The Lost Power of Eloquence

February 14, 2016

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

This eloquence almost takes your breath away. These words were spoken by Abraham Lincoln at his first Inaugural Address. When I read them I can’t help but think of the terrible rancor and division that shakes our political landscape in America today. When I read them I can’t help but think of the coarse, vulgar and meaningless language of our presidential candidate debates in both parties, both in tone and in words. Surely our times are seeing a reenactment of the noise pollution of babbling, indecipherable rants beneath the Tower of Babel.

Think hard. Quote me one soul punching phrase from the lips of an American president over the past 50 years that is remotely comparable to these powerful words of Lincoln. Let’s be kind to our memory bank. Give me one memorable phrase from the presidential inaugural addresses of the past 20 years. I search in vain from Bush to Clinton to Bush to Obama…for one phrase that comes close.

Where did this art of writing and speaking with the right husbandry and power of words come from?

With Lincoln we know. He didn’t go to Yale or Harvard or even high school. He was totally self-educated.

First he grew up in the selected silence of nature. Toiling on the backwoods farm of his father and deep into the woods of sparsely populated Kentucky and Illinois, his ears heard only the symphony of the wind in the trees, the chorus of birds, the racket of wild life, rushing water, all to the beat of his own persistent heart. There, with sweat on his brow and young muscles stretching, his mind formulated his own thoughts with clarity, uncluttered by the clash of manmade sounds. Politicians today fear solitude worse than the Devil fears holy water.

Secondly, his personal library was sparse, but golden. Even the poorest of the poor in early day America had a King James Version of the Bible. He read it ardently and repeatedly. There is no better book in literature which matches the graceful language and imagery as the work of the King James Commission. Lincoln’s impoverished circumstances limited his other reading to the classics, including lots and lots of Shakespeare. That’s right, to Lincoln, “Trolius and Cressida” and Plato’s “Republic” were light reading.

And lastly, as to his political writings—Abe Lincoln was thankfully unhitched from Madison Avenue advertising agencies, Washington D.C. political consultants, and speech writers. What you saw and heard from Abe…was Abe. Most likely he wrote every line himself. His rough notes of the Gettysburg address, which have been preserved, offer proof of that. Today our serious candidates for president are merely cardboard props who show us little of their hearts and souls. Everything they say has to be sanitized and filtered through the gambit of a bevy of consultants and pollsters. “This won’t sell in Des Moines,” they admonish. They might be surprised.

Words move us. Inspire us. We have not lost that love and even hunger for the uplifting use of the English language.

My most memorable image of the court room where I once tried jury trials on a regular basis is how people were still entranced when verbs and adjectives and allegories are all strung together just right. I’ve heard oral arguments—long ago—that would suck the air out the room.

A powerful phrase stated just right would strike straight through to the souls of the listeners. The gathering caught its collective breath. Heart stopping silence. Though the huge chamber was packed with people, you could hear the call of a crow, half a mile away.

Through the racket and noise of the electronic media—TV, twitter, e-mail, 24 hour talking heads, call in shows, around the clock talking—we lack the words that matter. Those which move us. Which make us better.

John Kennedy once said of Winston Churchill, “He mobilized the English language and sent it to war.”

Kenneth McFarland, renowned public speaker in the 70’s and 80’s recounted a story of an English friend who as a small boy lived in a remote village during the beginning of the German attack upon Great Britain. Out there in a remote thatched hovel, his parents and his siblings leaned close to the old radio as Winston Churchill spoke to the perils facing that beleaguered island from the Nazi threat. The great English Prime Minister reached out with his eloquence over the crackling radio waves to all points of England. “We will fight them on the landing strips, we will fight them in the streets, we will fight them in the hills…we shall never surrender.”

His friend said that after these words were spoken, he looked around his humble abode. Every member of his family was standing. He did not notice when they each stood. The eloquence and inspirational words of Winston Churchill had physically raised them from their chairs.

Whoever rediscovers that magic, will surely be the next President of the United States.