Ahead of Hillary Clinton’s address to the Democratic convention in Philadelphia, certain aggrieved supporters of Bernie Sanders were reportedly planning to consume beans so that they might convey their displeasure with the party’s nominee via flatulence.
And between that “fart-in” and this week’s questions about Donald Trump’s ties to Russia, it is perhaps easy to forget that American politics is still capable of grandeur and grace.
But on Tuesday night, there was Michelle Obama, on a massive stage in prime time, reflecting on the fact that she wakes up and raises children in a house built by slaves. And on Wednesday night, there was her husband, the president, offering an extended meditation on the nature of the United States, speaking at length in carefully considered and epic prose even as he also delivered some of the most crushing indictments yet offered during this election cycle.
In such moments, it is tempting to envy American democracy. Whatever else, it is still loud and ambitious in its public expression.
‘A feast of political oratory’
On Thursday night, Hillary Clinton made her case over the course of 56 minutes, speaking to an audience that included viewers of every major television network. However poetic or merely sturdy, it was a significant performance. Just as her rival Donald Trump’s remarks a week earlier, however dark or inelegant, were still important to see and hear.
These last two weeks of televised conventions in the United States have been about the act of oratory.
“Back-to-back political conventions are delivering a mid-summer feast of political oratory, illustrating that prime-time speeches still hold relevance in an era of cable TV sound bites and 140-character attacks,” Matt Viser wrote on Thursday in the Boston Globe. “Speaking skill, stage presence, storytelling and idealism are not yet obsolete.”
The Americans do this every four years; their political leaders standing atop mountains of staging, rapturous partisans below, the television networks interrupting normal programming to broadcast the most important speeches to the nation.
But it is not only that Americans stage these quadrennial political festivals. It is also that the speech in American politics is so seriously regarded. American rhetoric is steeped in hallowed history, its best practitioners celebrated and lionized.
Canadian politics is not bereft of profound remarks or eloquent orators. Our history includes celebrated speeches: from the remarks of Wilfrid Laurier to Pierre Trudeau’s address to Quebecers on the eve of the 1980 referendum, to the installation speech of Michaëlle Jean in 2005.
New Democrats gathered in Edmonton this April were witness to a dramatic address on power and principle from Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, another example of the wizardry of Stephen Lewis and the remarkable moment of Tom Mulcair appealing for his leadership. And Brian Mulroney has lately been using set-piece speeches to weigh in on national affairs.
But there is comparatively little regard for the act of significant speech-making.
Differences of occasion, circumstance and style
Some of this might be a matter of occasion and stature. The American president is, as John Duffy, former speechwriter to Liberal premiers and prime ministers, notes, the head of state and commander in chief. And the president has his inaugural remarks upon taking office, and thereafter the annual state-of-the-union address.
The Canadian prime minister, a mere member of the legislature, sits in a wooden chair to listen to the Governor General read the speech from the throne, and is thereafter most closely watched as he exchanges 30-second retorts with the leader of the opposition in question period.
Some of this might be a matter of consequence. The American president is the leader of the free world, tasked with representing the world’s most powerful nation. The Canadian prime minister is not quite so burdened. “The U.S. does things like run the Cold War, save capitalism, or reconcile after a civil war,” says John Duffy, referencing the speeches of John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. “The thematic material under consideration in Canada is a little more workaday.”
Some of this might be a matter of national taste. “Americans reward rhetorical ambition. Canadians see it as pretentious,” says Adam Goldenberg, who was a speechwriter for former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff. “We punish politicians who get too big for their britches. They demand bigger britches.”
And if recent Canadian history is lacking in memorable addresses, it is not entirely by accident: Stephen Harper is said to have made special effort at deadening his own remarks.
The power of words?
Justin Trudeau, conversely, displays a certain desire to be ambitious on the public stage — his speech in March last year, on Canadian liberty and the niqab, for instance, aspired to be far more than a stump speech.
“For the next four years, the most powerful man on the planet will be so not because he can affect our lives and world, but because his words can touch our souls,” Trudeau wrote in 2009, reflecting on the inauguration of Barack Obama. “And we’ve never needed it more.”
There is much to be said for humility, for not putting our leaders on grand stages, nor allowing them to dazzle us with rhetoric. Words can deceive and delude. Words alone cannot enact change. As Matthew Yglesias wrote in advance of Clinton’s address, being able to deliver a rousing speech might be both overrated and a poor proxy for actual leadership.
But it is tempting to think that words might not only stir the soul or entertain, but shape and inspire a nation’s understanding of itself, deepen and focus the national conversation.
And we are not without subjects that could be addressed ambitiously, prominently and at length.
A speech, like politics, is a performance. But within it might be real things.
Politics should be a public experience, and for the last two weeks in the United States, it has at least been done prominently.
There is something admirable about that. Whatever the faint whiff of dissatisfaction or loud hints of dysfunction.
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