History Is this what history was like? For the past few weeks on my Sunday walk to the paper shop I've been working my way through I Can Hear It Now: The Sixties, a collection of great speaches and events from that decade: Kennedy, Nixon, King, Armstrong, X. It's illuminating to hear the entire speeches and not the famous edited highlights, everything that came after "To Be Or Not To Be". The narration is intoned by American news anchorman of the time Walter Cronkite, who's voice has feel of import and clarity miles ahead of some British commentators. Now and then I get a twinge as it occurs to me that time and again in the past few years there are parallels with that time, now.

I can imagine in forty years someone not disimilar to me will be listening to Jeremy Paxman narrating the story of this decade. The only difference will be the words. Everything Kennedy says here seems epoch making; in comparison, Blair's words sound like hackwork. Everyone remembers the images of September 11th, but do they remember one work of anything the leaders said afterward; the feel is there, but not the words. Similarly, looking at Bush's comments on the recent deaths of Hussain's sons, the message is muddied. The focus and through thread should be the sons. But while celebrating their deaths he uses the time to re-iterate the common themes which he has repeated over and over since the war started, the massive rewriting of the reasons the war began. There should be humility in the face of death, no matter whose death. His pleasure for some reason feels very wrong. If he's expecting to be remembered for doing the right thing here he's going to be very much mistaken. And there isn't one memorable phrase in there, although he does use the words free or freedom eleven times. Yes, we get it.

The most remembered speeches capture the moment, regardless of what that is. When the prime minister addressed the nation at the advent of war, it should have had the ability to unite the country. Churchill managed it, so why not now? He pays lip service to the divisions (anti-war protestors), and references the reasons the UK went to war in the past, but at no point does he seem to care about the doubters. The most chilling section is "Their mission: to remove Saddam Hussein from power and disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction.", which references a television programme. And like a message from Mission Impossible, it self distructs in the brain in five seconds, the listener / reader / viewer's opinions unchanged.

It's shattering to see a figure like Alastair Campbell appearing on Channel 4 News defending himself against charges by the BBC of 'sexing up a document' (non-denial-denials and all), then expecting him to be putting good words into our PMs mouth. If Number 10 hadn't reacted to the story it would have been forgotten, but the fell into the trap, realised they were caught then tried to riddle themselves out leaving one man dead and many egos injured.

Why should all this be the case? What's happened in the past decade or so that would lead to a lack of memorable speech writing in political circles and elsewhere? Is it because like Cronkite, the personalities of the past had an extra level of gravitas? Is it possible that if Kennedy had given either of the above speeches we would remember them by proxy because it was him? For some reason the country seems to lack substance at the moment, with the tone being set my the media rather than the government. Which leads to the strong conclusion that we can communicate the message staggeringly well of late, but no one seems to have worked out how to say anything.

No comments:

Post a Comment