Anthology of great speeches, from the inspirational to the ominous

Jeff Shesol

THE WASHINGTON POST – One late December in the 1950s, United States (US) Senator John F Kennedy received a Christmas present from his speechwriter, Ted Sorensen: a thick, clothbound volume titled A Treasury of the World’s Great Speeches.

It was not an immodest gift.

Both men imagined that someday, their work together might merit inclusion in an anthology like that, alongside Cicero, Lincoln and Disraeli. Kennedy “devoured” the book, Sorensen recalled years later, “often citing passages to me” for use in his own speeches.

No one can argue with the results. Why, then, is it so hard to picture a present-day politician dog-earing the pages of a speech anthology and studying, as Kennedy did, the cadences of Churchill?

Today’s would-be Sorensens, searching for inspiration, are more likely to pull up a video of Barack or Michelle Obama than to dust off the Treasury” and consult the oratory of, say, Pitt the Younger.

Even the word “oratory”, from our postmillennial point of view, seems outdated, the rhetorical equivalent of knee breeches and frock coats.

The surest way to get yanked off the stage – any stage – is to clear one’s throat and begin to orate.Highly polished, heavily rehearsed remarks still have an audience, as the popularity of Ted talks makes clear.

But most modern speeches reflect what Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the University of Pennsylvania has called the “conversational style”: not ineloquent, necessarily, but informal, plain-spoken. The trick, the sleight of hand, is a script that doesn’t seem scripted.

“This sounds like a speech,” Bill Clinton would sometimes complain when reviewing a draft. “I just want to talk to people.”

The conversational style is not new – its roots run through the speeches of Clinton and Ronald Reagan to the fireside chats of Franklin Roosevelt – but in the past few decades it has become the default. It fulfils our yearning for “authenticity”: Colloquial speech sounds direct and unpremeditated. It also happens to suit a time when speeches are delivered to screens of little people-squares rather than crowded ballrooms. Grandiloquence plays poorly on a laptop.

Our sense of what constitutes a great speech is, as ever, evolving. So is our sense of who might deliver one. The compendium that Sorensen gave Kennedy contains about 150 speeches. These include three by the 18th-Century French statesman Comte de Mirabeau, but only two by women (Queen Elizabeth I and Elizabeth Cady Stanton) and two by Black speakers (Frederick Douglass and Booker T Washington). Lend Me Your Ears, edited by William Safire, remains the gold standard after nearly 30 years in print, but its gender imbalance is almost as glaring as that in the Treasury.

It is hardly alone in this regard, as an analysis by the speechwriter Dana Rubin reveals. The canon of great speeches is a stag party.

Clearly, the anthology, as an institution, is ripe for a reboot. If it is to remain – in that cruellest of adjectives – relevant, it has to make room for new voices and for “talk” that reads, in many cases, like a transcript.

The classics, Montefiore contends, have not lost their power to inspire, to instruct, to challenge the conscience. But today, given the global reach of technology, “oratory is flourishing in a way that is more visceral and popular than it ever was… Young speakers like Greta Thunberg and Malala can become instantly world-famous in one televised speech” – a speech that can then be viewed online millions of times. A few such speeches are included here, among them a 2012 Ted talk on feminism by the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

But Montefiore’s focus is on noting – and warning – that “words have consequences”. Those consequences, as this collection shows, have been measured both in human progress and in bloodshed.