The Decline and Fall of Oratory

My lovely bride bought for me a six-volume set of “Famous American Statesmen and Orators,” published in 1902. Reading these speeches one is struck by the majesty of the language. How can one not be stirred by words such as these?

Let their last feeble and lingering glance rather behold the gorgeous ensign of the republic, now known and honored throughout the earth, still full high advanced, its arms and trophies streaming in their original lustre, not a stripe erased or polluted, not a single star obscured, bearing for its motto, no such miserable interrogatory as “What is all this worth?” nor those other words of delusion and folly, “Liberty first and Union afterwards”; but everywhere, spread all over in characters of living light, blazing on all its ample folds, as they float over the sea and over the land, and in every wind under the whole heavens, that other sentiment, dear to every true American heart, – Liberty and Union, now and for ever, one and inseperable!– Daniel Webster, 1830

Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.– William Jennings Bryan, 1896

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us–that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion–that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.–Abraham Lincoln, 1863

Then read William Jefferson Clinton’s Dimbleby Lecture. I’m reminded of the scene in Airplane! when Robert Hayes’s seatmate pours gasoline over himself and lights a match rather than listen any longer. Words like these:

Think about how we all organise our lives in little boxes – man, woman, British, American, Muslim, Christian, Jew, Tory, Labour, New Labour, Old Labour, up, down – you know, everything in the world. I like red ties, I got a blue shirt on, you laugh about it, think about everything you define yourself by. Our little boxes are important to us. And indeed it is necessary, how could you navigate life if you didn’t know the difference between a child and an adult, an African and an Indian, a scientist and a lawyer? We have to organise that, but somewhere along the way, we finally come to understand that our life is more than all these boxes we’re in. And that if we can’t reach beyond that, we’ll never have a fuller life

spoken over the familiar Clintonian ground bass of “me, me, me, me.”

Mr. Clinton was certainly glib, but – quick! – can you remember one notable quote from his years as President? Apart from the ridiculous ones, of course?

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