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Churchill: now there’s an orator

Churchill: now there’s an orator

When I was solidly engaged in not watching Obama’s SOTU speech, I thought of the antidote: Winston Churchill.

I have long cringed when anyone refers to Obama as a great orator. To me he seems like a terrible one: flat, repetitive delivery; devoid of content (that is, when he’s not engaged in flagrant lying, or errors); and cliché upon cliché.

But why single Obama out? The US hasn’t had a president who’s a great orator in a long, long time. Kennedy had some good moments, and Reagan was very good indeed, but I can’t think of anyone of Churchillian quality since Lincoln. But “Churchillian quality” is a tall, tall order. Martin Luther King perhaps, but he wasn’t a president.

It helped that Churchill was a writer who wrote his own speeches. Actually, if you read the William Manchester biographies of Churchill, you’ll learn that Churchill actually dictated most of his speeches in the wee hours of the morning to a bevy of night-owl secretaries.

Churchill carefully plotted out his delivery, too, and he was a master at it:

At the Morgan Library are several drafts of a single speech from February 1941, when England stood alone against the Nazi onslaught and Churchill appealed to President Roosevelt for aid. The first draft looks like a normal typescript; the final draft, says Kiely, “looks like a draft of a poem.”

Churchill made those markings, Kiely explains, to indicate how the speech should be delivered. He inserted white space to remind himself to pause.

Churchill asked: “What is the answer that I shall give, in your name, to this great man, the thrice-chosen head of a nation of a hundred and thirty millions?”

Here, lots of white space is inserted into the final draft.

“Here is the answer which I will give to President Roosevelt.”

Another long pause, and then he said:

“Put your confidence in us. Give us your faith and your blessing, and under Providence, all will be well. We shall not fail or falter. We shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle, nor the long‐drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down. Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.”

I recall reading in the Manchester books that Churchill had the final drafts of his speeches written out in a sort of blank verse form, and not only wrote in the pauses, but sometimes instructed himself to stutter slightly for added emotional emphasis. A master of wit, word, and the delivery of both, he had a general rule about speech-writing and speech in general:

Short words are best and the old words when short are best of all.

Most of Churchill’s speeches – and virtually all of his most memorable quotes – feature short, “old” (Anglo-Saxon root) words. They also tend to have the cadence of the best poetry.

So, how about listening to the speech described in this post (and no, it’s not an actor)? The pauses aren’t quite as long as one might expect from the description, but it’s a great, great speech. Note the way he says “nay,” “give us,” and “finish the job,” as well as the way he reads the Longfellow verse, and how Biblical the tone becomes towards the end of the clip:

[Neo-neocon is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at neo-neocon.]


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Nielsen reports the 2014 SOTU got a 21.8 or 33,299,172 viewers , the lowest in at least 20 years.
The 2009 SOTU, Obama’s first, got a 32.5 or 52,373,000 viewers.

Hope & Change.

Bush’s best was 2013 with a 38.8 or 62,061,000 viewers.
Clinton’s best was 1993 with a 44.3 or 66,900,000 viewers.

DINORightMarie | January 30, 2014 at 8:51 am

One of my all-time favorite speakers. So many great ones: “…never have so many owed so much to so few…”, “…we will fight them on the beaches….”, the “…..iron curtain…”, “….blood, toil, tears, and sweat….” – just to name a few. Brilliant, all.

As well, I have often thought as you do of Obama; the only speech I ever heard Obama give that met, even remotely, the unmerited “great speaker” title was the “Yes we can” speech – because it was delivered using a preacher’s cadence, mimicking Martin Luther King Jr.’s great “I have a dream” speech. By design, calculated for effect.

Unlike Churchill, or Reagan, Obama didn’t do that alone; he was coached, and it was well rehearsed by his handlers, to ensure it would have just that effect.

The radio, as it did for C.S. Lewis in those days, played a significant role in Churchill’s delivery as did his well-read background and canny knowledge of history.

The radio brought all ears to attention. The listener was focused on the message and not on the interplay of Biden’s quirky looks or on the handclapping sycophants or the media mash in the after math of Obama’s populist and droning SOTU.

There was time after Churchill’s broadcast speech to take it all in and digest what was said. The informed-intimate radio messenger made all the difference to those seeking the words of strength and hope.

Humphrey's Executor | January 30, 2014 at 9:14 am

My grandmother (who was not an easy person to impress) told of how inspiring it was to hear Churchill’s “some chicken, some neck” speech to the Canadian Parliament.

NC Mountain Girl | January 30, 2014 at 9:17 am

Churchill understood both Parliament and the emerging medium of radio. Reading from a text would be ridiculed in Parliament while performances recited from memory would get talked about. Such performances also worked well with the growing radio audience. Yet for all the rehearsing he remained the master of devastating ad libs.

Winston’s position within his own party in the 1930s was akin to the Tea Party’s relationship to the establishment GOP today. The other Conservatives did not trust Winston. On the other hand, much of the Britain electorate did not trust the establishment Conservatives, especially after Munich. They knew from Winston’s writing and his speeches that he would not sell out their war efforts. He was made PM because the Labour Party insisted there would be no war time coalition government under any other Conservative other than Winston.

From T. Boone Pickens’ LinkedIn:

President Barack Obama talked about energy in his State of the Union address as every President since Richard Nixon has done. In his State of the Union address, President Obama came out strongly for the continued development of natural gas as a major American resource.

That is great news and music to my ears. I have championed a comprehensive national energy strategy – the Pickens Plan – since 2008, with natural gas as a cornerstone. The goal has been to get off OPEC oil by using natural gas for heavy duty trucking.

While I’m obviously heartened by the President’s endorsement of that, I’m also a realist. A plan wihout action isn’t a plan, it’s a speech. The OPEC oil threat is real. Our national security is threatened by it as is our economic future. After 40 years we just take OPEC for granted, and that’s a big mistake.

    snopercod in reply to Neo. | January 30, 2014 at 10:09 am

    Did ole’ T.Boone ever find a buyer for all those wind generators he bought and never installed?

Bitterlyclinging | January 30, 2014 at 9:49 am

“Blood, sweat, toil and tears” just wouldn’t cut it with the America of today. Now if Winnie could have been as eloquent describing the joys and wonders of abortion, sex changes, cross dressing, sodomy, muff diving, carpet munching. ‘choomwagons’, nose candy, he might have a chance of making it as a politician today.

Churchill was also a pretty good tactician as opposed the our current bumbler-in-chief as well as being a master of some great one liners…

DavidJackSmith | January 30, 2014 at 2:01 pm

Obama is to oratory as Jeffrey Dahmer was to gay outreach.

Anyone who thinks the man isn’t anything more than a fifth rate glib pseudo with AWFUL delivery has to be a cultist of massive proportions.

He’s dire, but then so are most American politicians in Congress.

LibraryGryffon | January 30, 2014 at 3:32 pm

During the ’08 election I had the radio on one afternoon with my then 10yo in the car when they played a clip of Obama. My daughter turned to me and said, “He says ‘um’ a lot, doesn’t he?” When grade schoolers can tell that someone is a lousy public speaker…..

Obama has never been a great speaker. But you’d get bored and drone on, too, if they made you read the same damn speech off your teleprompters a couple times a week for six years.

Obama gave one great speech, at the 2004 Democratic Convention. It was great not because of oratorical skill, but because of its content: broad and inclusive, almost nonpartisan. It seemed out of place.

And it was. It had a lot to do with how Obama would first get elected, but nothing to do with who he was. He demonstrated that with the most liberal voting record in the Senate, punctuated by the worst attendance record.

In fairness to Obama, it must be very difficult to give a good speech when you have nothing at all to say.

Obama’s great rhetorical skills–it’s like his preternaturally profound and incisive intelligence. I’m not saying it’s there; I am saying I see no evidence of it.