Against Political Speeches, For Political Speech

I’m not sure why I dislike political speeches. By ‘political speeches’ I do not mean ‘political speech’: I am in favor of the latter, the more the better, with some caveats having to do with–among others–Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Karl Rove, Bill O’Reilly, and Sarah Palin. Rather, by ‘political speeches,’ I mean, quite precisely, speeches given by a politician–a party animal, to be exactingly precise–at some political forum: a post-election rally (for victory or concession), a party convention, a campaign rally; these remain resolutely inaccessible to me, a movie show that I can’t sit through. (This definition, should, I hope, make clear that certain species of political speeches in public fora remain impervious to my criticism.)

Along with this dislike goes indifference to political speech hagiography, the admiring dissection of speeches, which elevates them to the level of rhetorical masterpieces. Consider, for instance, Robert Lehrman on Obama’s victory speech on the night of 6th November, comparing it to the 2008 post-election victory speech:

[T]he 2012 model showed all the strengths that Obama and his speechwriters consistently exhibit, producing the best drafts of any president. He used concrete details and repetition (“You’ll hear the determination in the voice of a young field organizer who’s working his way through college … You’ll hear the pride in the voice of a volunteer who’s going door to door…”); antithesis and echoes of John F. Kennedy (“America’s never been about what can be done for us; it’s about what can be done by us together”) and stories that have the ring of truth (“And I saw it just the other day in Mentor, Ohio, where a father told the story of his 8-year-old daughter…”). You also see flashes of wit (“one dog’s probably enough”), and the skillful use of pause, emphasis and variety of tone that makes public speaking teachers like me use him as a model for students. [link in original]

That last sentence reminds me that perhaps the best thing about a ‘good political speech’ these days is that it might serve as a model for those trying to become better public speakers: high-school or college students aspiring to debate club membership, teachers themselves, budding actors, Toastmasters clubs, interviewees, and so on. But I don’t think they shouldn’t copy or emulate everything they see and hear.

Most prominently, because, like almost anyone disillusioned by political speeches in electoral democracies, I see them as heralds of betrayal and disappointment to follow. They are all too often infected by too many promises, too much insincere wheedling. The political speech, now, in this landscape of relentless electioneering, has come to stand for misleading obfuscation, one that serves to obscure the truly political behind a veil of elegant wordsmithing.  This is not necessarily because the speaker–the party political animal, remember–is extraordinarily mendacious, rather it is because he or she is made to appear as a figurehead that misrepresents the forces that are all too often arrayed against those subjected to the speech.

The speech then, comes to serve as beguiling distraction, and not just rallying cry.

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