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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Great Orators


Adolf Hitler at the 1934 Nuremberg Party Rally


The emergence of Barack Obama has highlighted the talent of certain politicians to engage in stirring oratory when speaking before the public. There is no doubt that Obama possesses the gift of oratory. His victory speech in South Carolina yesterday was spectacular. Though overshadowed by Obama, John Edwards is also a gifted public speaker, honed by years of work in North Carolina courtrooms convincing gullible jurors that birth defects are caused by negligent doctors and hospitals. Edwards' talent for oratory has paid off for him, making him one of his state's wealthiest citizens, even as he goes around describing an America that comes straight out of a Charles Dickens novel.

In our more recent history, we have seen other gifted speakers in America, most notably Franklin Roosevelt, John F Kennedy, and of course, arguably the greatest, Martin Luther King. It is undeniable that masses of people can be swept away by a great speaker. Depending on the nature of the speaker and what he or she really stands for, that can be a good-or bad thing. Most would argue that the above three were also mostly good (perhaps great) men with a positive message. But there are exceptions.

After I completed my tour of military service in Germany in the late 1960s, I became fascinated by the history of the Third Reich, particularly because I was stationed just outside Nuremberg, the so-called "shrine" of Nazism. Over the years, I became sort of an amateur scholar on the Nazi era. As part of my historical research and study of the German language, I collected many recordings of speeches and radio broadcasts from the times, including speeches by Hitler and Josef Goebbels. There is no question that Hitler was a gifted public speaker, who rallied the masses behind a message of hate. In my opinion, Goebbels was even more talented because he had a much better voice than Hitler and, with his superior education (PHD), a greater command of the German language. His Totalen Krieg (Total War) speech in the Berlin Sports Palace in 1943 was a masterpiece of German bombastic oratory, and the response from his audience was wild. Of course, in those days, bombast was the order of the day, and the German language lends itself well to that style of speaking. Since World War II, of course, that style has gone out of fashion lest people be reminded of the Nazi era. If you listen to German news programs now, what you hear is a very low key, "talking head" style of speaking.

This brings me to my point about politicians who are great speakers. It has nothing to do with their intentions, policies, fitness for office or character. Now let me state clearly at this point that I am not trying to draw a moral comparison between Hitler/Goebbels and Obama/Edwards. I am merely suggesting that when we listen to someone speak, we can enjoy the oratory, but we should not lose track of what the real message is-if there is one at all. Hitler and Goebbels had a message, but it was one of hate. Edwards has a message too-not of hate, but one of victimhood and class resentment, even though he is of the class that he wants his listeners to resent. Jesse Jackson is another wonderful speaker, though, like President Bush, he is in trouble without a prepared text-and he has been discredited in the eyes of millions of Americans, including a growing number of blacks. As for Obama, I am still not sure what his message is because he doesn't really get into specifics-just about "change" and a "better America", etc. Once you get past the sterling oratory, you are not left with much of substance. We should not overlook this.

On the opposite side, we have seen plenty of politicians who are bad public speakers, including several presidents. Nixon, Bush (the elder)and LBJ come to mind. George W Bush, of course, is noted for being inarticulate once removed from a prepared speech-though he has had outstanding speech writers. Though Jimmy Carter was often wooden in his speeches as president, I saw him speak last year at the University of California at Irvine. His style was conversational and rather effective-though there is little or nothing that I agree with him on. The point is that these persons' lack of speaking skills is unrelated to how good or bad they were, either in character or competence.

It is fine to enjoy the speeches of talented orators, but the audience should not lose sight of the actual message, nor the person behind the words. After all, if you show me a great speaker, I will show you-a great speaker.

5 comments:

Lance C. Johnson said...

Good point. This is why I absolutely will not put a write-in vote for Adolf Hitler this election.

In all seriousness, Bush's speeches make me cringe to the point where I almost don't care who wins so much as it's somebody who knows how to pronounce "nuclear" and doesn't "misunderestimate" the importance of good public speaking. Therefore, we will no longer have to ask, "Is our children learning?"

Gary Fouse said...

Bush has had good speech writers. His speech after 9-11 was one of the best. But take the script away from him and he is bad because he is not articulate with the English language. It doesn't mean he is stupid, he's not. Just not articulate.,

Lance C. Johnson said...

I have no problem believing that. My point was just that, as an American, I want an articulate person to speak for my country. Would I rather have an articulate evil guy than an inarticulate good guy? No way, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't important to me at all.

Is our children learning said...

wait wait, did he just say Bush is not stupid? wat makes you think that? when someone flubs up that many times with making up words, mispronouncing words, and just poor grammar, that leads me to believe me to think that person is just plain stupid. ok stupid is harsh, maybe under-edjucated. hahaha like that? i think bush is articulate with his words, he speaks in a precise and calm matter, i think he honestly tries hard in chosing what he wants to say, just doesnt have a grasp of common knowledge and english to speak. Which says volumes to ppl who elected him to represent our nation.

Anonymous said...

Bush is most certainly not stupid. Keep in mind he does have a bachelor degree from yale and an MBA from Harvard.