January 27th, 2007

Churchill as orator: I Can Hear It Now

I got an email the other day asking me why I think Churchill’s speeches are more remembered and quoted than FDR’s.

The answer isn’t immediately apparent. After all, both of them were incomparably better than most politicians today at public speaking. Both of them were wartime Presidents who faced extraordinarily dramatic situations requiring the need to inspire their people, and both had the rhetorical skills to do so.

I’ve had some personal experience of Churchill’s oratorical powers as compared to FDR’s. No, I’m not that old–but as a child, I spent many hours listening to a set of records we owned, the “I Can Hear It Now” series by Edward R. Murrow. I’m not much of an auditory learner (see this), but I just couldn’t get enough of these records.

There was Harry Truman, imitating H.V. Kaltenborn‘s premature declaration that Truman had lost the election of 1948. The almost hysterical radio announcer describing the Hindenburg catching fire and burning in Lakehurst New Jersey. Fiorello la Guardia reading the comics to NY children during a newspaper strike.

FDR saying in his resonant, uplifting, slightly British-sounding (at least to my ears) tones, “The only thing we have to fear is…” (and then a wonderful, pregnant pause) “fear itself.”

They all entranced me; I’m not sure why. Maybe it was Murrow’s voice too, tying the whole thing together with his narration: serious and sonorous, it fairly dripped with History.

But it was Churchill who was the very best of all. His voice may not have been the deepest, but it resonated with power and hard-won wisdom mixed with more than a touch of the weariness of one who has seen horror and yet refuses to give in. Despite his slightly lispy “s’s,” his moral clarity came through in the clipped tones of his clearly enunciated words, simple enough for a child to understand and yet complex in their resonance and implications.

Churchill was a writer, after all, before he was a politician, and a very successful one at that. He had the writer’s appreciation for the turn of phrase, but the actor’s knowledge of how to deliver it. If you’ve ever read William Manchester’s riveting two-volume biography of Churchill, The Last Lion, you probably know that Churchill planned and rehearsed the pauses in his speeches–even, if I recall correctly from the book, adding notes to himself such as “slight stammer and hesitation” for dramatic effect.

Churchill knew exactly what he was doing when he gave speeches; he was the perfect combination of intellect, will, vision, writer, and orator. His rule “Short words are best and the old words when short are best of all” was one he followed; he preferred the basic Anglo-Saxon phrases (and I don’t mean curses) to the Latinate whenever possible. As he said:

All the great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom, justice, honour, duty, mercy, hope.

Listening to Churchill was more like listening to the plays of Shakespeare than anything else, but a Shakespeare who was easier to understand, and in a way even more dramatic–because this was real; this was history itself, and not an imitation of it.

39 Responses to “Churchill as orator: I Can Hear It Now”

  1. douglas Says:

    It was the Cigars. Gives a good tone to the voice.

  2. snowonpine Says:

    I’ve had to find past political speeches for use as models for current day speeches and looking back over many decades of such speeches it is obvious that that the quality of political speeches has radically declined. What I particularly liked about FDR’s speeches was that he didn’t make compromises, he didn’t dumb them down. FDR used words that were difficult, I am sure, for many in his audience but he used them anyway believing, I suppose, that if people in his audience didn’t understand a word, they would look it up. Of course, I suspect that the high school graduates of those days were much better grounded in the fundamentals that a lot of college students are today, so perhaps there weren’t that many in his audience that had problems understanding his speeches. FDR also spoke directly to his audience about sometimes complex ideas in a way that today’s politicians are not likely to do; I’m sure they think it would be too confusing for the sheep.

  3. bird dog Says:

    Doggone, neo. We had that record at home too. Did not remember it until you brought it up. Also popular in the family: Robert Frost reading his poems, esp. death of the hired man… I can hear it now.

  4. Good Ole Charlie (SE Penna) Says:


    And an interesting comparison is with another great orator: Adolf Hitler.

    One of my colleagues teaches a course in twentieth century history. When comes time for the Nazi era, he shows the class “Triumph of The Will”, the Reifenstahl documentary of a Nuremberg Nazi Congress.

    Indeed, once you get used to one parade after another, the DVD is almost hypnotic. And the feature attractions are three big speeches by Der Fuehrer.

    They can compare with any other orator’s – past or present. Interesting enough, I found out that the film’s speeches were NOT edited: they are as they were given.

    Add a DVD copy of this documentary to the Murrow “I Can Hear It Now” and you begin to understand this era.

    What were the reactions of the students? “I never realized they were that YOUNG!”. “Did the Germans really believe this?”. “They WERE a popular movement, weren’t they?”.

    History is really what the Greek root word Istoria means: “An Investigation”.

  5. Finn McCool Says:

    To me the most dramatic part of Churchill’s life was when he was shunned, isolated, and abandoned by the appeasers for his belief that war was inevitable. He was forced out of the government and he was denied access to the mainstream media of the time. Though he was sometimes discouraged, he gave speeches and wrote books to feed his family.

    If today’s history is rhyming with the 1930’s, who is today’s Churchill? Could it possibly be Rick Santorum?

  6. Sergey Says:

    I fear, it is not only rhyming, but repeats itself in case of Iran up to tiny details. No wonder, Persians are not Arabs: they belong to Arian, not Semitic branch of white race. This makes them especially dangerous. The leading features of Arian tribes (Greek, Persian, German, Slavic) are ingenuity, technical capabilities, cruelty and expansionism. Arians are empire-builders, inventors and colonizators; this is their archetype. This is what The Third Reich was about; this is what Alexander’s The Great empire was about; and Anglo-Saxon British empire, too. Now this archetype is working it’s way in mass consciousness of modern Persians, as it worked in Nazi Germany. To stop it, devastations of Dresden or Hiroshima scale are required.

  7. Isaiah Hunahun Says:

    This is off topic but I wanted to share it with the group, because few things incense me more than a combination of racism, ignorance, and bias – which the LATimes managed to roll up in one incredible piece of Post-Modern journalism:

    8 convicted of hate attack in Long Beach

    The victims are made to look like racist, not the other way around – absolutely stunning.

  8. colagirl Says:

    I’ve had to find past political speeches for use as models for current day speeches and looking back over many decades of such speeches it is obvious that that the quality of political speeches has radically declined.

    I wonder if that’s because overall education levels of today’s population have declined, or because politicians today have to work in a “soundbyte” mode, or both.

  9. Sergey Says:

    Former chief of Mossad, Efraim Halevy, said yesterday that WWIII already began. He is a man whose words should be taken seriously.

  10. Sissy Willis Says:

    He’s no John Kerry . . . 🙂

    I love this post. Thank you.

  11. Lee Says:

    I think the reason Churchill gets more “credit” in history than FDR, et.al., is because he is seen as that symbol of determination when all seemed lost. “We will never surrender”, “This was their finest hour”, “An iron curtain has fallen across europe”, etc. Of course, in the east, there was almost god-like reverence for “Uncle Joe”, and for many of the same reasons.

  12. Bookworm Says:

    Churchill has the best, most consistent turns of phrase. His language creates the best imagery. His organization is perfect. His delivery thrilling. Roosevelt said great things, but his delivery was stilted, and he didn’t hit each speech out of the park the way Churchill did. Also, Roosevelt’s best speeches were from the early 1930s, when audio quality was bad, while Churchill’s war speeches benefitted from better technology.

  13. Isaiah Hunahun Says:

    Minus two important characteristics, I’ve found our modern day Churchill. The oratory, historical, and by and large, moral clarity is there. The missing characteristics are; he’s not a natural born US citizen, can’t run for President, and the fact that he is such a dyed-in-the-wool atheist, which is something that doesn’t bother me but you need to have some connection with the majority of your fellow citizens.

    YouTube: “Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so, too.” – Voltaire.

  14. Teresa Says:

    I love those books by William Manchester they are as beautifully written as Churchill was/is fascinating.

    The other thing Churchill did in his speeches – he used everyday words. He was very clear and concise. He made himself understandable to everyone without sounding either condescending or idiotic.

    A truly incredible man.

  15. Sergey Says:

    Christopher Hitchens did not qualify as nation leader not only because his unelectability, but because of lack of consistency. He is a half-baked conservative, as many other ex-Marxists defectors, like Whittaker Chambers, and drags behind a lot of ideological baggage of his previous beliefs. His repeated, obsessive attacks on Catholicism are understandable in light of his Jewish descent, but no less forgivable.

  16. Wild Rice Says:

    Churchill was a writer…“:

    Churchill was just a nasty imperialist which is why the Neocons love him so much. The world he advocated lives on only in Neocon ideology. Contrast this with FDR’s legacy, much of which remains with us today.

  17. stumbley Says:

    “Contrast this with FDR’s legacy, much of which remains with us today”

    Yep, the lovely welfare state, the institutionalized idea that government should take care of everything (anybody remember the Grasshopper and the Ant?) and the ticking time bomb of Social Security. What a dandy legacy.

  18. Old Dad Says:

    Wild Rice,

    Churchill’s legacy is a free west, however badly we have mismanaged it.

    And FDR’s legacy is almost equal. One can intelligently disagree with his domestic policies, but his leadership as Commander in Chief was indispensable.

    Churchill, though, held the west together as we dithered. Without Churchill, there would be no United Kingdom today.

    if that’s “nasty,” then good on you.

  19. Richard Says:

    I think one of the reasons that no one comes close today to the political rhetoric of the past is the distracting and stupid custom of applauding after every other sentence. It interferes with the cadence and pacing, and there’s no opportunity for the speaker to build to a crescendo. It’s the payoff lines that makes the speech, but you can’t build up to them if you have to stop for applause every time you express a thought.

  20. Ymar Says:

    The world he advocated lives on only in Neocon ideology. Contrast this with FDR’s legacy, much of which remains with us today.
    Wild Rice | 01.28.07 – 6:57 pm | #

    I don’t see any concentration camps where we put traitors like Kerry and Fonda….

    What about the rest of you regulars at Neo Neocon, you see any concentration camps that remained of FDR’s legacy? Well?

  21. Lee Says:

    Ymar is correct! FDR was just another Wilsonian. The Sedition Acts(so broad Women suffragettes were considered ‘enemies of the State’), the beginnings of One-World Government(The League of Nations), his total disregard for the Monroe Doctrine, etc. FDR could have been his doppelganger.

  22. Lee Says:

    Oh yeah, I almost forgot. When Wilson committed troops to a European War, he only had DAUGHTERS!

  23. TalkinKamel Says:

    Wild Rice, I fear, is a nasty little Marxist. Like most nasty little Marxists, he/she/it despises freedom, and loves tyrants. Rice’s real beef with Churchill is probably that he stood up to Hitler, and wasn’t impressed by Stalin.

    (By the way, Ricey, I’m still waiting for you to address Communist atrocities in Vietnam, after it fell.)

  24. sam Says:

    Well it looks like the US mowed down a couple hundred Iraqis in a date grove this weekend. I’ll bet anybody dollars to donuts (the little Dolly Madison kind) that the Iraqis killed today were a group somewhat analogous to the hapless US militias that run around playing paintball on weekends.

    Now BushCo is going to say “See the Iraqi forces are up to the job of controlling the chaos”. But in actuality the US forces with some tag along “Iraqi forces” just carpet bombed a bunch of witless wannabe jihadi cult members … Branch Davidian style.

    Dollars v donuts. Any takers?

  25. Sergey Says:

    British imperialism was much more beneficial to modernization of historically retarded populations than their native thugocracy. Empires are natural forms of international order and vechicles of civilizational advancement. They will be restored in near future as the only way to eradicate terrorism.

  26. Lee Says:

    Well, Sam, I see all your sympathy goes for those poor paintballers and not the two Americans who lost their lives(paintballs are such good weapons against helicopters, aren’t they). And, by the way, 250 terrorists who were there to kill pilgrims on their way to Najaf for Ashura Day. Doesn’t have much to do with Winston Churchill though.

  27. Lee Says:

    By the way, I’ll take that bet. I bet 250 Krispy Kremes.

  28. Pendullum Says:

    Besides the amazing voice Churchill had and his grand delivery of words his speaches that wax peoetic… I also feel that there is an encapsulation of the war with him. The battles were on European soil and London was being bombed nightly.

    The Americans came late to the war and there was one attack on home soil. FDR did not have nearly as many speaches to be made.

    The power of conviction on one whose entire population was underseige nightly also proved what a courageus leader he was to keep all calm in horrible horrible times..

  29. Loyal Achates Says:

    Churchill must somersault in his grave whenever his legacy is used to justify perpetually mismanaged wars led by fifth-rate political hacks who think of themselves as his heirs.

  30. Josiah Says:

    It’s not so surprising that Churchill should be a better orator than FDR – he was English. It’s their language; we’re just borrowing it.

  31. cassandra Says:

    “Churchill was just a nasty imperialist which is why the Neocons love him so much.”

    Well he was that too but he was the right man at the right time.

    “Churchill must somersault in his grave whenever his legacy is used to justify perpetually mismanaged wars ”

    You’re kidding of course. You’ve never heard of Gallipoli? Or the botched invasion of Norway in WWII?
    Churchill botched his share of conflicts. But he hung in there when all the dallying, dreaming appeasers had crawled back to their country houses to lick their wounds.

  32. MikeH Says:

    For a good video documentary of Churchill, check this 1964 one out:
    (May be hard to find in the US). Actor Patrick Wymark reads a lot of SWC’s speeches in a Churchillian voice (I assume that even though actual Churchill audio exists for some of these, it didn’t for all so they used Wymark).

  33. sam Says:

    “Well, Sam, I see all your sympathy goes for those poor paintballers and not the two Americans who lost their lives”

    You scumbag. You sent them there not me!

  34. TalkinKamel Says:

    That’s right, Lee, you sent those guys there personally, you awful human being, you!

    /Sarc.of course!

    Hmmm,Sam really doesn’t seem too worried about the pilgrims the terrorists were there to kill, does he? Oh well, that’s probably our fault too! Remember, America is always WRONG!

  35. Ymar Says:

    Americans love Imperialists, so long as the Imperials aren’t trying to take over America. They also have to be non French btw. Memories of North Africa.

  36. Lee Says:

    Scumbag? Moi?

  37. Loyal Achates Says:

    churchill made plenty of mistakes, but ultimately he redeemed himself. I can say with a high degree of certainty that Rumsfeld, Bush, Cheney et al are finished in the American political scene.

  38. Lee Says:

    “Rumsfeld, Bush, Cheney et al are finished”… Probably not. They’ll probably be advisors in the JEB Bush admin.

  39. kathy Clark Says:

    looking for speach by winston churchill using germanic root words

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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