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Where Have All the Great Communicators Gone?

Posted: 06/05/2013 3:59 pm

Did you ever notice that whenever people provide examples of great communicators, they inevitably reach back half a century or more to the usual suspects: FDR, Churchill, JFK, RFK, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Hasn't anybody said anything worth remembering in the last 50 years?

With the exception of Ronald Reagan, we haven't had a quotable president since Casey Stengel managed the Yankees. Come to think of it, we haven't had a quotable Yankee manager since then, either.

Yes, Barack Obama is a captivating speaker. But is there a speech or even an expression you can think of that's uniquely his?

Churchill: "We will fight them on the beaches..."

FDR: "The only thing to fear..."

JFK: "Ask not..."

Dr. King: "I have a dream..."

Reagan: "There you go again..."

Am I the only one bothered by the apparent death of fine oratory in the world today?

It's not that people are talking less. It's that they aren't saying anything worth remembering.

Once, when a leader spoke, everyone listened. Today, thanks to the explosion of both social media and traditional media, everybody's spouting off, but in our ADHD-addled world, is anyone paying attention?

The best speakers of the last 50 years all did their best work in the 1980s. If you can find video of Mario Cuomo ("A Tale Of Two Cities") and Jesse Jackson ("You don't know the me that makes me me") speaking at the 1984 Democratic Convention, you'll be spellbound.

Maggie Thatcher moved England with Churchillian aphorisms like "Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren't."

And of course, the Great Communicator himself, Ronald Reagan: "I want to meet with a Soviet leader, but they keep dying on me."

And then... 30 years of crickets.

Why?

To paraphrase Stengel, can't anybody here talk a good game?

Bill Clinton's presidency may offer the reason why. Clinton's a fabulous, if extremely prolix and self-centered, communicator. A former girlfriend of mine met him during the 1992 campaign at a pickup basketball event (he was picking up basketballs, not my former girlfriend) and said, more accurately than we knew at the time, "He looks like a guy who gets a lot of great sex." So he had that going for him.

Until Clinton, presidents had all been, well, Dads. You could see Eisenhower or Johnson telling you no TV until you did your chores. Nixon and George H.W. Bush? Sourpuss dads who would never give you the keys to the family Buick. But at least they could read a Teleprompter.

Then came Clinton, whom one commentator called our first "brother figure" president. He was the sibling who always caused the family grief-getting fired, borrowing money from Mom, and getting girlfriend after girlfriend pregnant, until he finally straightens out and, against all odds, gets elected president of the United States, smirking at us even at his inauguration. The one thing you don't expect from brothers is oratory. Noogies, maybe. But not great speechmaking.

So the world changed from one willing to be enthralled by great speakers to one where empty platitudes with the caloric worthiness of potato chips and soda rule. It's almost as though our leaders are afraid of looking too detached, too adult, even too presidential. They'd rather be remembered for style, not substance; for their cool demeanor, not their warm zeal. And as a result, people have tuned politicians out.

Terry Pearce, author of Leading Out Loud, talks about the difference between motivation and inspiration. Motivation, Pearce says, is about getting people to do things. Inspiration is about getting people to believe in things. Maybe our leaders have become so cynical that they believe in nothing greater than their own personal aspirations. They can motivate, but they can't inspire. Maybe because they lack true inspiration themselves.

Whatever the reason, it's a poorer world that lacks in eloquence. I've never heard anyone speak of receiving a life-changing tweet or a transformation-triggering text. Not gonna happen. The real problem today is that even though our leaders have pretty much nothing to say, they won't shut up.

 

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