Saturday, January 27, 2007

Churchill as orator: I Can Hear It Now

I got an email the other day asking me why I think Churchill's speeches are more remembered and quoted than FDR's.

The answer isn't immediately apparent. After all, both of them were incomparably better than most politicians today at public speaking. Both of them were wartime Presidents who faced extraordinarily dramatic situations requiring the need to inspire their people, and both had the rhetorical skills to do so.

I've had some personal experience of Churchill's oratorical powers as compared to FDR's. No, I'm not that old--but as a child, I spent many hours listening to a set of records we owned, the "I Can Hear It Now" series by Edward R. Murrow. I'm not much of an auditory learner (see this), but I just couldn't get enough of these records.

There was Harry Truman, imitating H.V. Kaltenborn's premature declaration that Truman had lost the election of 1948. The almost hysterical radio announcer describing the Hindenburg catching fire and burning in Lakehurst New Jersey. Fiorello la Guardia reading the comics to NY children during a newspaper strike.

FDR saying in his resonant, uplifting, slightly British-sounding (at least to my ears) tones, "The only thing we have to fear is..." (and then a wonderful, pregnant pause) "fear itself."

They all entranced me; I'm not sure why. Maybe it was Murrow's voice too, tying the whole thing together with his narration: serious and sonorous, it fairly dripped with History.

But it was Churchill who was the very best of all. His voice may not have been the deepest, but it resonated with power and hard-won wisdom mixed with more than a touch of the weariness of one who has seen horror and yet refuses to give in. Despite his slightly lispy "s's," his moral clarity came through in the clipped tones of his clearly enunciated words, simple enough for a child to understand and yet complex in their resonance and implications.

Churchill was a writer, after all, before he was a politician, and a very successful one at that. He had the writer's appreciation for the turn of phrase, but the actor's knowledge of how to deliver it. If you've ever read William Manchester's riveting two-volume biography of Churchill, The Last Lion, you probably know that Churchill planned and rehearsed the pauses in his speeches--even, if I recall correctly from the book, adding notes to himself such as "slight stammer and hesitation" for dramatic effect.

Churchill knew exactly what he was doing when he gave speeches; he was the perfect combination of intellect, will, vision, writer, and orator. His rule "Short words are best and the old words when short are best of all" was one he followed; he preferred the basic Anglo-Saxon phrases (and I don't mean curses) to the Latinate whenever possible. As he said:

All the great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom, justice, honour, duty, mercy, hope.

Listening to Churchill was more like listening to the plays of Shakespeare than anything else, but a Shakespeare who was easier to understand, and in a way even more dramatic--because this was real; this was history itself, and not an imitation of it.

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