papers, partisanship and sensation. Yet both reported the long speeches in full, which helped to create a wider audience. Copies of the debates were hurriedly printed and carried across the nation. They were passed from hand to hand, and we know that they were read. One of the immediate results of the debates was that they "so advertised Lincoln that he became a figure of national importance," as the historian James G. Randall wrote. Indeed, "without them his becoming the Republican Presidential candidate in 1860 would have been far less likely." From a single Senate election, without the aid of radio or television, a national politician was born. The remarkable thing is that this happened even though he lost the election.

The general verdict of history agrees with Albert J. Beveridge that on their merits the debates "deserve little notice." George Fort Milton compared them unfavorably with those between Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun. In an extensive analysis of the debates, Randall showed how slight their substance was, how each candidate temporized, how both were guilty of introducing red herrings, and how little they really disagreed on most points. Lincoln's famous second question--"Can the people of the United States Territory, in any lawful way, against the wish of any citizen of fhe United States, exclude slavery from its limits prior to the formation of a State Constitution?"--must seem to us extraordinarily limited.

Yet people in their own time must be allowed to debate their concerns in the terms that seem relevant to them. After all, the Lincoln-Douglas debates followed the Supreme Court decision in the Dred Scott case in 1857, in which the southern Justices, who comprised a majority, declared that Congress could not prohibit slavery in any state or territory, and that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional. Not everything can be attributed to the fact that the debates were, in Randall's words, "a spectacle, a drama, an exhibition, almost a sporting event." Nevertheless, the reminder of the degree to which they were spectacle warns us not to be too facile in lamenting the decline of oratory. What exactly is it that we are missing?

In any speech or debate, there are two actors: the speakers and the audience. In the time of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, a wider audience could be reached only through a speech's effect on the immediate audience. If the speech fell flat for the immediate audience, it would not travel the nation. Webster and Calhoun spoke to the nation by speaking directly to their own very distinct constituencies. Webster's great public speeches, such as the 1820 abolitionist address at Plymouth, needed their Massachusetts audiences. The oratory of Calhoun, an intellectual giant in the poiiticai life of his day (a fact often overlooked because his name is attached to the cause of slavery), took wing from the audiences of South Carolina, whose interests he articulated so boldly that Richard Hofstadter called him "the Marx of the Master Class."

Without an immediate audience, there can be no great oratory. The audience is as much an actor as the speaker. It charges the speaker with energy--there it is before him, and he must respond to it as well as it to him. In the days of the greatest oratory, there were not even loudspeakers. Yet a politician's voice could reach the back of a vast audience--and the audience could answer back on equal terms with its own voice. Heckling was an essential part of oratory. The last great heckle I heard was in 1966, when Prime Minister Harold Wilson went to speak in Chatham at a crucial by-election. The main business of Chatham is in its naval dockyards. Wilson elaborated his government's plan for expanding the Royal Navy, and then he did what no politician of his experience ought to have done. He asked a rhetorical question: "Why do I emphasize the importance of the Navy tonight?" From the middle of the hall a Cockney voice rang out: "Because you're in bloody Chatham, mate!"

But how can an audience heckle, how can it play its part, in fhe arenas where politicians speak now? There are the batteries of microphones, which themselves separate speaker from audience; there are the loudspeakers, which make the rapport between speaker and audience unequal; there are the banks of cameras, which sometimes physically block audience from speaker. And there are the squads of Secret Service men and other "security personnel." A really rough heckler now would probably be manhandled out of the hall and even detained for questioning.

The first reason for the decline of oratorv, fhen, is that the audience for oratory has disappeared. The politician does not know whom he is addressing. This is obviously true in the televised debates and prepared televised talks. The speaker is addressing only the red eye of the camera. When it switches on, he turns on; when it switches off, he turns off. There can be no oratory from a teleprompter. The next time you see a speaker using one of these devices when addressing a large audience--President Reagan will use one to give his acceptance speech at the Republican convention this summer, for example—look carefully. The speaker will seem to be looking at his audience, to the left and to the right, while speaking as if from memory. In fact, he will be looking at a pair of one-way mirrors in which the words of his text are reflected up to him. The audience (and the camera) sees through the mirror to the speaker's face; the speaker sees only his script, unrolling electronically three or four feet in front of him. That is why the eyes of such a speaker always look strangely unfocused; as far as the auciience is concerned, he is literally blinded by his own words.

But it is no less true that even when the politician Is out on the campaign trail, the occasions have been arranged by his "media advisers" for television news that night, and his "advance teams" have chosen the site for its pictorial value. When a politician speaks in a square in Pratt, Kansas, he receives nothing back from the people of Pratt. Candidates on the hustings now are not nourished by their audience.

Great oratory need not be only of an epic quality. One of the last examples of oratory in America occurred before I had even come to this country. But I have heard many accounts of it from journalists who were there. During the election campaign of 1960, John Kennedy sent Lyndon Johnson into the South. Johnson was to meet the South's angry criticisms of the Democratic Party's platform on civil rights; and he did make one epic speech, in New Orleans--his equivalent, in addressing southerners, to Kennedy's speech to the Baptists in Houston. But it was not of this that the journalists talked for years afterward.

From small town to small town across the South, he went, on a whistle-stop tour on a train called "The Yellow Rose of Texas," facing the sullen crowds of rednecks—"mah people," as he later put it to me. And head-on he spoke to them, as Stewart Alsop once characterized it, "with the tongues of angels." How would you feel, he demanded of them, if your child was sick, and you could not take him to the hospital in this town, but had to go twenty miles away? How would you feel if you were shopping and your child was thirsty, and you could not give him a cold soda at the counter in the drugstore? And again and again, he won the sullen audiences. The inspiration was partly in his conviction, partly in his courage, but also partly in his interaction with the audiences he had to win. People used to sneer at him for "pressing the flesh." Yet I know of no great politician on either side of the Atlantic who has not longed to get out there and be renourished by the people.

The second reason for the decline of oratory is that there are almost no common allusions that a politician can make. Throughout the South, Johnson was able to draw on southerners' shared experience and language, and the audiences responded. As recently as a few decades ago, a politician could refer to Job or even to Balaam's ass and be confident that his audience U'ould understand the reference. It made a great difference when even in semi-literate families everyone heard the Old Testament read every Sunday, and when in the homes of the humblest there were likely to be copies of the Bible and of Shakespeare. The constituents of the great English radical, John Bright, were cotton spinners and weavers in the mill town of Rochdale. When they asked why he had refused office, he answered with the story of the Shunammite woman who, when Elisha said, "Shall I do aught for thee with the king?" replied, "I dwell among my own people." Cotton workers who left school at the age of 8 did not need the allusion explained to them. Bright was one of the greatest of orators. Everett Dirksen was not, but his speeches too were full-blooded. One was never surprised when Dirkscn reached to some Biblical or Shakespearean allusion. What is more, they came from his memory, not from a speechwriter. Congressional oratory today is thin gruel. And not surprisingly. Most of it comes from cloistered Congressional staffs, with even less reach of allusion fhan their masters.

Before about 1945, common allusions were to be found even in the oratory of industrialists and businessmen addressing the National Association of Manufacturers. They were of course to be found in the oratory of union leaders. But after the Second World War one can notice a sea change. A new geographical and social mobility which severed people from their roots, a richly varied and accessible popular culture, the flight fo the suburbs, and all the influences that were creating much sharper differences between the generational cultures than before weakened the sources from which fhe allusions had been drawn. I once came across this quotation from the address of a businessman addressing the annual meeting of the Texas Gulf Historical Association in 1958: "We are inclined to travel in a Sputnik toward the outer space of the theories of Karl Marx or Lenin, and destined to crash in the area of inflation or deflation—who can tell which?" No robber btiron of an earlier generation would have spoken like that. I scribbled it down because it was a wholly accurate reflection of what was happening to the public speech of the nation in the 1950s: the muddled metaphor had replaced the common allusion.

The orator has to be something of an acfor. There was considerable acting by Lincoln, as every contemporary account makes clear, even in the debates with Stephen Douglas. There was certainly great acting in the days of classical English oratory in the House of Commons in the eighteenth century. Sheridan's philippic in the famous proceedings against Warren Hastings in 1788 lasted four and a half hours. The actress Mrs. Siddons was among those who fainted. The painter Thomas Gainsborough caught the chill which brought on his last illness. The historian Edward Gibbon looked on with a colder eye, recording afferv^'ard: "Sheridan, on the close of his speech, sunk [sic] into Burke's arms, but I called this morning, and he is perfectly well. A good actor." In his last great speech in defense of the American colonies, the aged and dying Chatham, after hours on his feet, sank into a dramatic coma. At the Free Trade Hall in Manchester in 1872, Disraeli spoke to the local Conservative Association for three-and-a-quarter hours. He sustained himself with white brandy, indistinguishable to the observer from the water taken with it, and he had consumed two bottles by the end. We have a perfect description of him in the Ht)use of Commons. When he prepared to utter what he called one of his "good things"—a well-prepared mot or barb against an opponent^he drew his handkerchief from the rear pocket in his morning coat, and wiped his brow nonchalantly with a dramatic pause. Then he let free his mot.

It was all great acting, and oratory in the United States has suffered for a long time because both the Senate and the House have long ceased to go arenas of oratorical duels, even on important issues. There is hardly anyplace to practice the theater of oratory in America. Even the actor in the White House offers no solace, because he uses his craft to obscure his message, not to reinforce it. The oratorical actors of ages past wished us to remember what was said; Reagan wishes us to remember the sayer. The harshness of the message (war in Central America, say, or stinginess at home) is smoothed by fhe affability of the messenger. Acting it may be; oratory It is not.

In times past, the acting was to reinforce the eloquence,the eloquence was to reinforce the reasoning. It must be realized that fhe object of great oratory was to appeal to the reason of the audiences. Eew orators in any age combined close reasoning with majestic eloquence more masterfully than Macaulay when he was in the House of Commons. It is hard to quote oniy a brief passage, because the power accumulated from sentence to sentence, as in this speech arguing (as early as 1833) that civil and political disabilities should be removed from the Jews:

The honorable member for Oidham tells us that the Jews are naturally a mean race, a sordid race, a moneypetting race. . . . Such, Sir, has in every age been the reasoning of bigots. They never fail to plead in justification of persecution the vices which persecution has engendered. England has been to the Jews less than half a country; and we revile them because they do not feel for England more than a half patriotism. We treat them as slaves, and wonder that they do not regard us as brethren. We drive them to mean occupations, and then reproach them for not embracing honorable professions. We long forbade them to possess land, and we complain that they chiefly occupy themselves in trade. We shut them out from all the paths of ambition, and then we despise them kn taking refuge in avarice. . . . Let us do justice to them. Let us open to them the door of the House of Commons. Let us open to them every career in which ability and energy can be displayed. Till we have done this, let us not presume to say that there is no genius among the countrymen of Isaiah, no heroism among the descendants of the Maccabees..

Such reasoning required speeches of several hours on great occasions, and people listened to them because the reasoning was lit with the flame of great oratory. Macaulay was trained, of course, in the classics; and the Romans, in the manner of Cicero, were great orators. It is very Roman advice that Cato the Censor gave: "Rem tene, verba sequentir."("Stick to the point, and the words will come.")

But mention of the Romans only returns us to the problem of common allusions. John Adams was, like many of the revolutionary leaders, a great orator. His favorite statesman was Sully, but he urged those who must speak and write to read Sallust, and find other models in Caesar and Xenophon. In 1776 he went back to the example of Epaminondas, who had welded the Thebans into a fighting force strong enough to defeat the Spartans, ln 1777 he told his son, John Quincy, to read Thucydides in Greek, "the most perfect of all human languages," adding that Thucydides was "full of instruction to the orator, the statesman, the general, as well as to the historian and philosopher." Abigail Adams sometimes quoted Sully to her husband in her letters, along with allusions to the Bible and to Shakespeare. G. M. Trevelyan once said that in the seventeenth century people quoted the Bible; in the eighteenth century, they quoted the classics; in the nineteenth century, Shakespeare; and in the twentieth century, they quote each other. This was devastating enough a generation ago. But now what do our politicians quote? A television commercial: "Where's the beef?"

In lamenting the decline of oratory in our time, we lament a far deeper loss in our civilization. (The lack of common allusions can be observed by any university teacher who, a generation ago, could be fairly confident that his students had read outside their assigned texts; but not now.) We cannot just blame the politicians. In this as in other respects, we get the politicians we deserve. If they do not inspire us with their oratory, it is partly because we are unwilling to be inspired. It is highly unlikely that, even as little as twenty years later, the rhetoric of Martin Luther King Jr. would appeal to us in the same way. Politicians need something to work from. All they have now are reckless, self-interested, and pampered groups. De Gaulle once asked in exasperation how anyone could govern a nation that made 23Q kinds of cheese. It was the cry of an authoritarian against the extreme individualism of his people. But one may well ask how a politician can address great oratory to people who are now so self-absorbed.

Our lack of trust in our politicians has deprived them of their own language. George Orwell's most famous essay, "Politics and the English Language," has always seemed misleading to me. He ignored the fact that there are many languages--the language of the law, of science, of commerce, of the military, of poetry, and so on--and that each serves a different function. It was jejune of Orwell to suggest that he had made a point by demonstrating how politicians might rewrite a passage trom the Holy Scripture. Politicians are not engaged in the writing of Scripture. "Make the world safe for democracy" is an arrangement of words in which the poet or the philosopher--and especially the linguistic philosopher--would be hard put to find any meaning, and so would dismiss as charlatanry. But in the context, and for the purpose it was used by Wilson, it had a clear meaning; and in that context, it still has that meaning. It not only gave Americans a reason to fight beyond their own interests, it also transformed the First World War, which no European power could by then win or end, into more than a meaningless and pitiless contest between decaying empires; and in so doing, it gave men hope. "Make the world safe for democracy" was as majestic in its time as Elizabeth's exhortation to her troops was in hers.

But if a politician today said, "Make the world safe for democracy," he would be laughed off television. How can any politician be an orator if Dan Rather chooses which of his words will be reported? Rather would probably say: "In an effort to revive flagging public support for his troubled campaign, the Democratic candidate today made an old-fashioned plea to 'make the world safe for democracy' "--and so in one sentence take away the politician's right to use his own language to elevate people and their purposes.

It is wewho drive the politician to use jargon, words that evade and obscure the truth. It is we who make them say that troops are "advisers," that war plans are "scenarios," that invasions are "incursions," that bombing is "air support." It is we who are afraid of the truth that politicians would tell us. We do not wish to be confronted. We do not wish to be challenged. We do not wish to be inspired. We do not wish to act.

The purpose of oratory is to persuade men and women to act or (which is the same thing) not to act with a joint will and purpose. But a nation with its ears in a Sony Walkman does not wish to act, or even to face the moral difficulties in the choice not to act. There have been few greater oratorical duels than that between William Pitt the Younger when he led Britain in the war against Napoleon and Charles James Fox, who opposed the continuation of the war. When in 1800 Pitt said that Britain must "pause" before agreeing to negotiate with Napoleon, Fox rose in the Commons and poured out a speech of almost unrivaled power:

Gracious God, sir! Is war a state of probation? Is peace a rash system? Is it dangerous for nations to live in amity with each other?. . . . Cannot this state of probation he as well undergone without adding to the catalogue of human sufferings? "But we must pause!" What, must the bowels of Great Britain be torn out--her best blood spilled--her treasures wasted--that you may make an experiment? Put yourselves--oh! that you would put yourselves in the field of battle, and learn to judge at the sort of horrors that you would excite. . . .if a man were to be present now at a field of slaughter, and were to inquire for what they were fighting--"Fighting!" would be the answer; "they are not fighting; they are pausing." "Why is that man expiring? Why is that other writhing with agony? What means this implacable fury?" The answer must be: "You are quite wrong, sir; you deceive yourself— they are not fighting--do not disturb them--they are merely pausing. This man is not expiring with agony--that man is not dead--he is only pausing Lord help you, sir! They are not angry with one another; they have no cause to quarrel; but their country thinks that there should be a pause. All that you see, sir, is nothing like fighting--there is no harm, no cruelty, nor bloodshed in it whatever; it is nothing more than a political pause."..

It will be easy for some to approve this oratory because Fox was calling for peace and not war. But the fact is that the oratory of both Pitt and Fox, as also all great oratory in all ages, was addressed to a nation which expected its politicians to appeal to it in strenuous moral terms.

Oratory will return when people look to their politicians for leadership. It is not the politicians who are now failing to give that leadership; it is we who do not wish to receive it from our politicians, or indeed from anyone else.

Henry Fairlie was a British political journalist and social critic. He was a contributor to The New RepublicThe AtlanticThe SpectatorThe Washington Post, The New Yorker, and many other papers and magazines. He is the author of, most recently, Bite the Hand That Feeds You: Essays and Provocations.

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