Lunch Break: The Lost Art of Political Oration

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If you’ve had this nagging feeling that political oration just isn’t what it used to be — that speeches today are more about branding than poetry, more about drilling a message than articulating a truth, more about speaking to the lowest common denominator than about the potential heights of humanity — you’ll likely find a friend in Sir Antony Jay.

“I find it hard to think that Obama and [UK Prime Minister David Cameron] are really going to register,” says Jay, the editor of Lend Me Your Ears, Oxford’s compilation of political quotations, “because this is such an age of quotes that are made up to be quoted rather than profound thoughts. I mean, Obama comes up with some marvelous phrases, but actually, you start to unpick them, and they’re to get elected with rather than really make you understand how politics works or what’s right or wrong with a country.”

In the video below, released today on the OUP blog, you can see Jay describe what a truly good political quotation needs to be: encapsulating, pithy, accurate — and, if you’re lucky, tied to an already-powerful historical occasion. Although he’s a first-class mumbler, you can also attempt to pick out the beautiful weaving of words he puts up as examples — like the observance that “politics feeds your vanity and starves your self-respect.”

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“Winning the future” seems an apt example of the marvelously vapid Obamaism (though he’s not the first to use it). It’s his current mantra and a phrase designed without regard for one of the world’s most basic, inescapable realities: The future isn’t won or lost; its inevitable difficulties are only exacerbated or assuaged. Rather than taking a deeper look at the world, it reduces America to the victim of a vague, inaccurate, super-sounding metaphor that’s easy to remember. Which, while it might be politically productive, remains a slight to the language we future-winners have at our disposal.

(On a less soapboxy note, please consider this an invitation to submit your favorite political quips, modern or otherwise, in the comments below.)