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Obama is bringing back old-fashioned oratory

By Doug Grow | Thursday, Feb. 21, 2008 FDR. Kennedy. King. Humphrey. Wellstone. Speechifying styles change with the times, but political eloquence is still an important part of reaching people and inspiring them to action.

Sen. Barack Obama in Dallas
REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, whose oratorical style has spurred praise and criticism, greets supporters Wednesday at a Dallas rally.

Barack Obama has brought old-fashioned oratory back to American politics.

He’s so good at embracing and lifting an audience with his words that his opponents, Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain, are trying similar strategies to counter Obama. The strategy: If you can’t do it, attack it.

Last week in Milwaukee, for example, former President Bill Clinton, himself a gifted communicator, attacked Obama’s ability to give an inspiring speech. “It’s about whether you should choose the power of speeches over the power of solutions,” Clinton said.

Following the Potomac primaries, John McCain had this to say: “To encourage a country with only rhetoric, rather than sound and proven ideas that trust in the strength and courage of free people, is not a promise of hope. It is a platitude.”

In fact, Obama has merely taken us back to a pre-television time, says University of Minnesota speech professor Kirt Wilson, who is a student of presidential rhetoric.

Eloquence not a lost art, prof says
“I would say that eloquence has not become a lost art,” Wilson said. “I would say that the standards have changed since the mid-20th century. Both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were quite eloquent, but theirs was more a conversational style. In the television age, Obama’s style began to pass away in favor of a more conversational style, as if the speaker was sitting in your living room having a conversation with you.”

Obama, he said, “has tapped into an old norm, an older expectation of what good communication should be. It goes back to Martin Luther King, John Kennedy and, farther back, William Jennings Bryan.”



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Certainly, Minnesotans are not strangers to the power of passionate oratory. The late senator, Paul Wellstone, could walk into a high school gym or a union hall and soon have his audience standing and cheering.

“He was the best I’ve heard,” said retired University of Minnesota history professor Hy Berman. “He was emotional. Spellbinding.”

Humphrey’s ‘Sunshine Speech’ changed Democratic politics
Berman also nods in the direction of Hubert Humphrey, whose “Sunshine Speech,” calling for equal voting rights for blacks, at the 1948 Democratic National Convention was so powerful – and righteous — that Southern pols such as Strom Thurmond left the convention forming a new party, the Dixiecrats. (Humphrey’s speech ended up ranked No. 66 among this list of the 100 Greatest American Speeches of the 20th Century.)

By 1968, when Humphrey was running for president, his critics scoffed at his speaking skills.

“They tried to make a negative out of a positive,” said Berman. “His critics were calling him a windbag. Sometimes, he did speak too long but basically, this is a standard political strategy: Turn assets into a liability. Look what the Republicans did to John Kerry four years ago. They took a war hero and turned him into a coward and took a man who was essentially a draft dodger into a war hero.”

But words matter mightily, Berman said. Without the ability to speak forcefully, political change is difficult.

Two examples.

First,  Floyd B. Olson, governor of Minnesota from 1930-1936, used powerful rhetoric to turn Minnesota from a red state to a blue state.

“There is a failure of government and our social system to function in the interests of the common happiness of the people,” Olson said, passionately. People, battered by the Depression,  responded with their votes and the Legislature passed laws that created a progressive income tax, help for the elderly, equal pay for women. And on and on.

At the opposite extreme was former Gov. Rudy Perpich, with whom Berman worked closely.

“Nobody had more good ideas,” said Berman. “But he was inarticulate. He wanted to, but he couldn’t talk a lick.  He really wanted to give a great speech on one occasion, and so he had me rehearse with him. It was a disaster. It was too bad because rather than hear his ideas, you people in the media started only talking about his style of speaking. You started calling him Gov. Goofy.”

Great orators run the gamut
Orators come from all races and backgrounds and political persuasions.
In the 1930s, for example, Father Charles Edward Coughlin was said to be reaching one-third of the nation with his powerful, bigoted, anti-Semitic radio speeches. (“When we get through with the Jews in America, they’ll think the treatment they received in Germany was nothing,” he said at a Boston rally in 1938.)



At the other end of the political and power spectrum, was Fanny Lou Hamer. She led the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in the 1964 Democratic Party Convention, seeking to integrate the all-white Mississippi delegation.

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison of Minneapolis believes the short speech she gave before the party’s credentials committee, a speech that was carried on network television, is “the gold standard” for powerful oratory that helped change the course of a nation: “Better than King, better than Wellstone, better than Hubert Humphrey or Ronald Reagan.”

After speaking of the beatings she’d taken, the sacrifices she’d made trying merely to register to vote, Hamer, whose grammar was not perfect,  closed with this: “All of this is on account of us wanting to register, to become first-class citizens, and if the freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America the land of the free and the home of the brave where we have to sleep with our telephones off of the hooks because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings in America? Thank you.”

When she was finished, two of the delegates of Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party were given speaking rights, the rest were seated as “honorary guests” and never again was there a segregated delegation from the South at a party convention.

Great speech doesn’t always have to fire up crowd
Effective speech does matter. And it’s not always delivered in a speech to a large, cheering crowd.

Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats by radio are a classic example of talks that assured Americans better times were ahead.



The University’s Wilson said that many of Bill Clinton’s finest oratorical moments came in small gatherings in which people would ask questions.

“He could take a question and soar with it for two or three minutes,” said Wilson.

And obviously, not all inspirational speech comes from the serious arena of politics. Take an example from a 1981 hockey game, when  the then-Minnesota North Stars played in Boston.

In the moments before the game, North Stars coach Glen Sonmor pointed out that the team never had won a game in the Boston Garden. He calmly reminded his players that their opponents, the Boston Bruins, had been bullying the North Stars for years and had no respect for them.

Sonmor recalled that he ended his pre-game talk with these words: “Not the second time, not the third time but the FIRST time they try to intimidate, you must make a stand.”

Sure enough, when the referee dropped the puck to start the game, a Boston player raised his stick into the face of the North Stars’ usually pacifistic Bobby Smith. Smith dropped his gloves and started swinging. So did the rest of the North Stars.

All game long, the North Stars filled the penalty box. They eventually lost the game, but the next time they appeared in Boston, for the playoffs, they defeated the once-mighty Bruins.

Do race and gender matter in public speaking?
There are questions as to whether powerful speech is “a black thing” or is a skill dominated by men.

State Sen. Ann Rest, a brilliant DFLer from New Hope, thinks men do have an advantage in the oratory department because of the pitches of their voices. Women with high-pitched voices, she believes, have a difficult time becoming top-flight orators because they can sound “shrill” when giving an emotional speech.

“My favorite women orators, (former Texas congresswoman) Barbara Jordan and (former Texas governor) Ann Richards are both dead,” Rest said. “I don’t know that you’d call her an orator, but I do love to listen to Maya Angelou any time she speaks.”

There’s currently a dearth of orators in the Minnesota Legislature, Rest said. The most powerful legislator Rest recalls is former Sen. Paul Ogren, a big man with a big voice whose passionate speeches in the 1980s could capture the imagination of his colleagues.

The University’s Wilson discounts the notion that oratory is either a black thing or a male thing. He points to a speech given by Elizabeth Dole at the 1996 Republican National Convention on behalf of her candidate husband, Bob Dole.

“You know, tradition is that speakers at the Republican National Convention remain at this very imposing podium,” she began. “But tonight, I’d like to break with tradition for two reasons — one, I’m going to be speaking to friends, and secondly, I’m going to be speaking about the man I love. And it’s just a lot more comfortable to be down here with you.”

She delivered a powerful speech on the convention floor, walking “among friends.” Her delivery was so effective that Dole herself became a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000. But throughout that campaign, she often seemed stiff and distant.

“The real question,” Wilson said, “is: What is it about the campaign trail that makes people less-effective speakers? Is it the grind that causes people to be careful with each word they say? Is it the reliance on pollsters? The need to be partisan?”

Great speakers generally are made, not born

Great speaking is not some sort of gift, Wilson says. It’s a practiced art. He points to the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King. If you study those speeches, Wilson says, you can see how they evolve. How ideas that were effective in reaching an audience stay, how other ideas were dropped.

“It demonstrates the skill of practice,” Wilson said. “Good orators building on previous speeches.”

And, says Ellison, a powerful speaker himself, good orators study other good orators. He’s been reading and listening to the speeches of others since his teenage years. He can recite large sections of his mother’s favorite speech, a civil rights address by John Kennedy delivered on June 11, 1963:

“We preach freedom around the world and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home, but are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other that this is a land of the free, except for the Negroes, that we have no second-class citizens, except for the Negroes; that we have no caste system, no ghettoes, no master race, except with respect to Negroes. …”


(View part two of the speech here)

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Orators don’t just listen to other orators. They frequently “borrow” ideas – and phrases.

Borrowed phrases or plagiarism?

Of late, Obama has been taking some heat from the Clinton campaign for “plagiarizing” parts of a speech given by Mass. Gov. Deval Patrick in 2006. In an ad-libbed portion of a speech Obama was giving in Wisconsin, he used repetitive phrasing much like phrasing used by Patrick.

Obama’s phrasing in a small portion of his speech: “Don’t tell me words don’t matter – ‘I have a dream’ — just words ‘we hold these truths to be self evident’ — just words?. . . .”

Patrick’s: “We hold these truths to be self evident’ — just words? ‘We have nothing to fear but feat itself ‘—just words?”

Patrick was quick to defend Obama, saying the two share ideas all the time.

Berman says there’s a huge difference between a borrowed phrase and what Joe Biden did in his 1988 campaign to be the Democratic presidential nominee. Biden borrowed heavily from whole portions of a speech previously delivered by British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock without crediting Kinnock. The charges of plagiarism forced Biden out of the race.

Borrowing is standard among orators.

For example, John Kennedy’s most famous line, delivered during his inaugural address — “and so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country” — had been uttered many times, in slightly different ways, by many others long before JFK.

For example, in 1884, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, said in a speech, “recall what our country has done for each of us and . . . ask ourselves what we can do for our country in return.”

But as Obama’s strength mounts, the attacks on his skills — and those who are inspired by his words — will increase. 

Ellison, an Obama supporter, delights in the fact that Obama seems to be returning powerful oratory to the American political process.



Confidence and connections to people are keys
In powerful speaking, Ellison says, a strong finish is more important than a strong opening. Practice is vital. And belief in message is absolutely fundamental.

It’s not good enough to go to the podium with a great deal of confidence, Ellison said.

“You must connect with people, heart to heart,” he said. “In that case, confidence isn’t enough. It’s a matter of faith.”

Perhaps that’s the difference between Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who can deliver a nicely read, flub-free speech, and Glen Sonmor, who could inspire hockey players to risk a broken nose. Pawlenty just tries to be smooth, not reach for the heart. Sonmor really got players to believe in what he was saying.

Pastor Jerry McAfee, of New Salem Baptist Church in North Minneapolis, who can flat-out preach, is pleased to see that the power of the spoken word is returning to mainstream politics. But he thinks Obama’s got an awful lot of improving to do before he ranks with the best.

“I’m around great orators often,” McAfee said. “Obama’s good, but he’s not in the class of some of the people I listen to. If you want to hear someone with an incredible command of the language, listen to Mack King Carter (pastor of New Olive Baptist Church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.).”

McAfee, who is black, is of two minds on whether great oratory is “a black thing.”

“It’s almost insulting,” said McAfee. “Someone says, ‘Oh my, you’re articulate.’ It’s not a black thing. Look at Shakespeare and the power of the words he wrote.”

But he also believes that the love of language, the touching of others with words, has become more common in the black community than in other parts of the culture.

“When you make a person feel that you know them, you can inspire them, you can lift them,” he said. “By your words they shall judge you. How you speak, does matter. We’re a hurting country right now. When she (Clinton) speaks, it’s mechanical. When Obama  speaks, he is able to reach people. They feel he understands.”

Doug Grow, a former metro columnist for the Star Tribune, writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.