Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Power of Eloquence

Professor Hart has an Op-Ed in today's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about the faulty assumption that the ability to speak eloquently and the ability to 'get things done' are mutually exclusive. He notes that many of our most celebrated presidents were gifted speakers, including JFK, FDR, and Lincoln. About Lincoln:

On March 4, 1861, Lincoln wanted to urge the Southern states not to secede. His future Secretary of State William Seward submitted this sentence, which Lincoln then turned into one of the most famous passages in American oratory:

The mystic chords which proceeding from so many battlefields and so many patriot graves pass through all the hearts and all the hearths in this broad continent of ours will yet again harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation.

Not bad. Seward certainly was an able writer.

But Lincoln made much more of it, adding alliteration, changing "proceeding" to "stretching," changing "guardian angel of our nation" to the far superior "better angels of our nature," along with other careful touches:

The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living hearth and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

"Over this broad land" is masterful, its inclusiveness suggesting union. Lincoln was gifted; he had studied the King James Bible, Shakespeare and, very importantly, Walt Whitman, memorizing passages from "Leaves of Grass," responding to its rhythms and vast inclusiveness.

Read the whole thing.


John Bruce said...

There's a growing body of opinion, with which I agree, that Obama isn't really eloquent, but skilled at making vague statements with which few people can disagree; e.g., his promise to reform health care by bringing everyone together. Mrs. Clinton has been trying to expose him for this, but she's not a sufficiently credible candidate to make headway.

One thing that interests me is that Obama is more or less dead-even with McCain in national polls, at a time when Democrats have typically been 10-15 points ahead of Republicans. Obama's biggest advantage is that he's been running among an especially undistinguished Democratic field, with gasbags like Chris Dodd and narcissists like Mrs. Clinton, a figure with extremely high negatives -- it appears that some of Obama's primary votes are from crossover Republicans eager to vote against Mrs. Clinton where this is allowed. We'll see how this plays out, but Democrats have a long tradition of turning out figures like William Jennings Bryan.

Anonymous said...

about the faulty assumption that the ability to speak eloquently and the ability to 'get things done' are mutually exclusive.

How difficult can it be to respond to an assumption no one holds or an argument no one is making?

Perhaps Prof. Hart's next op-ed can respond to the equally faulty assumption that someone who is able to speak or write like JFK, FDR or Lincoln can necessarily also "get things done" in the way those people did. Some people might actually hold that latter assumption.

Anonymous said...

It seems like the Clinton campaign has been subtly making that point recently.

Anonymous said...

The Clinton campaign is arguing that Obama can't "get things done" because he hasn't actually "gotten" much "done" as a Senator, and because he has thus far had very little to say about what he would actually do.

Eloquence enters into the picture because Obama is a very eloquent speaker and has been able to get a lot of supporters despite his lack of concrete policy proposals.

Clinton is better at debating policy than inspiring people, and would rather shift the debate to those terms, but I don't think it's disingenuous to point out that eloquence and competence are two different things. They're certainly not mutually exclusive, and of course it always helps to be eloquent if you want to ask someone to do something for you, but they're not synonymous either.

Anonymous said...

Yet I think most people who have followed the election would say that Clinton has been insinuating that point.