Mouth mu­sic

In Our Time: The Speeches that Shaped the Mod­ern World Edited by Hy­wel Wil­liams Quer­cus, 216pp, $ 34.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Loosley

SOME­TIMES a good speech is el­e­vated to a truly mem­o­rable ora­tion by an in­ter­ven­tion. This can cer­tainly be said of Martin Luther King’s mag­nif­i­cent ad­dress be­fore the Lin­coln Memo­rial in Wash­ing­ton, DC, on Au­gust 28, 1963. The early part of King’s speech was a com­pre­hen­sive ac­count of the plight of African-Amer­i­cans. It was ef­fec­tive but it rose to great­ness when Ma­halia Jack­son, stand­ing be­hind King, who had heard the civil rights leader speak pas­sion­ately from the pul­pit, called out: ‘‘ Tell them about your dream, Martin.’’ King re­sponded:

I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the Amer­i­can dream.

I have a dream that one day this na­tion will rise up and live out the true mean­ing of its creed: We hold th­ese truths to be self­evi­dent: that all men are cre­ated equal.

I have a dream that my four chil­dren will one day live in a na­tion where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the con­tent of their char­ac­ter. The rest is now Amer­i­can scrip­ture and part of our global po­lit­i­cal un­der­stand­ing of jus­tice.

Al­ter­na­tively, some­times a great speech can be the sub­ject of a cyn­i­cal in­ter­ven­tion that adds such a note of hard-headed re­al­ism that the speaker ac­tu­ally gains cred­i­bil­ity.

Leg­end has it in Moscow that as Nikita Khrushchev ad­dressed the 20th congress of the Com­mu­nist Party of the Soviet Union on Fe­bru­ary 25, 1956, de­nounc­ing Josef Stalin, one of the del­e­gates boldly asked such a ques­tion. As Khrushchev moved through Stalin’s crimes from cre­at­ing a cult of per­son­al­ity to vi­o­lat­ing so­cial­ist le­gal­ity, the del­e­gate in­quired: ‘‘ And what were you do­ing at the time?’’

It was a pointed ques­tion: Khrushchev had been a loyal Stal­in­ist, even dur­ing the purges. Khrushchev looked up from his speech at the lectern and asked: ‘‘ Who said that?’’ There was ut­ter si­lence in the hall.

‘‘ That’s what I was do­ing,’’ said Khrushchev dead­pan and re­turned to his text. The speech trans­formed the arid Soviet po­lit­i­cal cul­ture and ul­ti­mately sowed the seeds for Mikhail Gor­bachev and per­e­stroika.

Th­ese two speeches are among the bet­ter con­tri­bu­tions in Hy­wel Wil­liams’s new book, In Our Time: The Speeches that Shaped the Mod­ern World , which fo­cuses on some of the sem­i­nal con­tri­bu­tions to pol­i­tics and cul­ture, gov­ern­ment and in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions since 1945.

An ap­pen­dix pro­vides the speech made by then pres­i­dent-elect Barack Obama to his au­di­ence at Grant Park, Chicago, and ul­ti­mately to the world, on the night of his elec­tion as the 44th Pres­i­dent of the US on Novem­ber 4, 2008. It’s per­haps a pity that John McCain’s ear­lier con­ces­sion speech, at the Bilt­more in Phoenix, Ari­zona, was not also in­cluded, for McCain’s gen­er­ous speech cleared the way for Obama’s elo­quent as­sump­tion of power.

The rolling ca­dences of African-Amer­i­can churches in­spired a global au­di­ence as the pres­i­dent-elect spoke:

And to all those watch­ing tonight from be­yond our shores, from par­lia­ments and palaces to those who are hud­dled around ra­dios in the for­got­ten cor­ners of our world — our sto­ries are sin­gu­lar, but our des­tiny is shared, and a new dawn of Amer­i­can lead­er­ship is at hand. To those who would tear this world down — we will de­feat you. To those who seek peace and se­cu­rity — we sup­port you. And to those who have won­dered if Amer­ica’s bea­con still burns as bright — tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our na­tion comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth but the en­dur­ing power of our ideals: democ­racy, lib­erty, op­por­tu­nity and un­yield­ing hope.

For that is the true ge­nius of Amer­ica — that Amer­ica can change. Our union can be per­fected. Wil­liams is a his­to­rian who has an es­tab­lished record as a writer, hav­ing writ­ten books as di­verse as Bri­tain’s Power Elites and Days that Changed the World . Com­pi­la­tions of speeches are churned out, but this is a use­ful com­pen­dium, al­beit with some dis­ap­point­ments.

For ex­am­ple, who on earth wants to re­mem­ber Harold Wil­son’s ‘‘ White Heat of Tech­nol­ogy’’ speech to the Labour Party con­fer­ence of Oc­to­ber 1, 1963? The Labour leader was stretch­ing a point even when he made the ad­dress and in pol­i­tics the ad­dress is now re­garded as some­thing of an in­sider’s joke.

The same can be said of Pierre Trudeau’s speech cel­e­brat­ing Canada’s new con­sti­tu­tion of 1982. Thought­ful yes, but not to be com­pared with Trudeau’s bril­liant re­jec­tion of do­mes­tic ter­ror­ism in an­other ad­dress to the na­tion.

But for ev­ery dis­ap­point­ment there is a gem, not al­ways ac­knowl­edged as such. New York gov­er­nor Mario Cuomo ad­dress­ing the Demo­cratic Na­tional Con­ven­tion in San Fran­cisco of 1984 or nov­el­ist Orhan Pa­muk speak­ing in New York in 2006 on the uni­ver­sal­ity of hu­man rights, sus­tain in­ter­est well be­yond the years.

There are bet­ter com­pi­la­tions of this kind. Per­haps William Safire, for­mer speech­writer to pres­i­dent Richard Nixon, in Lend Me Your Ears has set the bench­mark. For­mer Lib­eral se­na­tor Rod Kemp, in Speak­ing up for Aus­tralia , per­formed a valu­able ser­vice in group­ing to­gether some out­stand­ing Aus­tralian con­tri­bu­tions, in­clud­ing the for­got­ten jewel of John Curtin’s speech to the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives in 1942 while the Bat­tle of the Coral Sea was be­ing fought.

In an era when the sound bite and the vis­ual im­age have tended to dom­i­nate our cul­ture, In Our Time un­der­lines the ob­vi­ous value of a pre­pared speech, well and thought­fully de­liv­ered, to uplift and to in­spire. Obama is merely the lat­est in a long list of leaders who un­der­stand the sig­nif­i­cance of speak­ing per­sua­sively and from the heart.

Aus­tralia’s Prime Min­is­ter is ac­knowl­edged in Wil­liams’s book. Kevin Rudd’s apol­ogy to Aus­tralia’s in­dige­nous peo­ple, in Can­berra on Fe­bru­ary 13, 2008, is recog­nised.

Great speeches af­ford clar­ity and fur­nish mean­ing to hu­man en­deav­ours. From Win­ston Churchill’s Iron Cur­tain speech at Ful­ton, Mis­souri, of March 5, 1946, to Nel­son Man­dela’s Rain­bow Na­tion ad­dress of May 10, 1994, Wil­liams has largely cho­sen well. The great speak­ers, from Aneurin Be­van to Jack Kennedy, from Eleanor Roo­sevelt to Ron­ald Rea­gan, grace this book’s pages. Their speeches show the power of the writ­ten word as it is ex­pressed by those who have mas­tered the spo­ken. Stephen Loosley is a for­mer se­na­tor and ALP na­tional pres­i­dent.

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