News People Where have all the great orators gone?

Where have all the great orators gone?

winston churchill
Memorable speeches like those of former British PM Winston Churchill are a rare occurence in modern politics. Photo: Getty
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Listening to the third press conference Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has held this week I found myself lamenting the loss of the rhetorical pyrotechnics that world leaders once exuded.

Mr Turnbull’s initial statement was droll, colourless and limp. His arm gave ducal gestures, off tempo and out of sync, like an ancient lecturer in a hall of Cambridge or Oxford. His expressions lacked energy and spirit, they were phlegmatic and stolid.

His speech and answers to journalists were without the rhythmic thumping of Winston Churchill’s House of Commons performances. It lacked the Ciceronian declamations of Margaret Thatcher. It was devoid of the punch of emotion and power of passion that defined Martin Luther King Jnr’s speeches in the streets of Washington and Birmingham.

Listening to Mr Turnbull’s monotonous hum, I realised what it is that makes residents living in too-close proximity to wind farms go mad.

Other leaders are not immune to it. Bill Shorten’s performances are overly-rehearsed and insincere. Gladys Berejiklian’s first speech at the National Press Club was tired and torpid. Donald Trump prefers chest thumping and late-night 140-character outbursts. Outside Number Ten, Theresa May fails to make me quiver with her euphuistic prowess.

A journalist noted in the early half of the 20th Century that, “Mr Churchill and oratory are not neighbours yet. Nor do I think it likely they ever will be”. I would challenge him to evaluate our modern leaders and their proximity to oratory. He would be disgraced to know the English language has been relegated to three-word slogans and politics has become less about the issues and more about the egos.

During the Battle of Britain, Churchill, so moved by the events he witnessed taking place in the late-summer skies above Britain in August 1940, commented: “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.”

Where has our ability to string together a descending tricolon gone? With all of the media advisers and speech writers, how is it that we cannot piece together a sentence of innate beauty like that?

Like Ms Thatcher, why can’t we convey pragmatic frankness in a statement like: “There is much to be said for trying to improve some disadvantaged people’s lot. There is nothing to be said for trying to create heaven on earth.”

Or an emotive appeal to our nationhood with: “Constitutions have to be written on hearts, not just paper.”

The malignant affliction wreaking havoc upon our language is perhaps best described by a Talking Heads lyric: “You’re talking a lot, but you’re not saying anything.”

On this topic, Fairfax commentator Imre Salusinszky astutely and recently observed: “Here’s a suggestion for the Prime Minister’s minders if they want his vision of where we are going to start cutting through. Clear the bloody fog around him! Ministers should stick rigorously to their portfolios, and put their heads up only for a genuine announcement.”

Politicians reach into our living rooms on the nightly news, through our computers and phones on social media, they duel and exchange insults on 24-hour news channels. They’re inescapable at the best of times.

What we need is fewer Abbotts (“Stop the boats”) and Turnbulls (“Jobs and growth”), and more Kennedys (“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”) and Roosevelts (“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”).

The age of melodic rhetoric is dead. Perhaps one day I will find pleasure in deconstructing tweets, but until then I will stick to listening to recordings of the lush language of Churchill, Martin Luther King and Lloyd George.

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