For MLK: On Speechmaking

By Michael Dorf

In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, I want to say a few words about speech making. I recently listened to part of a podcast in which someone* made the following observations: MLK was one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest, speech maker in our nation's history. He was clearly an extraordinarily gifted public speaker. And yet if you invited someone to a dinner party and that person proceeded to orate in the way that MLK did in his public speeches, you would correctly judge the person a lunatic. The takeaway, with which I agree, is that there is a difference between a powerful speech in an oratorical style and a conversation.

That's not to say that one cannot be a powerful public speaker while speaking in a conversational style. Indeed, there are contexts in which a conversational style--even in public--is much preferred. I happen to work in two professions--academia and as a lawyer--in which launching into a speech of the form "I have a dream" or "Ask not what your country can do for you" would mark me as almost as much of a lunatic as the dinner companion who spoke that way in your small dining room. We praise law students in moot courts for a relaxed, conversational tone. Even on more "speechifying" occasions, public speaking can be quite successful if conversational. That is the appeal of the fireside chat, for example.

Indeed, to my ear at least, speeches that are not conversational are often suspect. They raise the suspicion that the speaker is using bombast in place of logic. There can frequently also be more than a hint of inauthenticity.

To give one admittedly extreme example, of the current batch of Republican presidential candidates, Senator Ted Cruz is probably the most polished public speaker, with Senator Marco Rubio a fairly close second, and former Governor Mike Huckabee a respectable third. As an oral advocate in the Supreme Court, Cruz was extremely effective--conversational, yet forceful. Listen to his argument in Medellin v. Texas if you want an example. One can disagree with his legal position (as I do), but still recognize that he did a fine job advocating for it. And yet Cruz in oratorical mode is insufferable. Even though Cruz is genuinely on the far right of his party, Rubio is not wrong to attack him as an opportunist, because Cruz's arrogant smarmy melodrama drips insincerity.

Or maybe it's the opposite? Maybe in speechifying but somehow not in lawyering, Cruz's true personality comes out. The bipartisan consensus of people who have worked with Cruz is that he is loathsome, and that's almost certainly based mostly on his interpersonal interactions in multiple settings; you don't hate someone who is otherwise likable or decent simply because he's an annoying public speaker. When he's just talking (as in his oral arguments), Cruz manages to disguise his loathsomeness. Maybe there's something about speaking grandly, however, that brings it out.

Now let's think about the flipside. Are there speakers who can give a great speech but have difficulty connecting when going for a more conversational tone? President Obama appears to be an example. While his political rhetoric on the stump certainly never reached MLK levels of inspiration, by contemporary standards, it's quite good. Yet in between grand speeches, his delivery somehow manages to be simultaneously choppy and soporific. The Andy Borowitz 2012 headline "Democrats to Employ Man Who Played Obama in 2008" worked because of the contrast between Obama's exciting speech making on the stump and his somewhat languorous affect on other occasions. (Only "somewhat." The contemporary prize for somnambulism surely goes to Dr. Ben Carson.)

On this day when many people will listen to King's "I Have a Dream" speech and too few people will listen to his other speeches (such as this one), I conclude with two cheers for great political oratory. MLK-level oratory works because it speaks to the heart as much as the mind--or to be more neurochemically accurate, because the emotional centers of the brain are connected to the ones that process logic. As Justice Louis Brandeis said nearly a century ago in his dissent in Gitlow v. New York, "eloquence may set fire to reason."

I give only two cheers because of the power of demagogues to use their eloquence to swamp or distort reason--to inspire evil as well as good.

But in our cynical age and society, that risk seems relatively small. The most powerful demagogue on the currenrt scene--Donald Trump--is hardly eloquent. Quite the opposite: His supporters mistake his crude lies for speaking truth to power partly because he lacks any oratorical gifts. Thus they think he tells it like it is. Meanwhile, from a very different direction, Senator Bernie Sanders taps into the same American tradition of venerating plainspokenness. On balance, we could use more eloquence, not less. Just don't expect the likes of MLK to come around anytime soon.


* The someone was Sam Harris. I'm not a regular listener to his podcast, but someone directed me to it because of something Harris said about veganism, and so I came across his point about MLK.