Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

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Why I'm no fun at speeches

by John Halverson

September 13, 2012

I'm missing out on the fun.

Not a day went by over the last two weeks when I wasn't asked: "Did you hear that speech last night?"

I usually answered no. I watched some of the Republican and Democratic conventions, but not much.

The fact is I don't believe in speeches.

It became especially sad one night when my girlfriend called excited about a speech I had also watched. "Yes, it was good," I said. "But I didn't hear any specifics."

There was silence on the other end.

She talked about friends who were really into the convention. I felt left out, like a curmudgeon who didn't know how to have fun anymore.

A few nights earlier I had sent her a fact-check column dissecting a powerful speech from the night before.

She said she was thankful, but added that I had rained on her parade.

This is not a pox on either political party nor on the articulate speakers. It's especially not a criticism of those who are moved by the speeches. Sometimes I wish I could be, too.

Yes, some speakers have moved me. How could you not be moved by Martin Luther King, crying out "I have a dream"?

Or Ronald Reagan saying, "Tear down this wall"?

Or, my favorite, attorney Robert Welch asking Joe McCarthy: "Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"

But a few years ago, I read that this seemingly spontaneous remark was actually well rehearsed. Welch knew McCarthy would set him up and he pounced when he did.

I can't hear it now without a little cynicism creeping in.

So I'm guarded. And this year I'm especially guarded.

If the speeches we heard the last two weeks became truth, we'd all be better off. But they're just words. Hollow rhetoric. On both sides.

True, rhetoric is important for a leader.

FDR rallied a nation with his fireside chats. JFK's relaxed back-and-forth with reporters ingratiated him with the press and with America. Reagan brought calm and respect back to the office with his words and demeanor. Obama excited a nation four years ago.

And who cannot be moved by the speeches in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," or the others that were part of the Frank Capra movies of the 1930s and '40s? Or the courtroom speech delivered by Gregory Peck in "To Kill a Mockingbird"? And even pacifists were stirred by George C. Scott standing in front of a flag rallying the troops in "Patton" — even though Patton never made that speech.

I've been moved to tears by some of those celluloid dramatics, but when it comes to the real thing I tend to step back.

Maybe it's the journalist in me.

For me, watching a city council meeting is like watching TV. I rarely get moved one way or another. And maybe that's rubbed off on my personal life, too.

I remember that temptation to observe more than participate back in the 1960s, when I was just learning about journalism in college.

I marched in some protests during that time. I believed in the cause, but mostly it was for the experience, for the fun, for the camaraderie (as it was for most of us, if we're being honest.)

Every time I heard a speech I became more outlier than participant.

It really struck home when I was with a group of fellow demonstrators after hearing an especially powerful anti-war speech.

We were in a corridor near the Washington Monument, when we passed a man in uniform.

Someone, obviously caught up in the moment, mocked the solider.

He, in turn, never brokwe stride, and never said a word as he walked away.

His actions said more about dignity than any speech I've ever heard.

So maybe I just got spoiled.