A master class in the spo­ken word

Eu­lo­gies at Rep. John Lewis’ funeral were a re­minder that great speeches still mat­ter.

Los Angeles Times - - PERSPECTIV­ES - MARY Mc­NA­MARA

Be­fit­ting the man it memo­ri­al­ized, Thurs­day’s funeral of John Lewis in At­lanta was an or­a­tor­i­cal sym­phony, a rhetor­i­cal mas­ter­work of pride, praise and calls to con­tinue the great man’s work.

Three for­mer pres­i­dents spoke, all with emo­tional ad­mi­ra­tion for the 80-yearold civil rights leader and long­time Demo­cratic con­gress­man from Ge­or­gia’s 5th Dis­trict, who died on July 17.

Barack Obama de­liv­ered the rous­ing, heart­felt key­note, in which he called on Amer­i­cans to pay their re­spects to Lewis by con­tin­u­ing his work at a time when Black lives and vot­ing rights re­main at risk, but Bill Clin­ton and Ge­orge W. Bush spoke just as pow­er­fully and well of a man who al­ways put truth be­fore pol­i­tics.

As did Lewis’ niece Sheila Lewis O’Brien; the Rev. Ber­nice King; ac­tivist Xer­nona Clay­ton; the Rev. James Law­son; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; the Rev. Raphael G. Warnock, se­nior pas­tor of the Ebenezer Bap­tist Church, where the funeral was held; and the oth­ers who spoke.

For a coun­try con­fined by pan­demic and, more im­por­tant, a cul­ture in­creas­ingly de­pen­dent on of­ten un­re­li­able so­cial me­dia plat­forms for the ex­change of in­for­ma­tion, ideas, in­sight and calls to ac­tion, it was like a sus­tained rain­fall in the mid­dle of a drought — a re­minder of the unique and nec­es­sary artistry of the spo­ken word.

Lewis cer­tainly un­der­stood the power of pub­lic elo­quence; at the age of 15, he fa­mously heard the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speak on the ra­dio and it changed his life.

Ar­rested some 45 times dur­ing more than half a cen­tury spent fight­ing for civil rights, and beaten un­con­scious in 1965 on the Ed­mund Pet­tus Bridge in Selma, Ala., where he and 600 peace­ful pro­test­ers marched to­ward the vi­cious ba­tons of Alabama state troop­ers, Lewis was very much a man of ac­tion as well as words.

But from his speech be­fore the 1963 March on Wash­ing­ton to a re­cent Zoom meet­ing in which he and for­mer Pres­i­dent Obama spoke with a group of ac­tivists, Lewis was him­self such a master of the mi­cro­phone that when his fi­nal es­say ap­peared in Thurs­day’s New York Times, we could hear his voice as we read.

Quiet, calm and ab­so­lutely re­lent­less, Lewis was a tire­less and demo­cratic speaker, as com­fort­able on late-night and morn­ing talk shows as he was in Congress or at any VIP ta­ble. He said what he thought — he be­lieved, for in­stance, that Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 elec­tion ren­dered Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­dency il­le­git­i­mate — and backed it up with ac­tion: He did not at­tend Trump’s in­au­gu­ra­tion. (Which may be why Trump did not speak at Lewis’ funeral or ear­lier this week, when Lewis be­came the first Black law­maker to lie in state in the U.S. Capi­tol Ro­tunda.)

Ob­vi­ously, no one is go­ing to come to praise and bury John Lewis with­out pre­par­ing the best speech pos­si­ble.

That kind of prepa­ra­tion — the craft­ing of tone and phrase, of pause and crescendo; the match­ing of mes­sage with mu­sic — has fallen out of fa­vor re­cently. The turn-of-the-mil­len­nium rise of per­sonal nar­ra­tive as a valid and nec­es­sary so­cial force gave us a new ver­nac­u­lar — “au­then­tic­ity,” which of­ten val­ues the awk­ward and im­pre­cise over the pol­ished, the raw and emo­tional over the thought­fully ar­gued or po­et­i­cally ren­dered. Since then, so­cial me­dia has be­come the pre­ferred man­ner of so­cial dis­course, and with a re­liance on im­me­di­acy, brevity and niche mar­ket­ing, much of it is not de­signed for com­plex phras­ing.

Don’t get me wrong. The val­i­da­tion of per­sonal nar­ra­tives is one of the big­gest cul­tural rev­o­lu­tions of all time. The def­i­ni­tion of what makes any­thing good or valid, beau­ti­ful or im­por­tant, has long been con­trolled by a rel­a­tive few — in­clud­ing those deemed great pub­lic speak­ers. Re­lax­ing the stan­dards of or­a­tory has, like so­cial me­dia, given mil­lions too long kept silent the chance to speak with­out fear of be­ing dis­par­aged for nonelo­quence.

Un­for­tu­nately, our de­mand for “au­then­tic­ity” has been ac­com­pa­nied by a re­jec­tion of the care­fully con­sid­ered. Rhetoric, which ac­tu­ally means the art of speak­ing or writ­ing ef­fec­tively, is con­sid­ered elit­ist by some, syn­ony­mous with ob­fus­ca­tion or phoni­ness by oth­ers. Con­sis­tent mes­sag­ing is of­ten dis­missed as “talk­ing points” (as if rep­e­ti­tion it­self im­plies in­sin­cer­ity), and, as Hil­lary Clin­ton found, a ready-made re­sponse or speech is of­ten dinged for seem­ing “over­thought” or “re­hearsed.”

Like pretty much ev­ery­thing, ora­tion has long been judged by tra­di­tions and pre­con­cep­tions: Women’s nat­u­rally higher-pitched voices kept many of them from lists of great pub­lic speak­ers, and the pref­er­ence for round vow­els elim­i­nates peo­ple whose ac­cents do not con­form. It’s a tal­ent, like the abil­ity to de­liver any great per­for­mance, and like any per­for­ma­tive tal­ent, it re­quires ex­pe­ri­ence to per­fect. Lewis, as for­mer Pres­i­dent Bush re­mem­bered on Thurs­day, be­gan his or­a­tor­i­cal ca­reer preach­ing to his chick­ens.

Still, if you think any of his­tory’s great speeches were not “over-thought” and in some way re­hearsed, you’re miss­ing the point. Prac­tice is the mother of au­then­tic­ity.

Lewis spoke of­ten about the prepa­ra­tion that al­lowed him and fel­low ac­tivists to en­dure the threats and vi­o­lence they ex­pe­ri­enced, the rigor that al­lowed them to over­come nat­u­ral re­ac­tions of fear and rage.

Yes, there are peo­ple, born with nat­u­ral elo­quence, who can de­liver im­promptu words to make you weep or burn to im­prove the world this minute.

But watch­ing the pow­er­ful, lov­ing and rhetor­i­cally adept speeches de­liv­ered in honor of John Lewis, it was im­pos­si­ble not to also see the time, care and thought that went into them. Were they metic­u­lously crafted and pos­si­bly re­hearsed? Yes. Were they au­then­tic? Ab­so­lutely.

Dur­ing his eu­logy, Bill Clin­ton re­counted ask­ing Lewis about the clos­est he had come to be­ing killed while protest­ing. Lewis de­scribed a mo­ment when, hav­ing been knocked down dur­ing a demon­stra­tion, he saw a man lift­ing a heavy pipe clearly aimed at Lewis’ head. At the last minute, Lewis turned away and the crowd surged for­ward, sep­a­rat­ing the man from him; Lewis con­sid­ered him­self lucky to be alive.

Clin­ton, how­ever, thought Lewis sur­vived for rea­sons other than luck. “First, be­cause he was a quick thinker. And sec­ond, be­cause he was here on a mis­sion that was big­ger than per­sonal am­bi­tion.

“Things like that some­times just hap­pen,” Clin­ton said, “but usu­ally they don’t.”

Alyssa Pointer At­lanta Jour­nal-Con­sti­tu­tion

BILL CLIN­TON was one of three for­mer pres­i­dents who spoke with emo­tional ad­mi­ra­tion for John Lewis at his funeral Thurs­day at Ebenezer Bap­tist Church in At­lanta. Theirs were not the only mem­o­rable speeches.

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