If Abraham Lincoln were brought back to life, one thing that would throw him, other than electric power and the Internet, would be that audiences disrupted his speeches by clapping after every three or four lines. As ordinary as this seems now, this kind of applause is actually a custom of our times: Wesleyan political scientist Elvin Lim has documented that, in records of presidential addresses since Franklin D. Roosevelt, 97 percent of the applause lines appear in speeches by Richard Nixon and his successors. To speakers in Lincoln's day, a public address was typically a lecture. In our time, it is more often a love-in, more about the speaker "connecting" with the audience than teaching it anything new; hence the constant interruptions for clapping.
This campaign season has lent us more than one occasion to consider the difference between style and substance in speeches, with first Hillary Clinton and recently John McCain reminding voters that Barack Obama's rousing oratorical style cannot be equated with leadership ability. The point in itself is valid, and will be worth considering as we watch not only Obama but the other speakers at the Democratic and Republican conventions. Typical of such events in our times, the speeches will be heavier on sentiment than information, feel rather than content.
Given the standard assumption that our political culture would be better off if everyone would just "stick to the issues," the heavy performative streak in modern political speechmaking could be seen as counterintuitive. Wouldn't we expect the average person, when behind the podium, to simply talk? Why do so many find it natural to slide into a dramatic speaking style alien to their everyday selves when speaking to audiences--and why do they say so little when they do?
Oratorical drama is a cultural universal. Even in indigenous tribes, the kind of language used when speaking before large groups is different from casual speech. Among the Cuna of Panama, when a chief gives an address, he deliberately uses archaic grammar full of sounds and suffixes long obsolete in everyday speech. "God left behind wild boar strongholds" is Pap yannu kalukan urpis if you are saying it to a friend, but in a speech comes out festooned with antique bric-a-brac: Pap-a yannu kalukan-a urpis-aye--rather like Americans giving speeches in the English of Chaucer.
One purpose of this kind of artifice is holding the audience's attention. Human speech is fundamentally a social activity that occurs in the form of conversation. Sitting in silence listening to others talk at length is a secondary and learned activity--think of the noisy Elizabethan audiences at the Globe Theatre. The Cuna even assign a custodial figure to say "Don't sleep!" (Kapita marye!) at regular intervals during public addresses. In addition to using such blunt instruments, orators worldwide hold the floor through the novelty of vocabulary and grammar that is conspicuously formal.
Yet keeping an audience's attention does not inherently require leaving substance at the door as our modern speechmakers so often do. Travelling the country presenting his proposal for the League of Nations, Woodrow Wilson gave a long-lined and detailed argument of a kind that seemed ordinary in 1919 but would seem as exotic today as someone shouting "Wake up!" every ten minutes at the Democratic Convention.
"I have perceived more and more that men have been busy creating an absolutely false impression of what the treaty of peace and the Covenant of the League of Nations contain and mean," Wilson said. He then provided a point-by-point refutation of his critics--for example, "You have heard a great deal-something that was true and a great deal that was false--about that provision of the treaty which hands over to Japan the rights which Germany enjoyed in the province of Shantung in China."
Today, it is hard to believe that these words were spoken rather than reposing between the covers of a book, because our tolerance for both substance and formality has eroded.
In his taxonomy of oratorical styles, Aristotle distinguished between logos, founded in argumentation, and pathos, founded in emotion. Wilson knew his logos; today's speeches mine the pathos vein. Sentences are on the short side, warmth or irony of intonation is as central to the message as phraseology, and the resonance of the single word or phrase is valued over the sentence or paragraph. In short, American oratory has become increasingly like casual speech over the past several decades; what was once a gulf between oratorical and casual speaking styles is today more of a crack.
The motivational value of these kinds of speeches is clear. At the 1992 Democratic Convention, Barbara Jordan exclaimed, "I remind you that [in] 1976, we won the Presidency. Why not repeat that performance in 1992? We can do it! We can do it! We can do it!" It doesn't look like much on paper, but it was irresistible in performance. It bears mentioning that Wilson's stodgier pitch in 1919 ended in failure.
Part of the difference between our era and earlier times is technology. Speakers in the early twentieth century and before had to get their message across in large spaces without microphones. (Microphones were just coming into use at the end of Wilson's career while he was touring; he used an early one in San Diego.) They were experienced by most from a distance, forced to speak precisely and use broad gestures. Today's speakers can use their natural voices, and, as often as not, their faces are shown on large screens as they speak. The old-style grandiloquence would seem affected and insincere.
A recording survives from the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor of congressmen arguing for a declaration of war. Born in the nineteenth century and raised in a pre-amplification culture, these men sound to us as if they are play-acting. Charles Eaton of New Jersey declaimed with a straight face: "Yesterday, against the roar of Japanese cannon in Hawaii, our American people heard a trumpet call; a call to unity; a call to courage; a call to determination once and for all to wipe off of the earth this accursed monster of tyranny and slavery, which is casting its black shadow over the hearts and homes of every land!"
It's no accident that, today, the only congressman who sounds anything like this is nonagenarian Robert Byrd. One succeeds now with a more casual speaking persona, and casual speech, as linguists have documented, is rendered not in long, tidy sentences but in packets of about seven words at a time. Hence "Yes, we can!" in place of disquisitions about Germany's doings in Shantung province.
Interestingly, modern speakers have discovered they can play down to their audiences without seeming to. The intonations of casual speech are a kind of music; and, when wielded effectively, they can satisfy in the same way as a good song. Steven Mithen at Reading University has even proposed that language began as strings of musical syllables, gradually reinterpreted as nouns and verbs. Thus, euphonious intonation has a way of sounding like grammar--i.e., logic. In fact, researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig have discovered that the part of the brain that processes musical sequences is the same one that generates grammatical syntax.
If our expectation that a subject will be followed by a predicate is founded in the same process that leads us to hear the sequence of notes of "Twinkle, twinkle, little star / How I wonder what you are" as a proper tune, it's no wonder Obama can get so much out of the sheer melody of his delivery. With our brains configured in a way that makes melody feel like logic, the only question would be why Obama's savory intonations would not suggest leadership ability to his fans. In fact, intonation has arguably been as key to Obama's success as his heritage or intelligence. One senses that the women fainting during his speeches are overcome more by the way he talks than what he is saying: With his mastery of cadence and vocal texture, he could rouse an audience reading from a phone book.
Yet the fact remains that speeches rooted more in slogan and song than explanation cannot help but seem lightweight compared to the kinds of speeches audiences once considered ordinary. "Where's the beef?" is the kind of question that may come to mind as we wait in vain for an address akin to Mario Cuomo's at the Democratic Convention in 1984, the year that slogan was popular. Even then, his "City on a Hill" oration seemed faintly antiquarian in its rhetorical density and precision.
However, we must be careful what we wish for. In our sound-bite culture, America not only does not, but perhaps cannot, process logos-based oratory the way it used to. Hillary Clinton's content-rich addresses during the primaries got her nowhere, and Obama's masterfully composed speech on race this spring left his detractors unmoved, many seemingly challenged in even following his lines of argument. For all the complaints from voters about Obama that they don't know "who he is," if he had stepped onto the national stage patiently explaining who he was, how many people would have even been able to listen?
John McWhorter is senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and columnist for The New York Sun.