There is currently circulating on the Internet a clip from Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama in which the usually sure-footed orator is seen stumbling, repeatedly, over his words. Indeed, politicians have always stumbled on occasion when trying to wax eloquent about the issues of the day. And the media has not always been kind to even the most earnest attempt to speak of those issues.
Asked to deliver closing remarks on a solemn occasion, one U.S. President spoke only briefly, responsibility for the principal oratory having fallen to another. Nevertheless, his remarks were savaged by the reporters present. One newspaper said “We pass over the silly remarks of the President — for the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall no more be repeated or thought of.”
Another reported “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat, and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.” Still another concurred, saying “Anything more dull and commonplace it would not be easy to produce.”
The crowd – over 50,000 strong – had stood for more than two hours listening to Edward Everett, one of the great orators of his time, and it was in comparison to his words that the President’s speech was measured, and found wanting. Indeed, when Everett was in full oratorical flight, crowds stood for hours just to hear him. He was quite literally a tough act to follow.
Perhaps it was out of consideration for those who had stood for so long listening to Everett that the President’s speech was so short. Perhaps he recognized the subordinate role the organizers had intended him to play. Perhaps it was because he felt he had said what he had come to say. Whatever the reason, he spoke for less than three minutes, and many of his listeners were unimpressed. He himself said the world would “little note, nor long remember what we say here”.
Of course, history has judged Abraham Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg far more kindly, and it’s usually acknowledged to be one of the greatest speeches of all time. Millions of schoolchildren the world over have memorized its words, and his words describing democratic government as “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” are so well known, they are often mistakenly thought to have come from the U.S. constitution. (Indeed, they were made part of the constitution of modern France.)
Lincoln chose his words carefully, and their effect was powerful and timeless. His hope “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom” was voiced with sincerity, eloquence, and power.
The psalmist recognized the value of godly words and attitude when he wrote “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer” (Psalm 19:14).
- Lead photo: Washington, DC photo: bmward_2000/Foter/CC BY-NC