Page last updated at 13:02 GMT, Friday, 2 April 2010 14:02 UK

The gift of the political gab

Man making a speech

A POINT OF VIEW

Party leaders are locking horns on TV during the election campaign for the first time, but history shows it will not be boring, says Simon Schama.

When I heard that there were to be television debates between the party leaders during the election campaign, the historian in me couldn't resist a little fantasy. How would the great speechifiers, the past masters of British political language, have fared in such a format?

The line-up for the duels would guarantee gripping viewing. Could you get a more perfect pair than Charles James Fox, the virtuoso of radical Whig passions, up against his rival the younger William Pitt, the hard conscience of the British war against Napoleon?

It would have been carnival against Lent, the portly versus the pinched, wobbly jowls and mellifluous emotions taking it to tightly wound Tory severity. You would suppose Foxian charm would master the medium, but I doubt his elaborately tumbling melodic sentences would survive the two minute rebuttal.

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Or how about that unbeatable Victorian verbal slugging match - Gladstone versus Disraeli, the lay preacher versus the dandy? In my history class at school in the 1950s, two of us were given the assignment of impersonating the rival statesmen in exactly such a debate.

And while I did what I could with the laconic drawl and the elegantly sardonic put downs that were Disraeli's speciality, I secretly yearned to be the rhetorical volcano - the old man with the flying whiskers and piston-driven moral eloquence who was William Gladstone.

He more than anyone before the television age understood that politics could be driven by charismatic impact, and that the medium of its delivery was always open to reinvention.

In 1879 moved to indignation by Disraeli's indifference to the atrocities inflicted by Turks on Bulgarians, he came out of semi-retirement and stood for the Midlothian constituency on the outskirts of Edinburgh. What he did to re-introduce himself to the electors changed political history, just as I suspect the coming round of television debates might do too.

'Splutter and hiccup'

Sweeping aside the gentlemen's campaign - which was little more than a managed round-up of the dutiful and the paid off - Gladstone used the railway, the mass public meeting and the political banquet - all to electrifying effect. Thousands upon thousands flocked to hear him fulminate against the cynicism and arrogance of Disraelian imperial wars and trembled in time to the vibrations of his wrath.

"Remember," Gladstone boomed, dark eyes burning with anger. "That the sanctity of life in the hill villages of Afghanistan in the winter snows is as inviolable in the eyes of Almighty God as can be your own."

So will television debates be the nemesis of high political rhetoric, or will it survive - albeit in a translated form - in the unavoidable contemporary medium? Is the very phrase "television debate" itself an oxymoron, with its speakers locked into one or two minutes to make their case and another splutter and hiccup to make a rebuttal.

Certainly it won't compete with the greatest of all public political debates in the English language - the contest between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas for the Illinois Senate seat in 1858.

Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone
Disraeli and Gladstone had 'verbal slugging matches'

The protagonists saw this new departure as an extension of the "front porch" tradition, by which a politician made himself available to all and sundry who wanted to come and air grievances or passions right on their front door step. This time the people came to the politicos, not the other way around, but the vernacular mode was the same - grandly democratic, high-tone and down-home, education and entertainment.

The issue could not have been more serious: the extension of slavery into new free states. Lincoln hated the idea, Douglas cast him as a militant abolitionist and friend of racial integration - a position Lincoln (who certainly did not believe in racial equality) was forced to repudiate. Slavery on the other hand Lincoln denounced as the poison eating at the American body - social and politic.

How long did they get to make their cases? An uninterrupted hour each, with a half hour for their opponent to make a rebuttal. Try that on television producers and see where you get.

Small town crowds showed up for Lincoln-Douglas because they too had grown up with a schooling in which rhetoric and elocution was part of everyday instruction. Unlike British society which took - and takes - for granted a division of class by accent - toff and naff, posh and chav - America believed itself to be building a verbal democracy.

Romantic notion

Dictionary writers like Noah Webster were driven by a fiercely patriotic urge to cast off the chains of British-English, to make a declaration of linguistic independence. Immigrant populations were receptive to that equalising American-English, often taught from elocution books written by retired British actors like the great John Walker, or the famous Scottish clergyman Hugh Blair (no relation to Tony so far as I know ). And this American English meant that this ideal of a community of public speech became a reality.

The closest I've come to that romantic notion that eloquence makes you free and the equal of any master was the passion of my own father, who grew up in the East End in the first decades of the 20th Century. And amidst the rowdy tenements of Stepney became deeply smitten with the force of spoken and written English, whether stage Shakespeare or the oratory of Lloyd George and Churchill.

Tony Blair sweating
Debates can make politicians sweat

When it mattered most he took his own gift of the gab to the streets and used it against the oncoming hordes of Oswald Mosley's fascist blackshirts in the 1930s. "A Jew's best weapon is his mouth," he would tell me, even though his own loud mouth would not infrequently get him beaten up for the good cause.

In the 1950s he would coach me on debating tours around London and the country, standing at the back of draughty halls, directing exordium or peroration, attempting to contain excitement or dismay, but sometimes abandoning all subtlety for a low shout delivered through cupped hands: "LOUDER Simon LOUDER." So now you know he's to blame.

Does the history of 10 presidential television debates in America suggest that this kind of rhetorical ardour can survive its translation to the tube? Much depends on the format I think. In the first tournament in 1960 Richard Nixon and Jack Kennedy debated four times, were each given a mighty eight minutes for opening statements and two for answers to journalist questions.

No less than 60% of the adult population of the country - 77 million - tuned in for the first one, in which notoriously Nixon's refusal to wear make-up resulted in rivulets of sweat pouring down his stubbly chops. But as the debates went on, he learned lessons in composed style and very nearly gave as good as he got from the tough young dynamo of the Democrats. The election itself of course was a notoriously close-run thing.

Riveting

It may be that the memory of Kennedy's vigorous eloquence dissuaded both President Nixon and Lyndon Johnson (both of whom envied and hated JFK's easy way with wit), from resuming television debates in their own election campaigns. It might well have seemed there would always be more to lose than gain from entering the television lists - a free hand-up to the opposition to the stature of the incumbent.

It took the desperation of the man who succeeded Nixon after his resignation in disgrace, Gerald Ford - 30 points behind in the polls - to revive the event in 1976. And he lived to regret it, losing the race by maintaining that all appearances to the contrary Eastern Europe was not under the domination of the Soviet Union.

JFK making a speech
JFK had an 'easy wit'

What Ford meant to say, of course, was that the gallant forces of freedom were unbowed by their authoritarian entrapment. But it came out all wrong and Jimmy Carter, the smiling beneficiary of the gaffe, just stood back and saw himself taking the oath of office on the Capitol steps.

But this time's victor can be next time's victim. Four years later - with the country wallowing in the trough of economic crisis - Carter's attack on Ronald Reagan's history of questioning public funding of health care for the aged was brushed aside with an airy gambit of tone. To Carter's earnest attack, the "Great Communicator" simply responded with a cocked head, a knowing smile and the killing put-down "there you go again", somehow making the incumbent seem both pedantic and undependable. Carter's campaign never recovered.

So the one prediction I'd make about our own round of TV debates is that the winners and losers, the highs and lows, are unpredictable. What I can guarantee you is something not always said about our own politics - this will not be boring. It might even be riveting viewing. Even though, alas, when last I checked, Mr Gladstone was not standing.


Below is a selection of our comments

Thank you. You might have saved me from total cynicism with regard to politicians. Like many, I view politicians with distaste bordering on loathing. I am afraid I see most of them as self-seeking, self-serving, power-hungry, power-corrupted individuals who, all too often, see themselves as a cut above the rest of us, not subject to the same rules and morals. Your article reminds me that some politicians are in it out of a sense of duty, seeking to serve their neighbours (in the loosest sense of the word) and bring about a better world.
Richard Derrington, Manchester, England

This is what won Obama his campaign - getting back down to the arts of rhetoric and communication. Go back far enough in history and that's all you find, the Romans and the Greeks commanding the populace effectively because they had command of the spoken word. Modern politicians badly need such training if they are to command the kind of respect and control of situations they would like to. How great it would be to have another prime minister or king who had such an authority.
Steve Taylor, 22, Aberdeen, Scotland

I would me most interested in reading Mr Schama's comments after the horn locking has taken place. At the moment I do not think any of the leaders has anything to say that we haven't heard before.
DV Kulkarni, South Shields, United Kingdom

As a journalist, I am surprised you have forgotten William Hone, whose subdued three-day testimony in the 1820s gave you the freedom to speak which you now enjoy.
Angus Graham, Sharjah, UAE

A wonderful tor de force, Mr Schama. When I was a lad growing up in New York City in the 1950s/1960s we had to study and learn the complexities of the Lincoln Douglas debates. It did wonders for my knowledge of the period but, more particularly, it taught me how to think and relay an argument soundly. Regrettably, the psuedo-debates of the 20th & 21st centuries were no match for those of centuries gone by. O tempora o mores!
Ed Lord, Holmer Green, Buckinghamshire, England

I wholeheartedly echo your comments. Many thanks for your article which will be such a useful catalyst for my Public Speaking Club at St George's British International School, Rome! I firmly believe that we should do more in our schools to promote the art of rhetoric and debate.
Maria Radford, Rome, Italy



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