Lend Me Your Ears: A book review by Bob Morris

Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History
William Safire
W.W. Norton (1997)

If there is a better anthology of great speeches, I am not aware of it.

The text from which its title is derived is Mark Antony’s speech in Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar, and is included among the hundreds in this volume. Credit Safire with a brilliant job of selecting and then introducing each. He should also be commended on his “An Introductory Address” which offers an exceptionally informative as well as entertaining explanation of eleven “secrets steps” when composing and then presenting a great speech. (i.e. “the meat and potatoes of oratory,” “the tricks of the speech trade”). They include the usual suspects such as structure (“shapeliness”), pulse, occasion, “forum” (or venue), focus, etc. Safire adds a few others which, in retrospect, seem obvious but really aren’t. For example, the importance of the first step: “Shake hands with your audience…Make the first step a quickstep; get your smile, then get to work.” Another: “Cross `em up now and then.” Safire suggests that great speeches are meant to be read, not spoken. “What every audience needs is a sense of completion.” Therefore, what the speaker needs “is a way out on a high note. That’s the necessary ingredient to shapeliness. That calls for peroration [which is] a devastating defense against the dread disease of dribbling off.”

It is worth noting that some great speeches had no significant impact when first delivered (e.g. Lincoln’s 266-word “Gettysburg Address”) and some are delivered only during a dramatic performance (e.g. Antony’s funeral oration); however, all great speeches continue to be read and admired long after being written.

I question the “greatness” of some of Safire’s selections for this volume, such as the draft he wrote for President Nixon in case the Apollo XI mission ended in tragedy. Fortunately, the speech (actually a brief statement to be read to a television camera) was never delivered and remained unread at the National Archives until 2001 when it re-appeared as part of a major exhibition. Safire himself does not claim that it is a great speech but selected it because “it shows how the context of a dreaded dramatic occasion can make memorable words written to be spoken aloud.” In this instance, the “occasion” rather than the content would have made Nixon’s remarks memorable. Read it (pages 1144-1145) and decide for yourself.

Of special interest to me are the following:

“General Patton Motivates the 3rd Army on the Eve of the Invasion of Europe” (pages 551-555)”: Actually, this is a “collated address” which provides the essence of dozens of extemporaneous statements by Patton. Those who have seen the opening scene of film are already familiar with Patton’s direct approach: “Now I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. You won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.” According to Safire, that statement is actually not in any of the contemporaneous accounts he knows about but “surely sounds like Patton.”

“Evangelist Sojourner Truth Speaks for Women’s Rights” (pages 684-685): As with Patton’s public remarks, there are several different versions and variations of the illiterate former slave’s as she traveled throughout the United States preaching “a message that combined religious and abolitionist ideas.” To his credit, Safire allows that message to be presented in standard English as presumably she spoke it, without “editorial prettification” (his words) nor “as if I was saying tickety-ump-ump-nicky-nacky” (her words).

“Broadcaster Edward R. Murrow Despairs of the Future of TV Journalism” (pages 771-778): This is what was then (1958) a highly controversial challenge to those who controlled the major networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) to ensure that television programming achieves more, becomes more than “merely wires and lights in a box.” Murrow knew that his remarks would “enrage” his and other news journalists’ employers. In fact, that was his intention when speaking to the Radio and Television News Directors Association. Safire correctly notes that Murrow’s opening line (“This just might do nobody any good”) was doubly prophetic: his “heretical and even dangerous thoughts” weakened his authority and influence at CBS while revealing during his speech what someone else in the audience described as “the accents of [Murrow’s] despair” concerning the commercialization of broadcast news.

Safire invites his readers to lend their “ears” to Patton, Truth, and Murrow as well as to dozens of others whose speeches can stir our blood (Daniel Webster re Bunker Hill), sound the clarion of war (Elizabeth I in defiance of the Spanish Armada), honor the memory of illustrious dead (Frederick Douglass on Abraham Lincoln), recall the clash of hot debate (Cicero lashing into Catiline), and nourish our soul (e.g. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount). Safire also includes what he calls “the mother’s milk of this anthologist,” the political speech. A remarkable variety can be found in Chapter XII (pages 853-1,072) and range from Demosthenes’ attack of his accuser to Tony Blair’s exhortation to fight terrorism. Safire also includes three “undelivered speeches” in the final chapter, including his draft for Nixon. The other two are President John F. Kennedy’s prepared remarks for a luncheon in Dallas on November 22, 1963, and the draft of a speech of contrition that President Clinton rejected, preferring to “move on” instead.

To repeat, if there is a better anthology of great speeches, I am not aware of it.

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