‘Speeches are back.’ Let Peggy Noonan be right this time!

Former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan is not my favorite writer, and she’s not even my favorite speechwriter. She’s handy with words, but her b.s. detector sometimes goes on the blink. When this happens, she writes and says ridiculous things, only the most famous of which was her remark discouraging investigation of the U.S. policy on torture, “Some things in life need to be mysterious. Sometimes you need to just keep walking.”

But in a column in The Wall Street Journal today she said something that is so agreeable to the editors of Vital Speeches that we’d like you to help us double check our b.s. detector. True or false:

Speeches are back. They have been rescued and restored as a political force by the Internet.

In the past quarter-century or so, the speech as a vehicle of sustained political argument was killed by television and radio. Rhetoric was reduced to the TV producer’s 10-second soundbite, the correspondent’s eight-second insert. The makers of speeches (even the ones capable of sustained argument) saw what was happening and promptly gave up. Why give your brain and soul to a serious, substantive statement when it will all be reduced to a snip of sound? They turned their speeches into soundbite after soundbite, applause line after applause line, and a great political tradition was traduced.

But the Internet is changing all that. It is restoring rhetoric as a force. When Gov. Mitch Daniels made his big speech—a serious, substantive one—two weeks ago, Drudge had the transcript and video up in a few hours. Gov. Chris Christie’s big speech was quickly on the net in its entirety. All the CPAC speeches were up. TED conference speeches are all over the net, as are people making speeches at town-hall meetings. I get links to full speeches every day in my inbox and you probably do too.

People in politics think it’s all Facebook and Twitter now, but it’s not. Not everything is fractured and in pieces, some things are becoming more whole. People hunger for serious, fleshed-out ideas about what is happening in our country. We all know it’s a pivotal time.

Look what happened a year ago to a Wisconsin businessman named Ron Johnson. He was thinking of running for the Senate against an incumbent, Democratic heavy-hitter Russ Feingold. He started making speeches talking about his conception of freedom. They were serious, sober, and not sound-bitey at all. A conservative radio host named Charlie Sykes got hold of a speech Mr. Johnson gave at a Lincoln Day dinner in Oshkosh. He liked it and read it aloud on his show for 20 minutes. A speech! The audience listened and loved it. A man called in and said, “Yes, yes, yes!” Another said, “I have to agree with everything that guy said.” Mr. Johnson decided to run because of that reaction, and in November he won. This week he said, “The reason I’m a U.S. senator is because Charlie Sykes did that.” But the reason Mr. Sykes did it is that Mr. Johnson made a serious speech.

A funny thing about politicians is that they’re all obsessed with “messaging” and “breaking through” and “getting people to listen.” They’re convinced that some special kind of cleverness is needed, that some magical communications formula exists and can be harnessed if only discovered. They should settle down, survey the technological field and get serious. They should give pertinent, truthful, sophisticated and sober-minded speeches. Everyone will listen. They’ll be all over the interwebs.

As you can imagine, to the editors of Vital Speeches, this is like having your late mother come back to life and inform you that she was wrong: There actually is a Santa Claus.

But can it be true, or is old Purple-Prose Peggy leading us down the primrose path again?

Readers, talk to us! —DM

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