Never overlook the power of the tongue
by Roger Hines
June 21, 2014 10:40 PM | 1769 views | 2 2 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
With the political season swirling around us, it’s wise to beware of the office seeker who speaks in glaring generalities or lofty language. For that matter, we best beware of the skillful orator as well.

The user of generalized or lofty language says things such as “We need bold, new solutions. We cannot live in the past. We must consider new paradigms.” Then after using the prissy word “paradigms,” the lofty language user stoops to a rhetorical low and adds, “We must think outside the box.”

Nothing lofty about that last sentence. It ranks with “One size doesn’t fit all.” Makes you wish those who say “Think outside the box” would come up with a phrase from outside the box.

The orator is a different matter. Whereas the office seeker who generalizes may come off as superficial, the true orator is never superficial. The reason orators can orate is they have either knowledge or ideas, or both, plus the ability to convey them. Orators still exist. Former Gov. Roy Barnes comes to mind, as does Mike Huckabee, plus many a minister, such as Rev. Nelson Price.

Orators — how badly we need them; how sad that their numbers are dwindling — can be dangerous. They don’t necessarily mean to be dangerous; their intent is to be persuasive. But they are dangerous still because, with their unquestionable skills, they can sweep us away into a perspective or an opinion before we have time to examine it.

Orators can make us sidestep logic and operate out of emotion. Principled orators (such as those named above) feel and make us feel, or think and make us think. Unprincipled orators can make us feel as well, even when they don’t believe what they are saying.

Most textbooks on public speaking hold up some, if not all, of the following public figures as great orators: Cicero, Patrick Henry, Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King and Billy Graham. Let’s consider some of their gems.

Approximately 1,800 years before Jefferson ever wrote “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” Cicero declared, “If truth were self-evident, there would be no need for eloquence.” (I hate pitting the great Jefferson against the great Cicero.)

We know Patrick Henry for his fiery “Give me liberty or give me death” speech, but he could turn a phrase daily. At first declining to attend the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Henry said he “smelt a rat,” fearing a tendency toward a monarchy of our own.

There is little wonder Hitler left us no memorable words. How then was he able to stir a nation and almost conquer a continent? Most likely it was his tone. Hitler’s anger suited the discontented German people and they followed. Color Hitler unprincipled.

Churchill was the wordsmith extraordinaire, and often a playful one. Besides giving us the expression “Iron Curtain” to describe the emerging philosophical divide between the West and the Communist bloc nations, Churchill once remarked, “Americans always do the right thing after exhausting every other possibility.”

Americans have been denied much of the richness of Martin Luther King’s oratory. We rightly familiarize every student with the recitation “I have a dream,” but give scant attention to King’s speeches that reveal his deep Christian faith, training and commitment. Such is the cultural/religious bias of certain book publishers.

If ever an orator has finished well, it is Billy Graham. Many theologians have criticized Graham for his simplicity, claiming there was no theological question he did not vulgarize (oversimplify or make common). But Graham followed the tenet of England’s Jonathan Swift: “Always use the language that men do use.” In other words, not the language of theologians. Graham’s message, sincerity and mellifluous voice have rendered his oratory unforgettable.

Harry Truman is on nobody’s list of orators, but his faithfulness to his roots — language included — won him affection as a speaker. In the 1948 presidential race, the countrified Truman, the incumbent, was opposed by the urbane Republican nominee, Gov. Thomas Dewey of New York.

According to biographer David McCullough, whenever the two candidates introduced their wives on the campaign trail, Dewey would say, “I present Mrs. Dewey.” Truman always chirped, “Would y’all like to meet my wife?” Pulling a stunner, Truman defeated Dewey, showing that simplicity and authenticity have their reward.

Far more important than oratory, of course, is an office seeker’s heart and readiness for office. The day of great oratory is not completely gone, but television and fast-paced living will soon end it unless we can learn to be still again and seriously listen to the words people use and enjoy them as well.

Roger Hines is a retired high school English teacher in Kennesaw.

Comments-icon Post a Comment
Kevin Foley
June 22, 2014
Roger, you left Bill Clinton off your list of great orators!

The Big Dog is one of this country's finest speakers. He came out of nowhere in 1992 and today remains one of the most influential figures in American politics. It was his speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention that helped propel President Obama to victory. In fact, you left Obama off your list, too.
Roger Hines
June 23, 2014
Hey, they're both good, but not in the league of William Jennings Bryan, Patrick Monihan (sp), and other such Democrats. I can listen to Clinton because I just like an "Aw shucks" guy. Somehow, I don't think they measure up to orator, though definitely effective communicators. Orators use, almost solely, words. Clinton and Obama use their charm. Anyhow, I do like to hear both of them. Don't you tell all my fellow rich, women-hating Republicans that I said that. And, by the way, when are we getting together? Great to hear from you.
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