Accent on Living

ORATORY is with us once again throughout the land, surprising many who had thought, foolishly, that it was just about washed up. No one who seemed any great shakes as an orator had been heard from for years and years. The politician found that space for oratory was ever tighter in the press, while on TV panel shows any tendency to overextend himself brought pitying smiles or outright derision on the part of his questioners. It was rarely, indeed, that the ordinary politician was given a chance to unload at great length in print or on the air. For a time it looked as if we were putting aside a large national failing. But then came the conventions and the campaign. Our fancied security vanished at the first thump of the gavel.

Outstanding among the early symptoms of the oratorical flood to follow was the keynoter who was introduced in an informal preconvention interview as having “won honors for high school oratory.” To have done so, one gathered, was to have laid down an irresistible claim to a seat in the United States Senate and to high party responsibilities as well. In this case the senator was somewhere in his thirties, and much was made in the interview of a youth-will-be-served speculation, to which the senator ungrudgingly assented: it was time, he felt, for the youngsters to take over. Surely somewhere in the audience, when the senator did take over with his keynote speech, was his high school elocution teacher, fondly watching the erstwhile pupil strut his stuff. The senator proved, in the event, to be a man of many forefingers, brandishing them earnestly throughout a speech that seemed much longer than it probably was. Of its content I retained only one strong impression: a young windbag is just as tiresome as an older one.

It is doubtful whether oratory can win many battles, or even skirmishes, but it does hold enormous protective and distractive uses for a politician suddenly nailed by an embarrassing question. “What do you think of Senator Blank’s speech?” demands a TV interviewer, thrusting a microphone at the candidate.

Senator Blank’s speech had been blunt and forthright. The heat was on. For it or against it? Speak up, speak up. “You ask me a very timely question,” replies the candidate, with a great air of satisfaction. “It is a question that I am only too glad to answer. . . .”

This is perhaps not pure oratory, in the beseeching sense, but it includes a vast quantity of words as it goes along. From its bulk we learn an important fact about the political interview: the longer the answer, the fewer the questions and the more camera time for the candidate. So, he continues: “. . . long service togather in the Yewnited States Senate . . . basic fundamental American principles . . . always entertained the greatest admiration . . . courage . . . fundamental basic . . . friendship . . . loyal . . . devotion . . . ideals . . . tireless. . . .

“And let me say further . . . personal qualities . . . husband and father . . . honesty . . . unswerving basic fundamental . . . finest tradition . . . humanity . . . state and nation.”

So much for the plug. Then comes the swerve: “Naturally, there have been — and are — issues on which we have not always been in agreement. His concept . . . fundamental basic . . . common good . . . not necessarily the same . . . conscience . . . call them as I see them, and that is what I like to think we mean by Democracy.”

Both presidential candidates seem to have inclined, over the years, more to the conversational than the oratorical. But a national election campaign can affect men strangely. Sooner or later they’ll both be waving and pounding and forefingering, at the top of their voices, just like the Boy Orator from the Platte in premicrophone days.