Everybody is speaking in public today. Talk radio, television talk shows, internet chat-rooms — everyone, it seems, is entitled to an audience. Hence the timeliness of Peggy Noonan's how-to-speak-in-public book, wherein she offers the helpful, obvious, and oft-ignored advice that speakers should have something to say.
Noonan is the speechwriter whose pen produced the soaring words that Ronald Reagan delivered at Normandy, and she worked the magic that briefly turned George Bush's wooden rhetoric into a thousand points of light.
Noonan's advice to would-be public speakers — whether addressing the school board, a shareholders meeting, or a political rally — is not what one might expect from a great wordsmith. She admonishes speakers to say big things, but not necessarily in big words. To the contrary: “Big things are best said, are almost always said, in small words.”
“The most moving thing in a speech is always the logic,” writes Noonan, “It's never the flowery words and flourishes, it's not the sentimental exhortations, it's never the faux poetry we're all subjected to these days.”
Noonan follows her own advice in this book, adopting a breezy style that reads like a conversation, not a lesson. In between specific tips on how to prepare for and deliver a speech, Noonan keeps hammering at her main point that substance, not style, is what makes for great oratory.
“Don't try to write a sound-bite when you write a speech. Don't try to come up with a good line,” advises Noonan. “Try to write well. Which means try to think well. Lose yourself in the work and the words will come.”
While Noonan's advice is solid, her assessments of the great speeches are a little eccentric. She chooses the speech of gangster Hyman Roth in the film Godfather II — “this is the business we have chosen” — as one of great speeches of the twentieth century. Doubtful, but her criteria are worth keeping in mind: “It is simple, unadorned, direct, declarative. It is simplicity that gives a speech its power. Each word means something.”
She also nominates Earl Spencer's eulogy for his sister Princess Diana as the only great speech in the 1990s. Another suspect judgment, but a good example that great oratory can be used for ignoble purposes, as Spencer's venomous attack on the Royal Family demonstrated.
‘Try to write well. Which means try to think well. Lose yourself in the work and the words will come.’
Noonan finishes with a blow-by-blow account of Mother Teresa's 1994 National Prayer Breakfast address, in which she inveighed against abortion and contraception to an audience of Washington movers and shakers, including President Clinton and Vice President Gore. Mother Teresa spoke simply and of simple truths. This last chapter is worth the price of the book.
According to Noonan's criteria, Margaret Thatcher would rank as one of the great speakers of recent times. This latest collection of her speeches exhibits the Thatcher style at its best: direct, substantive, and not rhetorically ostentatious. She knew her argument and believed passionately in it. She was not a great orator, but the strength of her convictions made her oratory great.
This collection has special appeal for Christian readers. While most of the speeches deal with national affairs and international relations, a half-dozen excellent addresses take up the role of religion in the political order. Thatcher had a deep appreciation of the importance of the religious and moral order, and did not hesitate to speak about it.
“A moral order which nourishes and sustains freedom is necessary for a successful democracy,” she said to the Polish Senate in October 1991. “No political or economic system itself makes men good — and democracy is no exception. Some virtues, like tolerance and honesty, are necessary to sustain freedom. Freedom will destroy itself if it is not exercised within some sort of moral framework, some body of shared beliefs, some spiritual heritage transmitted through the Church, the family, and the school.”
Reflecting on the Cold War, she understood it as, in part, a spiritual fight. “Communism is the ultimate materialism,” she said, “And it commits the ultimate infraction of the First Commandment because it demands worship of the state.”
Contemporary Christians in politics will find encouragement in Thatcher, but also a warning against sacralizing politics. “I think it is important to avoid confusing moral and political judgments,” she says, “There is always the temptation, not easily resisted, to identify our opponents with the devil, and to attribute base motives to all who disagree with us. These are dangerous and evil tendencies; they embitter politics, and trivialize religion and morality.”
Thatcher is never trivial. Her continuing ability to command attention confirms Noonan's premise: Great speeches must say great things.
Raymond de Souza is a seminarian in Ontario, Canada.