The secrets of a good stump speech

Posted Sept. 05, 2008, at 8:05 p.m.

When the governor of Hawaii delivered her agonizingly slow-paced speech in support of Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin at the Republican national convention Wednesday evening, the delegates in the St. Paul convention hall literally cheered her every sentence.

“I once attended a conference with Gov. Palin,” the speaker declared, leading into an anecdote about the Alaska governor, and the mob whooped lustily, if somewhat prematurely.

As it turned out, in their rambunctiousness the delegates were merely getting warmed up for what was to come. Before the evening was out, Palin had delivered a stemwinder of an acceptance speech energizing the convention and many of the 40 million people across the land watching at home, Republicans were back in the ballgame, and delegates really had something to shout about. Despite the doubters and second-guessers, the lady apparently could cut the mustard after all.

While watching saturation television coverage of both political conventions these past two weeks I have been reminded of the late H.L. Mencken’s cynical take on how a speech that might seem rather average on paper can become a thing of brilliance when delivered by a gifted speaker.

A column the late Baltimore Sun columnist wrote on March 7, 1921 assessing the inaugural address of President Warren G. Harding is included in “The Impossible Mencken,” a collection of his essays published by Doubleday in 1991.

“When Dr. Harding prepares a speech he does not think it out in terms of an educated reader locked up in jail, but in terms of a great horde of stoneheads gathered around a stand,” Mencken wrote. And that was one of the old curmudgeon’s nicer observations about his fellow Americans.

Mencken found audiences often enchanted by “the roll of incomprehensible polysyllables” delivered by politicians. “If a sentence begins furiously and then peters out into fatuity, they are still satisfied. If a phrase has punch in it, they do not ask that it also have a meaning. If a word slides off the tongue like a ship going down the ways, they are content and applaud it and wait for the next,” he wrote.

The average stump speech, put into cold type, “maketh the judicious to grieve,” old H.L. suggested. “But roared from an actual stump, with arms flying and eyes flashing and the old flag overhead, it is certainly and brilliantly effective. Read [Harding’s] inaugural address and it will gag you. But hear it recited through a sound-magnifier, with grand gestures to ram home its periods, and you will begin to understand it.”

In dissecting the Harding speech, Mencken parsed a paragraph of pure gobbledygook. Anyone reading it would conclude, accurately, that it is an idiotic series of words without sense. But imagine it intoned as it was designed to be intoned — imagine the slow tempo of a public speech, the unrolling of the clauses, “each with its attendant glare and roll of the eyes, each with its sublime heave, each with its gesture of a blacksmith bringing down his sledge upon an egg” — and you’ve got something else altogether. Granted, what you may have is a suspicion that the speaker has delivered you to “a point where you don’t know what it is all about” — a point where you “hear and applaud the phrases, but their connection has already escaped you.” But, still…

Not all political speeches leave audiences in a state of confusion, though, and Palin’s certainly made clear her opinion of Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama and his promised sweeping changes in government.

“In politics, there are some candidates who use change to promote their careers, and then there are those, like John McCain, who use their careers to promote change,” Palin said, and the fired-up Grand Old Party delegates went nuts.

It was one of several pretty good zingers the governor directed at Obama and the national news media. Unlike Harding’s prose, Palin’s — when put into cold type in the morning newspapers — surely did not “maketh the judicious to grieve” for the clarity of the language.

Whether it will maketh the Democrats to grieve for other reasons should the hockey mom’s performance be consistently repeated down the home stretch of this campaign, time will telleth.

Game on.


BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone.

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