January 29th, 2008

Rhetoric ain’t what it used to be

Bush’s State of the Union message last night was the usual Rorschach test that people tend to view according to their previous conceptions of Bush and his policies. His basic message: Iraq’s doing relatively well, we need to cut pork.

As far as the speech itself went—well, President Bush is hardly known for his oratory. But I can’t think of anyone lately, with the possible exception of Tony Blair, who is.

Reagan had the delivery and the spirit, and some fine turns of phrase, but even he was hardly Churchill or Lincoln. But then again, who could be? Styles have changed, and the idea of “statesman” has morphed into the far more plebian “politician.”

Bill Clinton’s State of the Union Addresses struck me as laundry lists, despite the fact that some regarded him as a master politician. Obama spouts new age-y platitudes; he’s got the energy, but not the gravitas. Hillary? Fahgetaboutit. Romney reminds me of an actor Hollywood would choose to play a President in the movies, rather than the real thing. Giuliani was eloquent in his post-9/11 speeches when under the sway of the emotional wrench the event represented, but I haven’t heard that part of him lately. McCain is good with a quip, and his speeches are serviceable enough, but that’s about it.

One phrase in Bush’s address last night stuck me as emblematic of the changes in rhetoric from the past:

We must do the difficult work today, so that years from now people will look back and say that this generation rose to the moment, prevailed in a tough fight, and left behind a more hopeful region and a safer America.

Compare and contrast (from FDR’s speech to the 1936 Democratic convention):

There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.

Bush, or perhaps any politician, would have trouble delivering those lines today. It’s not just that FDR had the sort of lilting patrician accent and bearing that is no more. It’s that the notions themselves seem both too dramatic and too sentimental at the same time. We have become more simplistic and distrusting of soaring phrases, and our rhetoric has dumbed down and become more “safe” (read: generic) to match the trend.

14 Responses to “Rhetoric ain’t what it used to be”

  1. Truth Says:

    “…with liberty and justice for all.”

    The first time I remember saying the pledge of allegiance, I was in kindergarten. Since that time, I have said these words and knew that America stood for these ideals more than any other country. I fear though that justice is a rarity these days.

    Where is the justice in this war? It is true, Saddam Hussein was a rotten dictator who deserved trial in front of his victims. Yet the world is not empty of two-bit dictators who exploit and kill their own people. If our purpose as Americans is to rid the planet of greedy, self-centered, homicidal leaders, we’re going to be fighting until the end of time or the end of America, whichever comes first. Is there justice in spending half-a-trillion dollars on this effort? Will our children and grand-children thank us for the tax burden placed upon their shoulders as we borrowed to destroy, then rebuild, then protect another country as our own crumbles around us? Is there justice attempting to bring democracy to one middle-eastern nation while we support the tyrannical monarchies of others? Where is the justice for the troops making 1/10th what a private contractor makes to risk their lives? Where is the justice for our tax dollars wasted and outright lost? Where is the justice for the return soldier, given a college stipend, but changed forever by the atrocity of war? Where is the justice for those who had ambitions beyond dying in Iraq? Where is the justice for the families of those who do not return? America can never repay our debt to them, but we should at least try.

  2. gcotharn Says:

    Those are metaphysical questions. And good ones. The question is: Will you engage your own questions at the level of TRUTH which is necessary if one is to find answers? It is the question, really, of your life. The answer will determine your happiness and fulfillment as a human being.

  3. gcotharn Says:


    FDR’s was a biblical reference:
    To whom much is given, much is expected. – Luke 12:48

    Only some (extremist and dangerous evangelical!) denizens of red states would understand such a reference today. I’m exaggerating, but the overall point remains true:

    Our nation is less educated about classical values than it once was, and, thus, effective soaring rhetoric is more difficult to accomplish.

  4. david foster Says:

    I don’t see the specific Bush statement as being that much less rhetorically effective than the corresponding FDR statement, although clearly FDR was overall the better orator of the two.

    I believe it’s true that once, you were unlikely to graduate from college without some training in rhetoric. This rarely happens today, unless the individual chooses debate as an extracurricular activity. Yet the ability to give an effective talk or presentation is of vital importance in most careers, and the ability to assess the arguments made by politicians and others is a key aspect of citizenship and personal economic survival.

  5. gcotharn Says:


    it is easier, today, to reference Yoda:

    “Do, or do not. There is no try.”

    or whatever else Yoda said, than it is to reference Jesus, Moses, Homer, or Plato. (Not that I am personally pretending to great expertise about any of the four! I am a child of this American age. Instead of reading Plato, I comment at neo-neocon)

  6. neo-neocon Says:

    cgotharn: I agree. Biblical and Shakespearian references are part of the background that makes for some of the wonderful speeches of the past.

    A related issue is the modernization of the King James Bible, something I’m not in favor of.

    Hmmm, I may write a post on that some day.

  7. Bugs Says:

    On the other hand, I don’t exactly yearn for the days when your accomplished rhetoricians routinely made speeches that lasted two or three hours, sometimes longer. I can’t imagine how people could stand in the rain or sun listening to some politician bloviate half the day.

  8. neo-neocon Says:

    Bugs: those aren’t the ones that are remembered. I couldn’t have stomached that, either. Think, instead, of the brevity and eloquence of the Gettysburg Address. Churchill’s speeches were not all that long, either.

  9. Bugs Says:

    That’s true. Edward Everett spoke for two hours before the Gettysburg Address. Anybody remember what he said?

  10. anon Says:

    When I watched Ken Burns Civil War series I was struck by the eloquence of the ordinary soldier, in his letters to his family and so forth, and the journal entry of the officer who received the surrender of the Army of Virginia. But it also struck me how the sentiments expressed, so pure of heart and disturbingly honest, seemed foreign to me. And I thought the world a worse place for their loss. I guess it’s been downhill ever since.

  11. Beverly Says:

    When I was in school, we memorized it. O tempora! o mores!

    Gettysburg Address

    Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

    Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met here on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of it as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

    But in a larger sense we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled, here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.

    The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they have, thus far, so nobly carried on. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

  12. Tom Grey - Liberty Dad Says:

    Neo, I’ve read some things other Reps have been saying about Barak, a Dem with whose policies I disagree. These Reps have said Barak is great orator, one rheotician (at Prof. Bainbridge?) said he’s the best orator since MLK.

    I fear Barak may be that good, maybe as good as Hitler:
    “I’m asking you to Believe
    Not just in my ability to bring about
    real change to Washington … I’m
    asking you to believe in yours.”


    When I was watching documentaries on Hitler, his sincerity, desire for justice / anger at injustice, self-confidence, and often hope, were all easily felt. Without understanding the German (tho the justice issues were from historical context).

    The best of JFK was not quite as rhetorically fantastic, but it was great WITH great and noble goals as well; very unlike the goals of Hitler.

    What happens if Barak has great rhetoric but mediocre (=Dem policy) goals?

  13. Tom Grey - Liberty Dad Says:

    I was so impressed with his rhetoric I forgot to spell check his Barack name! oops.

  14. Ryan Says:

    Oratory has been downhill since mankind has had the ability to transfer ideas through other forms of media, ie. writing, printing, audio, video. Before, if you wanted to move people or share ideas, it was through speech. Now you can sit behind a computer and blog all day and change people’s mind’s on subjects.(hmmm…) There are merits for both sides. Nowadays, it’s easier for people to have their voices heard, which is good, but at the same time, it allows any numbskull to propogate their opinions without accountability. Orators in olden times had to cultivate a good reputation in order for their speeches to be taken seriously. This made it so that people who could speek in public had good character. So there are merits and drawbacks to both sides… anyways, I liked the post. My own blog, http://keyspeeches.blogspot.com is a resourse of some of the most famous/important speeches of history.(Not many added as of yet, but, more being added everyday) Anyone want to check it out? I’d be happy to exchange links with the owner of this blog or anyone with a relevant site/blog so please check out my blog and contact me!

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