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10 Superhuman Feats of Political Oratory
We have had two previous lists of great speeches and there is, inevitably, a little overlap between them all. This list looks at some of the most significant words in history (either spoken, as the title implies, or written). You can, of course, add your own favorites to the list via the comments if you think something has been left out.
With a mere 9 months in office as the President of the United States, Barack Obama somehow managed to make the whole world pay attention to what was going on in the U. S. The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the prize to him “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.”
It is a controversial decision, and detractors are still arguing that he did precisely nothing in terms of foreign policy during the Nobel nomination period and the voting afterward. Because of that controversy, and the fact that Obama himself did not believe he deserved the award, it only makes the 10th spot. But it deserves a mention because Obama won it by sole means of the spoken word. He is well trained in oratory, and rehearses his speeches for vocal intonation, facial expression, pausing, phrasing, body language, etc. These are the aspects that make for a strong performance. The lion’s share of effort, though, goes to the composition of the speech, and these days, most American politicians do not write their own speeches. Obama does, and then has them proofread and sometimes heavily revised. The absence of rhetorical brilliance in the oratory of George W. Bush, Obama’s immediate predecessor, may be partly to credit, as well. But it is also unfair to take credit away from Obama’s oratorical skill, because it is well polished.
Ronald Reagan’s most famous sentence concerning The Cold War is, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” The Berlin Wall was the most infamous symbol in the world of The Cold War, an abiding distrust between East and West, the Soviet Union and America. The worst-case scenario was nuclear holocaust, which everyone wanted to avoid, and Reagan rightly reckoned on the destruction of the Wall as a symbolic destruction of the Cold War, and with it, the collapse of the Soviet ideal of communism.
True, by the late 1980s, the Soviet Union was drawing its last breaths, and its people wanted a democratic Russia, but it was Reagan’s many speeches against communism, in favor of capitalism, that finally sent the Cold War on its way without turning hot. He routinely compared nuclear war to communism, and peace between nuclear countries to capitalism: communism equals tyranny and oppression; capitalism equals freedom and peace. He spent his whole Presidential career keeping the Cold War cold, trying to stamp it out for good and all, and the success is most directly attributable to Reagan.
It is true that the equality of black people with white people, in terms of unalienable rights, voting, etc., is a product of centuries of political, philosophical and theological thought, at least one war, and many civil and savage people, from Abraham Lincoln to John Brown. So, whatever assistance King provided to the cause may seem an anticlimax. But he is the man most directly involved with the actual destruction of American society’s understanding of black people as inferior, based on their color, to white people. In a sense similar to #9, King may be thought of as the person who delivered the knockout blow to the idea of racial superiority. And he did it largely with a single speech, delivered on 28 August, 1963, on the steps outside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D. C.
King designed this speech to invoke the Bible as a source of unchallengeable authority, followed closely and repeatedly by the Declaration of Independence, the U. S. Constitution and several other political documents. But the true power of his speech came in the form of the precise intonations of his fine voice. He was trained as a Baptist minister, and in ancient Greece or Rome, he would have been trained in the art of proper delivery of an oration, as were Cicero, Caesar, Pericles, etc. King uses the rhetorical device of anaphora to great effect in the 17 minute oration. Anaphora is the repetition of a phrase, such as “I have a dream,” which he repeats 8 times throughout the speech. He ends on a powerful note, simultaneously invoking black culture and God: “And when this happens, and when we allow freedom to ring—when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children—black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
Gandhi nearly succeeded in delivering the world a peace between two religions, which is unheard of. The fact that he failed by means of his death places him in the same category with Jesus of Nazareth. As George Carlin once said, every time a person shows up who says, “Can’t we all just get along?” everyone else unites–just momentarily–to kill him. But Gandhi came astonishingly close to a lasting peace between Hindus and Muslims, because he united them with a common love for him.
The two, major indigenous cultures in India in the first half of the 20th Century hated the presence and oppression of the British. Britain’s emissaries and judges and lawyers and politicians, including #6, considered the Hindus and Muslims to be inferior in terms of what it takes to run a nation successfully. The indigenous peoples did not want the British keeping a thumb on them, and the British, with all their military might, refused to give up so large a province of its Commonwealth.
The violence between parties grew wilder and wilder until Gandhi showed up and, by his orations and actions, forced the whole world to condemn Britain’s presence and tyranny over the Indians. It has been said that, in effect, Gandhi modernized the non-violence philosophy Jesus (and many other philosophers) espoused. Not that he perfected it, but the world had not seen the principles of Christianity put to good use on a large scale. Gandhi, who was a huge fan of Jesus’s ministry, criticized Christians for not being like Christ: if he says turn the other cheek, you turn it and do not fight back with violence. Your retaliation comes in the form of compelling a villain to consider what he is doing. If you resist without violence, the oppressor has two choices: genocide, or leave you alone.
Gandhi’s most brilliant line of oratory came at a British luncheon to which he was invited to explain himself. He was asked if he expected the British simply to walk out of India, and he replied, “Yes. In the end you will walk out. Because it is illogical for 100,000 Britons to think that they can control 300,000,000 Indians, if those Indians refuse to cooperate.”
Churchill was classically trained, as almost every college education assured for public speakers in his day, to compose and deliver well crafted, logical, convincing prose. However, there are public speakers and there is Winston Churchill. He had a low, gravelly voice, enhanced (if not exacerbated) by the 300,000 cigars he smoked in his lifetime. He was politically conservative and had absolutely no fear of any problem that arose, namely Nazi Germany.
While Hitler tore all over Europe, knocking out Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Greece, France and Belgium, among others, Churchill was regularly orating in the House of Commons, and weekly broadcasting his voice with new and lengthy speeches reminding the British people and the resistance in continental Europe that “Christian civilization” would not be brought to an end, that liberation from Nazi tyranny had not been forgotten or dismissed by those who would effect it.
He delivered his three most famous orations in the span of about 1 month, from May 13 to June 18, 1940, in which he detailed for the British public, and for America, who would receive the transcripts of his speeches, what had happened and what must happen in the months to come. He is probably the greatest modern master of anaphora: “We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land, and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be.”
Churchill was the man most responsible for instilling the courage into the Allies to hold its ground and never give up, and regardless of the awesome might of Great Britain, America and Russia, the psychological battle of wills was thus won for the Allies.
Cato the Younger makes Ronald Reagan look like Nancy Pelosi. He was the most conservative politician in history, in the age of Roman decadence. He lived during the 1st Century BC, during which time he saw one dictator, Sulla, and the origin of another, Julius Caesar. Rome was still a Republic, but amid such political turmoil, with Spartacus’s rebellion, 10 years of war with Gaul, Caesar marching on Rome, Crassus dying in the battle at Carrhae, in Turkey, the people were too unsure of what sort of government they were in, much less what they would like. Caesar seemed poised to seize absolute power, and he seemed an able leader.
Cato, as well as #3, was disgusted by the idea of a dictatorship. In his opinion, no such government ever succeeded or lasted long, the men who got the power were usually immoral or incompetent. He saw Caesar as the former, and made speech after speech in the Senate and in the Roman Forum, which is a huge outdoor market plaza where the people liked to congregate, denouncing the character of Caesar and the theory of dictatorship. Unfortunately, none of his written work has survived. Sallust attempted to imitate Cato’s oratorical style, but it just isn’t the same. The Senators rallied behind him and #3, and no one dared to challenge Cato’s conservative philosophy of politics. His reputation as a man repulsed by illegal or immoral deeds saved him, more than once, from being impeached or exiled.
When he was 14, Sulla, as dictator, liked to have him and his brother, Caepio, around to talk politics. Sulla was immensely impressed by Cato’s fearlessness to speak his mind, all the more since Cato never agreed with any of Sulla’s policies or even his character. When Cato asked his tutor, Sarpedon, why no one assassinated Sulla to save the Republic, Sarpedon replied that everyone feared him. Cato stated that he would be glad to rid the world of Sulla, and intended to cut him down the next time they met. Sarpedon managed to keep Cato separate from Sulla from then on.
As a fiery Stoic, which is the non-Christian equivalent of a Puritan, Cato categorically refused all bribe attempts by allies who wanted him to stay in office as Quaestor, or Senator. Because of this, and the ridiculously rampant bribery involved in all the elections of those decades from the 60s to the 40s BC, Cato’s consular campaign was defeated, and when Caesar declared war on the Senate by crossing the Rubicon, Cato fled to Utica, in Tunisia.
Caesar’s army intended to invade Utica and capture Cato, whereupon Caesar would probably have exiled him out of great admiration. But Cato was disgusted by Caesar’s desire to be an absolute ruler, and refused to appear a charity case by allowing Caesar to let him live. So he fell on his sword in April of 46. His right hand was injured and could not control the blade properly, resulting in disemboweling him but not cutting the main artery. His physician ran in and attempted to put his bowels back in, but Cato knocked the physician out with one swing, then reached into his gut, yanked out all his bowels, and ripped the wound open, slipping into shock instantly and dying in a pool of blood. He did it to make a point of unyielding, fearless loyalty to the Roman Republic. It is because of Cato and #3 that history does not record Julius Caesar as a flawless, benevolent dictator. Had he seized power, he would have been too draconian, and would never have relinquished that power as he promised. And it may well be more attributable to Cato, his orations and actions, than anyone else that some sixty of the Senators stabbed Caesar to death 2 years later.
In the space of 10 sentences, totaling a mere 263 words, which Lincoln delivered in 2 minutes, he accomplished what may well otherwise have been thought impossible: a renewal of the proper understanding of the sentiment expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, leaving no room for argument, no possibility of a loophole to allow for slavery or any other crime against mankind’s “unalienable rights.” There was no loophole before, of course, depending on one’s definition of “men.” With the Gettysburg Address, finally, there was no longer any question on the issue: the United States of America were once again united, not in time of war against a common adversary, but in time of peace (since it was obvious after Gettysburg that the initiative had firmly and permanently swung to the favor of the Union), having just destroyed each other well beyond the threshold of sanity. And capitalizing on this renewed realization of the horror of warfare, Abraham Lincoln reminded everyone on the planet of that principle to which they should be dedicated: “the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Lucius Sergius Catilina conspired, in the 1st Century BC, with several political friends to overthrow the Roman Republic and set himself up as the absolute ruler of a Roman empire. That this would have taken place only 20 years after Lucius Cornelius Sulla’s dictatorship did not leave a particularly good aftertaste in the mouth of the Senate. When Marcus Tullius Cicero learned of Catiline’s plot, among its details a death threat against Cicero, he defeated it in textbook and spectacular fashion, by delivering a series of four orations to the Senate, the first in the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, atop the Capitoline Hill, the highest point in Rome.
Because Catiline seemed poised to seize power by force, having already tried to bribe his way into a second consulship, then trying for voter fraud, the Senate issued a “senatus consultum ultimum,” which means “last consultation of the Senate:” this declared a state of martial law and invested absolute power in Cicero, who was consul at the time. Catiline had the nerve to attend Cicero’s first oration, which is very short, at 317 lines, compared to his average speeches, and during the course of the speech, the other senators learned for the first time of Catiline’s utter amorality. They silently moved away from him, and left him sitting alone in disgrace, as Cicero spoke on, ridiculing him, daring him, denouncing and vilifying him in extremely strong words.
In his fourth and final oration, Cicero laid the groundwork for argument for and against the execution of Catiline and his conspirators. Cicero was in favor of their executions, but was not allowed a vote. His argument, however, fairly well cast his vote while bending the rules, and the Senate voted for Catiline’s death. Catiline committed suicide by wading into the thickest part of an army sent to capture him. By astonishingly competent detective work, and especially his four orations in brazen confrontation at risk of his life, Cicero singlehandedly saved the Roman Republic from becoming a Roman empire, if for only a few decades. The orations will last forever, among the most famous examples of the power of political rhetoric.
Consider anew just what Hitler managed to pull off. He capitalized on a number of Germany’s misfortunes, primarily the entire world’s financial depression, following WWI. It hit Germany the hardest, since they had to pay for the war, and Deutsche Marks devalued to the point that the public burned them in barrels in the streets to keep warm. The Jews all over Europe, however, either foresaw this depression, or never risked their welfare to paper currency, and most Jewish families held their wealth in gold and jewelry, which are almost impervious to financial depressions.
Hitler wrote Mein Kampf while in prison for attempting to overthrow the government in 1923, and in this book he rails incessantly about his, the German commoner’s, lack of money not being his fault, but the fault of whoever has the money. When it seems that the Jews are at fault, the book launches into a long history, most of which is either preposterously fallacious, or at best, not the whole truth, about Jews being dishonest, greedy monsters who deserve to be destroyed.
When Hitler left prison, he reentered the political stage and gave speech after fiery speech, in hot anger, inciting the populace to the same hot anger against the Jews, and Hitler is the one who coined the idea of the Big Lie: if you tell an epic-scale, unbelievable lie enough, people will eventually believe it, because who would ever logically distort the truth so grievously? From 1923 to 1939, Hitler ingrained into the German populace’s mind that Europe was ripe for the plunder of “lebensraum,” and that the Jews deserved to be uprooted and forced elsewhere.
He based his entire political career on this principle, and astoundingly, it not only succeeded in spectacular fashion, but duped the majority of the population of an extremely well educated, intelligent country. Most of the Germans followed Hitler right to the grave, believing that the Jews were horrible, that though they did not deserve to die for their greed, if it turned out in the end that they had died, the “Master Race” wouldn’t have to feel so bad about it. Thousands turned blind eyes to the concentration and death camps where they knew unspeakable evil was taking place. Goebbels, as the head of propaganda, is also to credit for this, but he jumped on Hitler’s bandwagon. It was Hitler who started it all, and he did it with unfortunate oratorical brilliance.
This lister attempted to reduce the brilliance of the two most important works of modern political thought to two men, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, but in truth, those two works are the products of such a collaborative effort that the credit must go to all the men involved, and the most important of them will be listed at the end of this entry.
The current understanding of democracy all over the world is based primarily on the principles espoused in the American Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America. The former was written primarily by Thomas Jefferson and heavily revised by members of the Second Continental Congress, and the latter, in its final form, primarily by James Madison, heavily revised by members of the Philadelphia Convention.
The majority of the philosophy inherent in these two works comes from the Greeks, of course, especially Solon, Pericles, Plato and Aristotle, but most directly John Locke, who believed that there were three primary rights innate to a human being: life, liberty and property. Jefferson elected to change the last noun to a better catch-all of what interests humans: a pursuit of happiness.
The Constitution, for its part, may be the most perfect political document ever written, and this perfection is not due to the impossibility to change, but quite the opposite: due to its allowance to be changed for what is perceived to be the better. The government by the people may decide that women deserve equal rights under the law as men, in which case the Constitution is voted on and changed; likewise on the subjects of slavery, religion, speech, the right to keep and bear arms for the purpose of a ready defense for the nation, etc. The one abiding sanctity of the Constitution is “freedom” for all human beings.
Thus, with the sentiment first officially expressed in the Declaration of Independence, and first officially modernized and systemized in the Constitution of the United States of America, there is no possibility for tyranny, injustice, or any other threat to a person’s life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness. If democratic theory is said to have the Greeks cited above, among others, as its Old Testament prophets, then the Founding Fathers of America are the prophets and disciples of the New Testament. There is no current political theory more correct, and none is likely ever to be.
George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay.