January 29th, 2014

Churchill and speechmaking

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.

And funny thing, today I see that commenter “Beverly” had the same notion (see also this).

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):

42 Responses to “Churchill and speechmaking”

  1. Ann Says:

    This is interesting — from a 2000 article in The Economist about the recording of his speeches:

    …it was suggested this week that some of these famous recordings are not actually the work of Churchill at all, but of an actor mimicking his voice. …

    The famous 1940 speeches were all first made in the House of Commons at a time when the chamber was not wired for sound. The familiar recordings of those speeches all come from LPs issued by Decca in 1964. And these discs relied on recordings of the speeches made in 1949 by Churchill in his home at Chartwell, long after the event, as well as recordings from the contemporary BBC archives. However, there is no documentation to show that the BBC kept recordings of the three crucial speeches on May 13th, June 4th and June 18th (“finest hour”), all delivered to the House of Commons in the afternoon and, supposedly, faked by Shelley [the actor in question] for the evening radio audience.

    In fact, the famous June 4th speech was never broadcast on that day. BBC transcripts show that on the evening radio news broadcasts the newsreader quoted extracts from the prime minister’s parliamentary oration in reported speech, but not as if Churchill himself was broadcasting. Only one speech, that of June 18th, was broadcast on the same day as it was delivered to the House of Commons. And this recording was definitely made by Churchill. An official at the Ministry of Information has recorded how the ministry “bullied” Churchill into making it.

  2. rickl Says:

    And the second the war was won, the British voters booted him out and elected a Socialist.

    Yes, I am pretty cynical about humanity.

  3. neo-neocon Says:


    Well, they brought Churchill back for a little while, when socialism had palled a little bit. He retired for health reasons in 1955. And then they brought in the socialists again, but not until 1964.

  4. parker Says:

    Obama possesses none of the traits that made Churchill a great orator and statesman; and capable leading a besieged nation through terrible darkness in the face of formidible odds. A fawning fourth estate may lift a mediocre person to high office but it can not make him/her great.

  5. J.J. Says:

    Aye, a man for the ages. What a voice and what a spirit! He knew how to motivate and lead people.

    His reference to the “English speaking peoples” – the Anglosphere – resonates even today, as the Anglosphere is still a major bulwark against tyranny of all types – Communist, Islamist, and Fascist. What we face from Islamists is a challenge of arms and will. But from Communists and Fascists it is a challenge of belief and understanding of our heritage. A man of Churchill’s historical and philosophical knowledge with the ability to put it in words could rouse the Anglosphere from its present coma. We have found our Chamberlin in Obama. Is our Churchill waiting somewhere in the wings?

  6. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    The last great American orator was Martin Luther King. I believe it to be the depth of understanding of the issue of which they speak that separates the merely technically good orator from the great ones.

    King had a magnificent voice and delivery with deep insight into the issues of which he spoke. Churchill had great delivery and IMO, a merely adequate voice but perhaps an unmatched depth of understanding on such a widespread range of issues. Lincoln’s voice reportedly had a high nasal quality, it was the as yet unmatched depth of his insight into the war’s profound sacrifice and it’s deepest meaning that enabled Lincoln to transcend his vocal limitations into such memorable greatness.

    “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on 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 on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, 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 it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. 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 gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

    Abraham Lincoln – November 19, 1863

    When all is said and done, it is not so much how something is said but the content of what is said that truly counts.

  7. rickl Says:


    Comparing Obama to Chamberlain is very unfair to Chamberlain.

    He was naïve and mistaken, but he wasn’t malevolent.

  8. Ymarsakar Says:

    When they speak of Obama’s oration, they were originally referring to his hypnotic voice and his decree that “we are the ones we have been waiting for”, which appealed to their fascist, communist, marxist, revolutionary, wealth redistributing souls. Assuming they have hearts and souls, which may only notionally be assumed.

    The quality of making the zombies think they are smart, because Obama is smart, is something, but it’s generally not the classic rhetoric and oratory abilities of the Romans and Greeks.

    It’s perhaps a lower or higher refinement.

  9. Ymarsakar Says:

    Technically, the Brits booted his party out, which also had the consequence of booting him out, but that really didn’t matter too much in the larger scheme of things.

    The key propaganda ingredient that made the Brits vote for socialism was this little not well known issue.

    The unity, the patriotism, the human heart that was shown during WWII by the Brits, the socialists said could be bridled, chained, redistributed, and give to ALL OF BRITAIN DURING PEACE.

    All of Britain could benefit from the human joy and defiance seen in war under Churchill. All you have to do is to Obey the Government.

  10. David Lentz Says:

    Truth, Churchill had it. Obama does not.

  11. kaba Says:

    I thought that Maggie Thatcher, at her best, could approach the quality of content that we received from Chruchill. Unfortunately she didn’t have his deep sonorous voice. And could at times sound shrill.

  12. T Says:

    Thank you.

    I still remember quite vividly Churchill walking with the other heads of state in the JFK funeral. For all those who were there, it is only the widowed Jackie and Winston Churchill who captivated my attention then and remain in my memory 50 years later.

  13. J.J. Says:

    rickl, good point. I stand corrected.

  14. waitforit Says:

    Obama, according to the Ericksonian experts, exhibits the techniques of mass hypnosis speaking: leading, stacking, etc. The goobers knew it, wanted it and gobbled it. Like the Pentecostals, whom they disparage and present as goobers at every chance, they want that ‘lost in the trance’ moment. Obama is not an orator. He is a paid for drug.

    Feels good.

    This feels and lasts better.


    and at 1:40


  15. CBDenver Says:

    A couple of thoughts. First, would an orator like Churchill, with his poetic phrasing, have any resonance today? Or would people think that way of speaking was antiquated? If I heard someone today speak like Churchill, I suspect I would think they were trying too hard to sound “important”. Kind of like an old B&W movie I saw with a ham actor spouting Shakespeare.

    Secondly, we know that historically Churchill was a persuasive speaker. But so also was Hitler. But they were very different in style. Although I don’t speak German, I have seen film clips of Hitler speaking with captions and his speeches don’t come close to the poetic, lyrical quality of Churchill.

  16. Cornhead Says:

    Best SOTU ever for me.
    I was at the Creighton game and I saw Doug McDermott go off for 39 and hit a game winning three.
    Truly historic!

  17. Cornhead Says:

    And the Jesuit Pope “won” his election with a 3 minute speech.

  18. T Says:


    Don’t forget that what Hitler had going for him, his speaking style aside, was a national pride eviscerated by foreigners at the treaty of Versailles. The Germans were looking for someone, anyone, to resurrect that. The English might have been demoralized because of the blitzkrieg, but IMO their national pride was still intact. I believe that this is what (and why) Churchill was able to inspire.

    A further note, I see the same potential inspirational quality today in Ted Cruz. He may not sound like Churchill and he may not speak like Churchill, but IMO his feisty attitude seems capable of reaching a national pride that has been rendered dormant by a ubiquitous progressive overreach. Krauthammer has said that Rupert Murdoch found for Fox News a niche market; (an unserved) half of the American populace. Perhaps Cruz and his ilk have the same potential.

  19. artfldgr Says:

    but our leader backs up his verbiage with majick that slays people that know not nice things… like the hawaii lady… then there were those two others… and and

    Court records: Obama’s high school pot dealer died violent death, beaten with hammer…

    seems like they are dropping..
    T mentioned hitlers oratory
    but he also had luck that put others in ill places too…

  20. waitforit Says:

    CBDenver stupidly asks, “Would Churchill have any resonance today?”

    I don’t have patience for stupid stupidity. Can you not listen? He’s not Alexander the Great?

    Num nuts. Dumber than a bag of hammers. Are you kidding me? Listen to his speeches, dorkbomb. Or read them. Would you say the make the allegation against MLK?

    Hey. Learn something about the intolerance against former ages. Here’s something by Scalia. Read it. Learn it. Use it.

    “That system [our system, dorkbomb] is destroyed if the smug assurances of each age are removed from the democratic process and written into the Constitution.”


  21. mike Says:

    Thank you, NeoCon, for this welcome respite from today’s political mediocrity. It is so refreshing to read your commentary about a man who came to the aid of his country in its hour of greatest need in a way that is so widely remembered and respected today. His very distinct style of public speaking – lyrical, cadenced and inspiring – roused the spirits of his countrymen at a time when their own survival depended on real leadership, not a party rankholder.

    CBDenver – thank you for your use of the term lyrical as it describes his style much better than the ‘melodious’ I was going to use. Also, with regard to his style possibly sounding antiquated to today’s ears, I wonder if that sort of oral delivery was easier to retrieve from memory than, say, a monotone delivery? Flat delivery is hard to recall whereas a cadenced, lyrical speech would have many more ‘packets’, or, items of information with which to pull out of memory.

  22. Tonawanda Says:

    The Churchill volumes written by Manchester are magnificent. The volume written by Reid was a huge disappointment. Reid keeps on referring to a guy (a doctor? name beginning with “c”? I don’t remember) giving a stunted impression of Manchester.

    Someone should re-write the Reid volume, but that will never happen.

    The Manchester books are a lot like Professor McPherson’s book Battle Cry of Freedom by delightfully describing the social circumstances of what was happening. Personally, I like to know what songs were being sung, and what things were being made.

    Manchester’s book “Goodbye Darkness” is apparently beloved by a lot of folks, but to my perception it sounds as if it was written by an entirely different person.

    Of the many, many marvelous things about Churchill his simple clarity is really marvelous. In the last century or so, maybe only Ayn Rand achieved this clarity with such brilliance and naturalness.

    Lincoln is in the same category as Churchill and Rand.

    There is no point in denying that Lenin, Mao and Hitler were not geniuses. They specialized in the genius of obfuscation and the corresponding psychology of hatred. Pete Seeger was a great singer and song-writer.

    BO is a pathetic Lenin wannabe, a jerk, shallow, trite. Bill Clinton looks like a true mensch in comparison.

    Cry the beloved country.

  23. waitforit Says:

    A locust preens himself in the wind
    he is about to engage in.
    Born upon the time, he will fly;
    millions join him in the sky.

    It does not mean that he will rule
    despite fear that he puts in you.
    The lie always and ever has been
    that you will lose your nerve and cringe.

    The hour of the moment final
    comes, and you are still little;
    but heard within your heart’s desire
    is the beat of your finest honor.

  24. Pat D Says:

    Thank you for reminding us of what a leader Churchill was in a time of great peril. The contrast with our current CIC could not be greater.

  25. FOAF Says:

    “The contrast with our current CIC could not be greater.”

    Absolutely. The way Churchill rose to perhaps the most daunting challenge ever faced by the leader of a great country – even relishing it – could not be at greater variance with one of Obama’s most loathsome traits, his deflection of responsibility and reflexive shifting of blame to everyone but himself. It makes me ill just thinking about it.

  26. Beverly Says:

    Good people all! Think what a compliment it was that the Marxist in the White House banished the bust of Winston the Great from his presence — like a vampire recoiling from the cross.

    I note those who are saying Churchill sounds antiquated — according to Manchester, he sounded antiquated even to the British of his own day, those modern 20th-century types. He was regarded as a classic Victorian, a warrior of the old school, and his fondness for Victorian phrases and adornments was well known.

    But the old Victorian warrior knew something that the Twentieth Century Moderns had almost forgotten: that the eternal verities are just that — eternal, not the whims or even the mores of an age. So they turned to him instinctively when their nation was in peril, and he called the best out of them with that voice.

    I watched a biography of Sir Winston on Youtube last night, and noted that even his Labourite contemporaries praised his “towering greatness.” Towering greatness.

    I hope all of you listened to Richard Burton reading his speech: shivers down the spine. Thank God the West had such a man when we needed him — as one of his colleagues said, “Came the time; came the man.”

  27. IGotBupkis, "'Faeces Evenio', Mr. Holder?" Says:

    }}} And then they brought in the socialists again, but not until 1964.

    …And then booted them out 15 years later.

    Let’s hope it doesn’t take us 15 years to boot them out. I’m not certain the world economy can handle it.

  28. IGotBupkis, "'Faeces Evenio', Mr. Holder?" Says:

    AS I have note before, for anyone who has not read it — the last truly GREAT PotUS was not Reagan, not Kennedy, not Truman… not even Roosevelt (Either one).

    It was Grover Cleveland… the last PotUS who truly understood the limitations of government:

    In 1887, Cleveland issued his most well-known veto, that of the Texas Seed Bill. After a drought had ruined crops in several Texas counties, Congress appropriated $10,000 to purchase seed grain for farmers there. Cleveland vetoed the expenditure. In his veto message, he espoused a theory of limited government:

    I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution, and I do not believe that the power and duty of the general government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit. A prevalent tendency to disregard the limited mission of this power and duty should, I think, be steadfastly resisted, to the end that the lesson should be constantly enforced that, though the people support the government, the government should not support the people. The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow-citizens in misfortune. This has been repeatedly and quite lately demonstrated. Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character, while it prevents the indulgence among our people of that kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthens the bonds of a common brotherhood.

    No, Teddy, for all his great qualities, did not grasp this. Many of our current problems have a genesis in his “Progressive” policies, his willingness to use government as the direct solution to problems, rather than as the carrot and stick to make industry do what it should have done without direction.

    Cleveland also gave the kind of SOTU it would be wonderful to hear today:

    “When we consider that the theory of our institutions guarantees to every citizen the full enjoyment of all the fruits of his industry and enterprise, with only such deduction as may be his share toward the careful and economical maintenance of the Government which protects him, it is plain that the exaction of more than this is indefensible extortion and a culpable betrayal of American fairness and justice … The public Treasury, which should only exist as a conduit conveying the people’s tribute to its legitimate objects of expenditure, becomes a hoarding place for money needlessly withdrawn from trade and the people’s use, thus crippling our national energies, suspending our country’s development, preventing investment in productive enterprise, threatening financial disturbance, and inviting schemes of public plunder.”
    Cleveland’s third annual message to Congress,
    December 6, 1887

  29. IGotBupkis, "'Faeces Evenio', Mr. Holder?" Says:

    Congress appropriated $10,000 [≈ Average community college tuition, four years, 2010]

    LOL, I removed that but somehow the webtool slipped it back in. If anyone is interested, it’s a tool called “Dictionary of Numbers”, and it tries to put numbers into a kind of context… in this case, it showed, remarkably well, what has happened to the dollar in 125 years…

  30. Ymarsakar Says:

    CBDenver stupidly asks, “Would Churchill have any resonance today?”

    I think W has over inflated his sense of who he thinks he is and is exerting authority that W cannot back up.

  31. Mike Says:

    The condition of possibility for anything like a Churchill is an experience, and morality, and world-view that was universal then but exceedingly rare now.

    From the Middle Ages to approximately the 1960′s Western Civilization “produced” a certain type of person that I’ll call a mature, educated, literate, moral, religious grown up. Out of that great mass you’d get your great persons – your Washingtons, Lincolns, Churchills, even Roosevelts.

    Such a creature was possible, even likely, since the percentage and concentration compared to the regular people and the nogoodniks was relatively high. People like Regain and Bush I were like late remnants or echoes of those now distant civilizational rumbles.

    The number of such possible now is so small it might be counted on fingers and toes. It is nearly zero. Biologically mature men and women these days are likely to be (civilizationally) illiterate, childish (at best) morally speaking, seriously deficient in the virtues, and religiously barbaric – and you could add tat we are arrogant and entitled and unappreciative. In short, a bunch big babies – but dangerous and destructive ones.

    This is not the first time there has been such a dearth of decent grown ups. But it is particularly bad now. There is no way out except the Old Fashioned way. Like the Jews, the baby complaining entitled grown ups will wander in the desert for 40 years, get toughened up buy the Spirit that made the West anyway, and then the “youth” will rumble the walls of Jericho and enter the Promised Land again.

    It will be a while.

    That’s the safe bet anyway. That’s what the odds say. Whether the necessary changes can happen quicker? Always possible. But will we recover before they happen? Zilch chance of that unless now gravity goes up and no one told us.

  32. Eric Says:

    Geoffrey Britain: “Lincoln’s voice reportedly had a high nasal quality, it was the as yet unmatched depth of his insight into the war’s profound sacrifice and it’s deepest meaning that enabled Lincoln to transcend his vocal limitations into such memorable greatness.”

    Judging a speech by delivery vs content is an important distinction.

    A third standard is how the speech is filtered to the public by the messengers (media) and, a fourth, how it’s framed in the museum of history.

    President Bush did not come across well in real-time on broadcast media, as you say President Lincoln may not have either.

    However, I’ll put up this speech by Bush against any speech in modern history:


    It’s content-rich and laid out with clear purpose and resolve the task, conditions, and standard of the War on Terror. Bush’s speeches were generally like that. It certainly surpasses any speech by Bush’s successor.

    The content was there. The problem with the speech’s historical place is how the speech was filtered and has been preserved.

  33. LTEC Says:

    1) Although I have great respect for Churchill, it is easier to make a great speech when the very existence of your country is at stake, than to make a great speech about why we should (for example) increase or decrease the capital gains tax.

    2) The speech by Bush linked to above obfuscates rather than clarifies who or what the enemy is. It’s as if Churchill went out of his way to make it clear that the enemy is Hitler, not Nazi-ism.

  34. Eric Says:

    LTEC: “The speech by Bush linked to above obfuscates rather than clarifies who or what the enemy is. It’s as if Churchill went out of his way to make it clear that the enemy is Hitler, not Nazi-ism.”

    No. It’s as though Churchill clarified our enemy is Nazis and not ordinary Germans.

    Remember, winning a war requires winning the peace. Mirroring the terrorists by declaring a war on all of Islam is not going to win us the peace.

    The legacy of the US as leader of the free world since WW2 has been as war victors who are peace-builders. Bush spoke from that tradition.

    Bush was right anyway: Our enemy isn’t Muslims. How can it be when Americans have defended Muslims from and fought alongside Muslims against the terrorists?

  35. Eric Says:

    Also, Bush made it a point in the speech to clarify what the enemy is and isn’t, and what the enemy wants.

  36. LTEC Says:

    The enemy is not all Muslims, but it is mainstream Islam, not a small number of individuals.

  37. neo-neocon Says:


    Coolidge didn’t appreciate the limits of government?

  38. Michael Adams Says:

    Anglo Saxon did indeed, have “big words”, long compounds that would be familiar to any speaker of German. Student, from Latin, is rather short, in comparison to ‘lerningknicht’ “learning youth”. However, with the Conquest, Latin/French based words took over the realms of art, history, war, politics, theology, even architecture. We say now, ‘elevation’ when good old ‘upness’ would still serve as well. Those peasant words, known by their Latin term, vulgar, are still mighty direct. It is not the simple vulgar origin of the modern derivation of frokken, by which we make babies, but that it is a short, punchy word, too real for polite company. Somehow, excrement does not smell as bad as what the boors (farmers) scraped off their boots. Faulkner was very fond of Saxon words,and they did, indeed, give his writing a sharp kind of punch.

    Yes, Churchill used them well, and spoke, much of the time, in Iambic pentameter, the natural rhythm of the English language since before the Venerable Bede.

    Soetero sounds like an old-time Southern politician. His voice was fingernails on a black board the first time we heard him. Our Spidey sense detected dishonesty long before we had heard of Jack and Jeri Ryan, or Michelle’s sinecure, or Tony Rezko, or any of the other gangster politics so characteristic of his early political career. No one who had ever heard LBJ speak, or Faubus, or anyone from Louisiana, could mistake that cadence.

  39. CBDenver Says:

    Well waitforit, it seems you missed my point. I ask whether an orator like Churchill would have any resonance today not because he was not a fine orator, but because I suspect the audience has changed. People today don’t real poetry and don’t listen to fine speeches. I am not sure they would appreciate the melodious phrases of someone like Churchill. I suspect modern illiterate folks would find such oratory antiquated and funny sounding to their ears.

    I won’t blast you with the same kind of nasty barrage you unleashed on my, but I am thinking it.

  40. Ymarsakar Says:

    W’s still waiting for his authorization license on judgment matters.

  41. Michael Adams Says:

    Oh, and, lest we forget, Sarah Palin used Saxon words to great effect. That’s one reason that they hate her. Sure, she knows the Latin and French words, too, but, for munch, she says “death panels” instead of IPAB. Yep, she was dangerous.

  42. Michael Adams Says:

    “Punch” works better than “munch”.

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