THE commonly accepted wisdom is that good public language is finished and the speech is dead.
Sometimes it can be hard not to sympathise with that view. I was nearly convinced of it a few years ago when I heard a speech by president George W. Bush, who told a New Hampshire audience: “I know how hard it is to put food on your families.’’
That kind of thing makes you pessimistic. And yet speeches endure — because there is no better way to make your arguments, or tell your story, than with a speech.
In fact, this is a good time for speeches. In the past decade, they have enjoyed a revival.
It started with Barack Obama, the best orator in a generation. Obama owes his presidency to a single speech, his famous address to the National Democratic Convention in Boston in 2004, with its inspired riff: “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America: there is the United States of America.
“There is not a black America and a white America, a Latino America, an Asian America: there is the United States of America.’’
Obama’s cadences connected his audiences to earlier speakers such as John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. With that one speech, the obscure state senator from Illinois vaulted on to the national political stage.
I was lucky enough to be in Boston for that speech. I was also in the room the following day when Obama gave another, very different, speech.
The event was a cocktail party, at which leading Democratic politicians addressed a small group of party donors.
All the established politicos gave safe, middle-of-the-road, road-tested speeches. But Obama took a braver and funnier tack.
“Sometimes we in the Democratic Party get criticised by our supporters for hanging out with rich folks like you,’’ he began, looking out into the well-heeled audience. “But whenever that happens, I just remind them what the scriptures tell us: ‘God loves a cheerful giver.’ ’’
The 2008 US presidential race was a test case, under near-laboratory conditions, of the power of speechmaking. Much of Obama’s campaign rested on the quality of his speeches. His stump speech, “Yes, we can’’, was set to music, uploaded to YouTube, and viewed by tens of millions of people.
When Obama was forced to halt his campaign to deal with the most treacherous issue in politics — race — he did not hold a press conference or schedule a 60 Minutesinterview. He booked a venue in Philadelphia and made a long, candid and compelling speech.
Both of Obama’s main opponents, Hillary Clinton and John McCain, made light of his speechifying, and promised solutions rather than speeches.
Yet, in the end, the pro-speech candidate won the election. It turns out there is a speech lobby after all — and it has muscle.
A few months later, on a frigid January morning, a black man was inaugurated as President on the gleaming white steps of the US Capitol, a building raised by slaves. Who says that speeches can’t change the world?
Many people around the world were affected by Obama’s speeches. In Australia, political junkies of all persuasions emailed the speeches to each other wistfully.
No longer, it seemed, were speeches the poor cousins of attack ads and doorstops. No longer was speechwriting a back-of-house function, like scheduling and focus groups.
An older, finer style of politics had returned.
It is not too much of a stretch, I think, to suggest that Obama’s example made Australian public figures try harder to give better speeches. It certainly made Australian audiences demand better speeches.
What makes a good speech? Rhythm, colour, style and delivery: like iron lacework on a Paddington terrace, these things attract an observer’s attention and please the senses. Structure and logic to hold the edifice together: a speech is not a string of $10 words, but an argument.
And, above all, ideas. Every great speech has a big idea at its heart. If you don’t have original ideas, you can’t give an interesting speech.
There have been some very attractive Australian speeches in recent times. In fact, it is possible that Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard will each be best remembered for a speech that riveted the country: in Rudd’s case, the apology to the Stolen Generations; in Gillard’s case, the misogyny speech.
Tony Abbott, too, is his own best speechwriter, as we saw in his generous speech on closing the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.
All three of these speeches are included in the new revised edition of Men and Women of Australia! There are also wonderful new contributions from other prominent Australians, including Les Carlyon on Fromelles; Geoffrey Rush on acting the goat; Bill Kelty on unions; diplomat Nick Warner speaking on the tarmac of Honiara airport about the Australian-led mission to Solomon Islands; and Owen Harries on Iraq, the US and Australia.
The book also contains speeches given in Australia by notable visitors — including Obama and two of the great figures of the 20th century, Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi.
In the past decade, Australian speeches have roared back. Contrary to expectations, this resurgence has been enabled, rather than restricted, by digital advances and social media.
Great speeches are no longer locked away in the archives. They are accessible to all. They are watched online and shared on Facebook. Sometimes they go viral. The combination of new technologies, such as Twitter, and old technologies, such as intelligence and wit, is a deadly one.
Speeches remain the principal currency of public life — in fact, if anything, they are appreciating in value. The men and women of Australia are ready to be inspired.
This is an edited extract from Michael Fullilove’s Men and Women of Australia! Our Greatest Modern Speeches (Penguin, $32.99).
Q&A with Michael Fullilove
The Australian’s Troy Bramston, a former speechwriter to Kevin Rudd and editor of For the True Believers: Great Labor Speeches that Shaped History (The Federation Press) interviews The Lowy Institute’s executive director, Michael Fullilove, about Men and Women of Australia!
Troy Bramston: Is the long-form oration a relic from a bygone era now that much of our public debate is dominated by Twitter chatter, television grabs and the ubiquitous politico doorstop?
Michael Fullilove: While the general level of chatter and background noise has increased, the single note of a good speech, well delivered, can penetrate it. In fact, digital advances and social media have enabled a resurgence of speeches. Great speeches are now accessible to all. They can be viewed and shared. Sometimes they go viral. As far as politicians go, I agree with Graham Freudenberg’s comment in his Foreword that the parliamentary speech is still “the time-honoured test of a politician’s quality.”
What is the point of a speech? Why should be remember them? What makes them worthy of our attention?
A speech is an argument. The best speeches change people’s minds. They change people’s lives.
What were you looking for in the past decade? What are the hallmarks of a great Australian speech?
Wit. Intelligence. Spirit. Above all – ideas. If you don’t have original ideas, you can’t give an interesting speech.
Of the new speeches in Men and Women of Australia!, are there two or three that really stand out for you?
Tim Winton’s speech about our oceans, which he delivered in Parliament House in 2012, is hugely evocative. Few Australians could read that speech and not be taken back to their childhoods. I was very moved when I first watched video of Sabina Wolanski’s address at the opening of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Berlin. Malcolm Turnbull’s tribute to Bob Hughes – an Australian giant whom I knew and liked very much – was a splendid example of the “speech at the graveside”. Perhaps my favourite Australian speech of all, though, was Frank Bethune’s Special Orders in 1918 with their eternal line: “This position will be held.”
What motivated you to include Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech? This was a controversial speech. Not everyone will agree that was a great speech.
It’s a cracker of a speech. It demonstrated Gillard’s mastery of the Parliament. It grated with a lot of people, but I dare say it impressed more people.
Is Paul Keating our greatest ever speaker? He has more speeches in the book than any other person. Why?
The holy trinity of great Australian speakers comprises Robert Menzies, Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating. Menzies was an advocate by profession and temperament. I loved that exchange at a public meeting where an interjector said: ‘I wouldn’t vote for you if you were the archangel Gabriel.’ And Menzies replied: ‘If I were the archangel Gabriel, madam, you wouldn’t be in my constituency.’ Whitlam remade Labor – and Australia – through the writing and delivery of speeches. Words were Keating’s deadliest political weapon – the old Australian colloquialism, the telling portrait, the killer turn of phrase. To my mind, the Keating back catalogue is unparalleled both in quality and breadth. His greats range from beautiful set-piecers such as the Eulogy to the Unknown Australian Soldier – perhaps the most beautiful speech in Australian history – to rip-roaring parliamentary tirades and roasts such as the firecracker speech.
Why have you included so many speeches by foreigners? You include speeches by Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Douglas MacArthur, Nelson Mandela and many others.
I wanted to include a few speeches which, though not delivered by Australians, were given here and have something to say about our country. Obama’s speech to the Parliament on the pivot is crucial to Australian foreign policy, for instance. Aung San Suu Kyi was a pleasure to listen to when she spoke at the Lowy Institute. I also dug out and transcribed a magnificent speech Nelson Mandela gave in 1990 at the Sydney Opera House, in his first year of freedom, to thank the Australian government and the trade unions for their solidarity. I was a first-year uni student in the crowd that day.
Who do you think is the best speaker in Australia today? Is there one person, in particular, to watch out for?
There is no more compelling Australian speaker than Noel Pearson. He is a skilful writer, which helps. But when he speaks from a lectern, he invests a text with real meaning and gravitas.
How do you rate Tony Abbott as a speaker?
Tony Abbott is his own best speechwriter, a snappy and intelligent communicator. He is not a parliamentarian for the ages, but his speech on closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians was generous and honest – two qualities that go a long way.