Words fail them

Columnist Arthur Black laments the lost art of the great political oratory of decades past

“I’m the commander — see, I don’t need to explain — I don’t need to explain why I say things. That’s the interesting thing about being president.”

— George Bush in George Bush at War, by Bob Woodward

 

Whatever happened to oratory? There was a time when public figures could spellbind a crowd with their words — no slide shows, no Power Point presentations, no musical soundtrack — just the power of their spoken thoughts.

In 1864, Abraham Lincoln spoke for a little over two minutes at a cemetery in Pennsylvania from notes scrawled on an envelope. The Gettysburg Address is a viscerally pungent work of aural art that schoolchildren still learn by heart today.

 

“See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda.”

— George W. Bush, May 24, 2005

 

The truth is, public oratory has been declining for a long time, and not just south of the border. Can you recall anything that Stephen Harper has said? About anything? Ever?

The Harper Policy is the same as the Dubya Dictum: keep it Pablum simple and repeat ad nauseam.

By contrast, in 1940 a dumpy, balding old guy with a lisp stood up in the British House of Commons and said:

“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask what is our policy. I can say: it is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy.

“You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory.  Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, no matter how long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.”

“Let that be realized; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal. But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men.”

The speaker was Winston Churchill. It was his first address as Prime Minister of Great Britain.

One would think that clear, honest, forthright talk is the least our leaders could give us, but that’s not what works.

Another politician once said: “In the long run, basic results in influencing public opinion will be achieved only by the man who is able to reduce problems to the simplest terms and who has the courage to keep forever repeating them in this simplified form, despite the objections of intellectuals.”

The minister in charge of Nazi propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, said that.

— Arthur Black’s column appears every Tuesday in The NEWS. He can be reached at: arblack43@shaw.ca.

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