How do you judge a speech, particularly a political speech? By what it achieves at the moment of delivery? Or should history be the true judge?
Recent events in Washington had Eliot Cohen pondering this question in an article last week in The Atlantic magazine. Cohen is dean of The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. From 2007 to 2009, he was the Counselor of the Department of State.
The article was prompted by Republic senator Mitt Romney’s decision to break ranks with his party and vote to convict President Trump of abuse of power at the climax of the impeachment trial.
Romney’s speech was widely applauded by commentators. The Washington Post said that, with his speech, Romney upended Senate Republicans’ staged exoneration of the president on the House articles of impeachment.
The president was easily acquitted because the Republicans had the numbers, notes the Post. But the day’s story – and possibly the longer-term narrative of the Trump impeachment, it suggested, may be about Romney’s stance.
Which brings me to Eliot Cohen’s article, pondering how you judge a speech like that delivered by Mitt Romney. “In the near term,” he writes, “that speech will do neither Romney nor his cause any good. The armies of trolls and sneering louts will come after him, their jeers all the louder because they emanate from a terrified emptiness within. Shambling, tongueless, and invertebrate politicians who deep down know better will resent Romney for having the courage to say what they believed, but dared not utter.
Romney had pulled no punches in his comments. He said things like:
- “Corrupting an election to keep oneself in office is perhaps the most abusive and destructive violation of one’s oath of office that I can imagine.”
- “Does anyone seriously believe I would consent to these consequences other than from an inescapable conviction that my oath before God demanded it of me?”
- “With my vote, I will tell my children and their children that I did my duty to the best of my ability, believing that my country expected it of me.”
And for phrases like those, says Eliot Cohen, the speech will last. “When future anthologies of great American political speeches are published by the Library of America, Romney’s remarks will be there. The language was American rhetoric at its best: not flowery and orotund, but clear and solid and stark.”
And he goes on: “Political speeches derive their power and durability from authenticity, from the way in which phrases and sentences seem to emanate directly from a personality and its vision. That is why Lincoln’s speeches will never lose their force: they captured the dignity, simplicity, and courage of the man who made them. Romney is no Lincoln, but he wrote the speech, and the voice is his.”
What can you bring to your speeches and presentations to make them truly memorable? It’s worth thinking about.
Neil Everton has distilled a lifetime’s experience with some of the world’s top news organizations into his Media Mastery training aids for anyone worried about talking to reporters. The video, books, e-books and workbooks are available in the Podium Coaching online store.