[Please see update below.] A note just now, from reader Allison B., raising a question about Mario Cuomo's performance as orator:
As I listened I kept asking myself who wrote the lecture (Cuomo himself, I presume) and how he learned to do that? How does it work, practically speaking? I'm not expecting an answer, I just wanted to let you know one result from this short article.
I know how to write a research paper and how to get from a topic to a doc. But the spoken phrasing? The timing? The timbre and oratorical glory??? Yes the writer knows the man and how his rhythms and the words he can speak without embarrassment (Salvific! Although Cuomo knew the word and knew he could say it there). How to deflect cliché and leave grandness. I could never do it.
Wow, what a gift in the writer and the speaker.
I have spent a lot of my working life wrestling with versions of such questions. How does it work, in practical terms, this process of learning to convey thoughts and emotions in words? And learning about the different tools that are available for meaning conveyed on a page or screen, versus through the sound of a voice in a broadcast, versus the look and bearing of a speaker before a group? And the odd art of writing words someone else will deliver, via a script or a speech, versus those where writer and speaker are the same?
As with any learned-and-practiced craft, there are no set answers to any of these questions, simply the ongoing practice. I don't know whether anyone ever thought to ask Mario Cuomo a version of Allison B.'s question, or whether the process was conscious enough for him that he would have been able to offer an answer beyond: I listen and think and try.
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Update: Reader Kevin M. has this astute follow-up:
It was not in the segment of the San Francisco keynote that you linked, but I still distinctly remember him saying “mirabile dictu” at one point in that speech, which I watched on TV and have never rewatched or reread it.
And that reminds me of RFK quoting Aeschylus in Indianapolis the night King was assassinated.
Both of those moments cause me to wonder if the answer to Allison B.’s question is that once upon a time it was more common for politicians to know who they were, knew that it included being intelligent and articulate, and didn’t feel the need to be ashamed of it. Yes, Cuomo could “get away” with salvific at Notre Dame, but the keynote speech was not offered to Catholic scholars.
Moreover, what would happen to a politician, a white politician no less, who started musing on Aeschylus before an African-American audience, especially at such a moment?
Thanks for this addition. Three extra points. First, the RFK/Aeschylus quote on the night of Martin Luther King's assassination was quite extraordinary:
Robert F. Kennedy, delivering an extemporaneous eulogy to Martin Luther King, Jr., the evening of April 4, 1968, in Indianapolis, Indiana, said, “Aeschylus wrote: ‘In our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’”
Second, I also remember hearing Cuomo use mirabile dictu in a major convention speech—but the one eight years later, when he nominated Bill Clinton in 1992. In a great NYT article about that 1992 speech, Michael Winerip quoted Cuomo as saying, no doubt with a wink, "You write that in for guys like Bill Buckley."
Third, when being reminded of Cuomo's and Kennedy's classical allusions, I naturally thought of another politician I'd written about recently, Jerry Brown. As I mention in my article, he was throwing off references to Yeats and Comenius (?!) when I talked with him, and not in a trying-to-seem-impressive way. What Cuomo, Kennedy, and Brown had in common, of course, is an old-school Catholic education. Brown actually spent three years in a seminary; Cuomo and Kennedy (plus Buckley) were very public about the importance of religion in their lives.
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