Last night when I was engaged in not watching Obama’s SOTU speech, I was thinking of the antidote: Churchill. I even wrote a couple of notes for this post.
I have long cringed when anyone refers to Obama as a great orator. I just don’t get it. He’s a terrible orator: flat, repetitive delivery; contentless (that is, when he’s not engaged in flagrant lying, or errors); and cliche upon cliche.
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, Reagan was quite good, but I can’t think of anyone of Churchillian quality since Lincoln. But “Churchillian quality” is a tall, tall order, because Churchill was a great orator.
It helped that Churchill was a writer who wrote his own speeches. Actually, if you read the Manchester biographies of Churchill (one volume of which appears in my blog header photo), you’ll learn that Churchill actually dictated most of his speeches in the early morning (as in, “late night”) hours 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.”
Historian Andrew Roberts says the impact of Churchill’s speeches cannot be underestimated. “An awful lot of people thought that it was impossible to beat the Nazis,” Roberts says. “Yet what Winston Churchill did, by constantly putting Britain’s peril in the greater historical context of other times that Britain had nearly been invaded, but had been ultimately successful, he managed to tell the British people that this could happen again.
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 had not only the pauses written in but sometimes instructed himself to stutter slightly for 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.
You will note that 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.
Which means we’ll have to hear a bit of Churchill now, won’t we? How about the speech described in this post? The pauses aren’t quite as long as I expected 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):