Crises and decades pass and our lore still hasn’t drifted too far from Evangeline and Huey Long, especially from the day that the two entwined. Long’s 1928 gubernatorial campaign speech, delivered beneath the spread of the Evangeline Oak in St. Martinville, still stands out, to me, as the best Louisiana political speech ever.
A year earlier the state had suffered its first calamitous natural disaster, the Great Flood of 1927. Drawing from the hardships of the flood and the poverty, still simmering from the Civil War, Long brilliantly used the Evangeline legend to fashion a passionate populist statement. “And it is here that Evangeline waited for her lover Gabriel who never came . . . But Evangeline is not the only one who has waited here in disappointment.’ Long then aroused the crowd by asking where were the schools, roads, highways and hospitals that had been promised but never delivered. “Evangeline wept bitter tears in her disappointment,” Long enunciated while moving on for the emotional kill. “But they lasted through only one lifetime. Your tears in this country, around this oak, have lasted for generations. Give me the chance to dry the tears of those who still weep here.”
Now that Louisiana has experienced its second calamitous natural disaster, I have wondered about whatever happened to the art of political speech making. There are no politicians at the state or local level whose hard work, determination, fortitude and passion I deny. Everyone seemed to be doing the best they could. But missing at all levels has been the great speech. Crises beget the need for comforting words: Franklin Roosevelt assured the nation that all we had to fear was fear itself. Ronald Reagan eulogized on the evening of the space shuttle disaster: “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.” As New Yorkers, and the nation, trembled after September 11th, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s words were simple but calming as he told his citizens, “do not be afraid.”
Speech making as an art has declined in American politics because it is no longer a prerequisite to being elected. Most political messages are delivered via television commercials to voters who get bored with a candidate speaking more than ten seconds. The words that are heard are edited, neutralized and pasteurized. Television debates could offer an opportunity to unbridle the word, but candidates are coached by their handlers not so much to be eloquent but to avoid the gaffe that would be repeated on the evening news.
We could have used some well-spoken and assuring words from our leaders over the last few year; although, to be fair, their choicest works were probably reserved for FEMA and the Corps of Engineers. As though Huey’s promised roads now lattice the state, we find ourselves at a crossroads; wishing for better speech making at a time of crisis, yet hoping that we will forever be spared further reason for tears in need of drying.
Do you have any of your own great speechs you would like to share? E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. For the subject line use SPEECHES. All responses are subject to being published, as edited, in this newsletter. You must include your name and location.