NOTHING keeps an audience in thrall like a fine, measured piece of oratory from a swashbuckling and headstrong leader atop a rostrum. Remember George Odlum, Eric Williams and Fidel Castro? All of these revolutionary and intellectual figures were prodigious leaders who stirred perorations, often with a near-visceral feeling for the delivery of rapturous and captivating sound-bites.
Their verbal firepower didn’t just excite crowds to action and appeal to the ethos of an audience; their words most critically captured the spirit of the times.
Oratory as a tool for leadership and guidance is really nothing new – as the ancient Greeks had schools of rhetoric to hone their skills for roles in teaching, politics and law. After deciding to study oratory, the Roman philosopher and politician Cicero, distinguished himself as an importunate senator with a daunted reputation for erudition and articulate oratory.
Fast forward to the 1940’s and one recognizes the role and power of oratory in the elevation of Winston Churchill both as a statesman and a Nobel Prize winner in Literature (In 1953, the British prime minister won the coveted prize for “his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for his brilliant oratory in defending exalted values.”)
American presidents from Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, to John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama have used oratory to superb effect. In fact, one of the indelible impressions they left in their wake is the rumination that the skilful marshalling of words can make the political weather, as well as help weather the political storm. Ted Sorenson, former speech writer to John F. Kennedy, tells us that words “are the instruments that a president of the United States uses to govern the country, and wins the support of the world.”
When the little-known African-American senator, Barack Obama burst onto the political stage in 2004 with an electrifying speech at the Democratic National Convention, many pundits thought the needle he was trying to thread had an almost microscopic eye. However, he was able to capture the imagination of America with his optimistic and hopeful rhetoric – placing him on the road to the presidency four years later, and even perhaps heralding the return of articulate oratory to the mainstream of American presidential politics. As it turned out, Obama’s success proved that words have the power to stir people and instigate action, as exemplified by his campaign slogan “Yes We Can”.
In the waning decades of political history, gifted orators who governed America were able to appeal to the collective conscience of their compatriots with speeches laced with powerful phrases like “the better angels of our nature” (Lincoln), “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” (Roosevelt), and “ask what you can do for your country” (Kennedy).
In contemporary history, perhaps nowhere else exemplifies the spirit of intellectual and rhetorical debate than the political exchanges in the British House of Commons. The thrill of watching prime minister question time (PMQ) – with its usual tone of astringent vehemence – is one of celestial splendor, which perhaps explains why parliamentary tickets to the public gallery at PMQ sessions is the most sought-after indulgence.
Great oratorical performers pull out all the stops – using all the rhetorical flourishes from their training (imagery, tonality, gesture, attitude, etc) to convey their message and excite an audience. In the case of George Odlum, he transmuted the raw stock of his literary learning and experience into some of his best oral performances and polemics.
Who can forget the penetrating “Were You There” eulogy at Tim Hector’s funeral in Antigua, where the ever mournful-looking Odlum proclaimed: “As you lie there, motionless and still in your fine resplendent mahogany casket I cannot help but feel a sense of mockery that the same society which vilified and ridicule you… is the same society that will embrace and elevate you now that your mighty heart is lying still…Are we so crazed with insecurity and self-abnegation that we court our own disaster and demise by destroying the catalyst for our liberation? When Othello in Shakespeare murdered his own loving Desdemona, Shakespeare wrote: ‘Like a base Indian he threw away a pearl richer than all his tribe’.”
In similar fashion, Eric Williams tailored the nuances of his language to reinforce the direction in which he wanted to lead his country. In a blistering performance carried out with the usual inimitable candor, he brought Pericles to the University of Woodford Square: “The people of Trinidad and Tobago must either be kept down in the ditch in which they are or they must be pulled out of it. My colleagues and I lack the qualification to keep you in the ditch. We believe that we can help pull you out of it … Our party will hold up to you the ideal of the ancient democracy of Athens which, limited though it was by slavery and the subordination of women, still represents one of the greatest achievements of man.”
Yet in the annals of political history, not everything has gone down well in the realm of visionary rhetoric. The gift of articulate oratory mixed with political populism has often produced a Molotov cocktail which managed to set racial progress ablaze and obliterate enemies. Did Hilter’s success depend on his charisma and fingerspitzengefühl? Yes. The German wartime leader along with Italy’s Benito Mussolini and Spain’s Francisco Franco used great (inflammatory) oratory to appeal to the worst excesses of nationalism and nativism.
Above all, these rulers understood Kenneth Burke’s rhetorical theory that “you persuade a man only in so far as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, order, attitude, idea, identifying your way with his.” On that note, thus far and against all odds, Donald Trump has proven a more effective political communicator than most pundits and critics expected.
Mayor Ken Livingstone’s speech in the wake of the 2005 London tube attacks proved the unifying magic of a well-composed oratorical performance. A good speech, in modern times – presented with skill and gusto – can still make a nation feel whole again. Yet there are orators who, when faced with excoriating injustice and persecution, can send shivers down your spine with their piercing admonitions. From the dock at the opening of his trial on charges of sabotage in Pretoria in 1964, Nelson Mandela ended his plea with the words: “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people … It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
For comments, write to [email protected] – Clement Wulf-Soulage is a Management Economist, Published Author and Former University Lecturer.