Until about fifty years ago, the terms
"statesman" and "orator" were used almost interchangeably. To take
two obvious examples, the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, and those of Winston
Churchill, are quoted - not merely as proof of their statesmanship - but
as being virtually synonymous with it.
How much do we really know about
the former - his life, his policies, his "statesmanlike" acts and decisions
- apart from the fact that he was President of the American Union at the
time of the Civil War, an opponent of slavery, and the victim of an assassinís
bullet ? Yet, not only in his own land, but throughout much of the
world, he is revered as one of historyís great champions of human rights.
This reverence is focussed almost entirely on a short speech, which has
come to be known as the Gettysburg Address; and of this short speech,
it is usually only the first sentence which strikes a chord of recollection
even amongst his admirers:
Fourscore 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.
Churchillís speeches are better
known - perhaps because they occurred more recently and were recorded and
broadcast; perhaps because they relate to circumstances of greater continuing
relevance. Yet only a few catch-words are instantly recognised: "blood,
toil, tears and sweat"; "we shall fight on the beaches"; "This was their
finest hour"; "Never in the field in the human conflict was so much owed
so many to so few"; "... an iron curtain has descended across the Continent";
and so on. How many Australians recall that Churchill specifically
included Australia when he spoke of "their finest hour", saying:
We have fully informed and
consulted all the self-governing Dominions, these great communities far
beyond the oceans who have been built up on our laws and on our civilisation,
and who are absolutely free to choose their course, but are absolutely
devoted to their ancient Motherland, and who feel themselves inspired by
the same emotions which lead me to stake our all upon duty and honour.
We have fully consulted them, and I have received from their Prime Ministers
- Mr. Mackenzie King of Canada, Mr. Menzies of Australia, Mr. Fraser of
New Zealand, and General Smuts of South Africa ... - I have received from
all these eminent men, who all have Governments behind them elected on
wide franchises, who are all there because they represent the will of their
people, messages couched in the most moving terms in which they endorse
our decision to fight on, and declare themselves ready to share our fortunes
and to persevere to the end. That is what we are going to do.
Today, speech-making has been replaced
by the 10 or 15 second "sound grab" for radio and television news.
Anything longer than this is regarded as exceeding the attention-span of
the television or radio audience. Even to hear the full text of the
most moving tribute paid by the Australian Governor-General, Sir William
Deane, at the recent memorial service for victims of the canyoning tragedy
at Interlaken in Switzerland, one had to view CNN or BBC World - the Australian
news media chose only to broadcast "sound grabs" of 10 or 15 secondsí duration.
If one tries to think of a truly
memorable speech delivered in the last half-century, there are very few
obvious examples: Martin Luther King Jnr.ís I have a dream speech;
John F Kennedyís Ask not what your country can do for you speech,
as well as his Ich bin ein Berliner speech; but very few others.
In the last quarter-century, only one instance of great public oratory
springs to mind, namely the Earl Spencerís eulogy at the funeral of his
sister, the Princess of Wales.
Apart from Sir Robert Menzies (who
first became Prime Minister before the Second World War), eight Australians
have succeeded to that office during the Centuryís second half. Of these,
only one - Gough Whitlam - stands any chance of being remembered as an
orator. Others may be recalled for colourful but ephemeral one-liners,
like Bob Hawkeís "silly old bugger" (addressed to an elderly voter who
had the temerity to challenge Hawke). Paul Keating surely deserves a place
in history, for his seemingly endless supply of highly inventive insults:
"wound up like a thousand day clock"; "slither out of the Cabinet room
like a mangy maggot"; "the greatest job and investment destroyer since
the bubonic plague"; "like a lizard on a rock - alive, but looking dead";
"an intellectual rust bucket"; "the Honourable Gentleman's hair, like his
intellect, will recede into the darkness"; "painted, perfumed gigolos";
"a political carcass with a coat and tie on"; "intellectual hobos"; "a
24 carat pissant"; "antediluvian troglodytes"; "Just because you swallowed
a f***ing dictionary when you were about 15 doesn't give you the right
to pour a bucket of s**t over the rest of us"; "lucky to get a job cleaning
s**thouses if I ever become Prime Minister"; and so forth. But, as
examples of late Twentieth Century Australian political oratory, Whitlamís
and Women of Australia electoral speeches, and particularly his Well
may we say ĎGod save the Queení, for nothing will save the Governor- General
speech, are the only ones destined to live on in the public memory.
Why is it that oratory is no longer
regarded as an important skill for politicians and other public figures
No doubt the electronic media have
much to answer for. Before the days of radio, and especially television,
important speeches were reproduced in the newspapers at length. Even
in the early days of radio, significant speeches were broadcast in their
entirety. The result of the "sound grab" is that, unless an important
point can be summed up in a brief (and preferably witty) aphorism, it does
not get air-play.
Great speech-making is not just
a matter of what is said, but also the way that it is said. Choice
of vocabulary and sentence construction, and other rhetorical devices,
are what make a speech memorable.
Any analysis of Churchillís speeches
shows that he was a rhetorician of the Victorian age, given to all sorts
of flourishes and devices which added impact to the words he spoke.
Working with a vocabulary far removed from the monosyllabic style of present-day
politicians, he chose words for their sound as well as their substance.
Thus, in describing the evils of Nazism, he said:
We are assured that novel
methods will be adopted, and when we see the originality of malice, the
ingenuity of aggression, which our enemy displays, we may certainly prepare
ourselves for every kind of novel stratagem and every kind of brutal and
His great speeches contain snippets
of poetry and other literary references, and historical allegories.
So he described the prospect of defeat as "the abyss of a new Dark Age
made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted
science"; and the enemy he called "a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed
in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime".
Would Abraham Lincolnís Gettysburg
Address have been quite as memorable if, rather than using words which
were (even then) somewhat archaic, he had commenced "Eighty-seven years
ago ..." ? Would we recall Kennedyís admonition if, instead of the
quaint sentence construction which he adopted, he had simply said, "Donít
ask what your country can do for you" ? Would "Ich bin ein
Berliner" be remembered at all, if he had said it in English rather than
German ? Would Churchillís "We shall fight on the beaches" speech
have had such an impact, if it were not for the speech-makerís device of
repetition: "... we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and
oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in
the air, ... we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing
grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight
in the hills" ? Or would Dr. Kingís impassioned plea for black America
have had as much impact, were the line "I have a dream" not repeated with
increasing emphasis no fewer than ten times throughout this short address
Because great speeches often include
unfamiliar words, unfamiliar sentence constructions, and other rhetorical
devices, they require concentration and thought on the part of the listener
- which is why they are entirely unsuitable for television or radio, or
for the tabloid press. Contemporary politicians wish to convey their message
to the widest possible audience, so it must be suitable for broadcasting,
and pitched at a level where it is readily intelligible even to the least
educated and most unthinking members of society. Today, well-constructed
and powerful speeches are reserved for occasions - like funerals and formal
dinners - where courtesy requires the audience to listen politely and attentively.
Perhaps this is why the Earl Spencerís eulogy is one of the few memorable
speeches of recent times.
But is this merely a change in our
modes of communication, or is it a symptom of a greater change in Western
society? I have suggested that, fifty years ago, the words "orator"
and "statesman" were used almost interchangeably. If there are no
more orators, is this because there are no more statesmen ?
The word "statesman" is no longer
fashionable - except to describe someone as an "elder statesman".
This is only partly due to feminismís etymologically misconceived campaign
against words ending with "man", which are not regarded as "politically
correct" because (so feminists argue) such words are not "gender neutral".
But even if the unattractive expression "statesperson" is substituted,
are there are any "statespeople" left in the world ?
This is an issue which has confronted
journalists, who, with the centuryís end rapidly approaching, have busied
themselves with writing articles about the last 100 years. When they
come to identify the Twentieth Centuryís great leaders, almost all of those
put forward became statesmen in the first half of the century - FD Roosevelt,
Churchill, de Gaulle, Woodrow Wilson, Gandhi, and so on. Statespeople
of the Twentieth Centuryís second half are a rare breed, though some would
grudgingly allow this status to JF Kennedy and Martin Luther King - based
largely on their oratory, and perhaps their untimely deaths. The
only people regularly suggested as contenders for contemporary statesmanship
(statespersonship ?) are Nelson Mandela and Mother Theresa - people whose
deeds speak very much more loudly than their words.
The absence of statesmanship in
the modern world is no doubt linked with the demise of oratory - not because
either phenomenon is caused by the other, but because both result from
the same cause: the mass mediaís preoccupation with what is trivial and
evanescent, rather than what is important and lasting. President
Clintonís extra-marital liaisons are no more salacious than those of JF
Kennedy (not to mention the all-but-forgotten US President, Grover Cleveland)
- and certainly rather less scandalous than those of Thomas Jefferson (who
is said to have fathered a child to his black slave) or Abraham Lincoln
(who, at least according to the modern gay movement, maintained a homosexual
relationship). It is unthinkable, in contemporary times, that a (male)
Queensland Premier and his (male) Attorney-General could live together,
with their private lives remaining private, as did Sir Robert Herbert and
John Bramston - who even called their mutual home "Herston", as an amalgam
of their own surnames. Winston Churchillís "substance abuse" may not have
been illegal, but consuming a daily bottle of brandy and large quantities
of cigars would hardly have enhanced his prospects in the modern political
FD Roosevelt is widely (and justly)
regarded as this Centuryís greatest US President. Would he have even achieved
that office, if the press and media of his era had not conspired to conceal
his disability from the public ? Would he have retained that office, if
the press and media had disclosed details of his "3 martinis before breakfast"
drinking habits, let alone his numerous intimate relationships with women
other than his much-respected wife ? Todayís media would have had
a field-day with Australian politicians, from Sir Samuel Griffith to Sir
Robert Menzies, who saw nothing objectionable in accepting fee-paying briefs
whilst holding high political office.
There is a French saying that "no
man is a hero to his own valet" - the gallic equivalent of our own saying,
"familiarity breeds contempt". The modern media, especially television,
have broken down the wall of isolation which once separated societyís powerful
and influential citizens from the common herd. They have become daily guests
in our living-rooms. We see and hear them, not only when they are well-groomed
and well-prepared, but also when they are unkempt, flustered, and unready
for attention. We feel that we know them.
Many public figures report that,
when in public places - on the street, at the shopping centre, in airport
lounges, at the beach - complete strangers address them as friends. The
face is familiar, so the stranger nods in recognition or exchanges pleasantries.
Only afterwards is the stranger acutely embarrassed to realize that
the person, assumed to be an acquaintance, is actually a movie-star or
politician. One is reminded of the story told about the English conductor,
Sir Thomas Beecham, of meeting a familiar looking lady at Fortnum &
Masonís. Sir Thomas could not recall the ladyís name, but vaguely remembered
that he knew the ladyís sister. So he enquired after her sisterís health,
and got a positive response. Still uncertain whom he was talking to, Beecham
asked, "And whatís she up to these days ?" The predictable response was,
Fifty years ago, politicians and
other public figures had the privilege of presenting themselves to us -
the public - on their own terms. Published photographs were studio portraits
representing immaculately dressed personages of great solemnity. Published
utterances were those which had been carefully researched and written,
presented without pressure or interruption. Even speeches which did not
purport to be speeches - like President Rooseveltís "fireside chats" -
were carefully scripted. This all changed, first when presidential candidates
JF Kennedy and RM Nixon agreed to debate one another "live" on television
(26 September 1960), and shortly afterwards when President Kennedy first
allowed the "live" televising of presidential press conferences (25 January
1961). It is said that the "live" debate cost Nixon the election - although
the better debater, he had less "presence" on the screen, and was thought
to appear "shifty" !
Television has taken away the mystique
of public figures, and restored them to the status of mere mortals. Is
this a bad thing ? Not according to President Truman, who thought that:
"This kind of news
conference where reporters can ask any question they can dream up - directly
of the President of the United States - illustrates how strong and how
vital our democracy is. There is no other country in the world where the
chief of state submits to such unlimited questioning ..."
Today, there is no democratic country
in the world where the head of government can avoid constant media attention,
scrutiny and intrusion. Truman may have been right - perhaps this enhances
democracy. The result, though, is that we now live in a world without statesmen.