Sunday, September 12, 2010

Sunday Question For Conservatives

With the exception, I think, of Ronald Reagan, most of the pols known for speechmaking in the past thirty years have been Democrats: Barack Obama, Ted Kennedy, Mario Cuomo, Jesse Jackson, and Bill Clinton all have had much-praised oratorical skills.  So two questions...first, are there great conservative orators who I'm missing?  Doesn't have to be at the presidential level -- I'm looking for names from anywhere.  Second, and especially if you don't have names to give me, why do you think there's an imbalance?  Over the time period, I can think of a whole lot of excellent Republican pols, but none of them were really (at least not in my view) particularly good at giving a speech.  Do you think it's just luck of the draw, or is there a reason? 


  1. Making a great speech requires more then saying "no."

  2. Strongly disagree. Or, to put it another way: ask Winston Churchill about that.

  3. Maybe I'm too charitable about the Republican days of yore, but I always thought that Jack Kemp gave good speech.

  4. There's a fella on the LA City Council named Eric Garcetti. He's a rising star in California Dem politics (word is he's going to run for LA mayor when Villaraigosa's term is up). I've seen him speak a few times and he's pretty damn good.

  5. Sorry, I meant to post my previous comment in the "Questions for Liberals" section. Too many windows open. I'll repost there - sorry for the double-post.

  6. Fred Thompson gave a fairly good speech supporting McCain at the 2008 convention. Much better than anything he did during his own campaign.

    Agree that Kemp was a good speaker, though prone to obsessing over the gold standard. Pat Buchanan can also give a good speech, though one with very limited appeal.

    Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater were not naturally great speakers, but both could rise to a rhetorical occasion, especially with the right writers.

  7. Douglas MacArthur was a terrific speaker, though his 1952 Republican keynote was not particularly memorable.

  8. Jonathan, Winston Churchill, in saying 'no,' had much more to say, including why 'no' mattered, and what the alternative to no was.

  9. Sometimes what you say completely wrecks how you say it: Pat Buchanan, Houston, 1992.

  10. I am not a conservative, but I think I know why there are fewer orators on the Republican side. It is supply and demand. By and large, conservative elites do not want orators. The common theme among the names you listed (including Reagan) is that they aspired to inspire. Today the Republican elites prefer to use fear to direct the masses and you do not need an orator for that. The only good orators you get on that side are insurgent candidates like Huckabee.

  11. Zic,

    Of course, it helps if the Nazis are about to invade...but still, I don't think that there's anything about the GOP's rejectionism that would prevent them from eloquence.


    I'm pretty skeptical of that one, too. EMK and Jesse Jackson did plenty of stirring-up-the-crowd stuff that was primarily fear based. Of course, they did have their inspirational positive sides, but to me that's just part of their strengths as speakers; they had more than one rhetorical mood or weapon available.


    It certainly took some sort of talent to deliver the (much-loved) Checkers speech...but it's not to my tastes, for sure. I don't know if that says more about me vs. average Americans, or this generation vs. that one, or what. I would say that to the extent that Republicans aspire to Nixonian rhetorical virtues, I'm certainly not the target audience, and it's fairly hard for me to get it -- although, as I said, I can recognize if not appreciate properly the genius of the Checkers speech.

  12. I think the Bushes are skewing your small sample. Note that you only mention one person who is active in politics today.

    I think Huckabee is equal to the men on your list. Glen Beck's speech to CPAC was pretty good rhetoric - that does not mean I agree with it.

    The formal speech is not as important today as informal style chit chat with people on TV shows like Oprah or Larry King.

    John McWhorter wrote about the decline in political oratory in this book:

  13. A couple of hypotheses:

    1) Democrats are more likely to get into politics for the sake of liking politics. Conservatism is an ideology against "government," and thus a true ideological conservative is not going to grow up thinking "I want to be a senator some day." On the other hand, there is much more tradition on the democratic side of being a public servant just for the sake of being a public servant (note the shorter tenure of republican members of congress, republican support for term limits, etc), thus, you will see a more democrats who expend a lot of energy becoming a great politician because it's a childhood dream.
    2) For whatever reason, most people in the arts and performing arts are liberals. Theater, film, comedy, music, etc are all things that have a similar skillset to oratory, and are all professions that are dominated by liberals. Perhaps there is something inherent in liberalism that is more creativity or "right-brain" oriented and something inherent in conservatism that is more "left-brain" oriented.
    3) I'd amend what "zic" says about a great speech taking more than saying no. To give conservatives credit, it's not so much that their ideology is about "saying no," as much as that the main thrust of conservatism is a very coherent and single-pronged ideology: less government, less taxes. It's true that there are a couple of secondary issues that don't neatly fall into this category (social issues, foreign policy), but those secondary issues are tough ones to do inspiring centrist speeches on, because it's hard to wax poetic about neo-conservative foreign policy or banning abortion to an audience broader than your base. Really, as a conservative, you have one thing to give speeches on: making government smaller. On the other hand, liberalism is an ideology with so many prongs and separate issues (environmentalists, labor, minority groups, women's groups, lgbt groups, health care groups, trial lawyers, teachers, etc) that there are just substantially more things to make speeches about.

  14. In my time, I've attended speeches by George
    Wallace and Robert Welch. Excellent speeches!
    But ....

    Making good speeches probably isn't the first
    thing to look for in assessing politicians.


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