Inspirational political oratory has lamentably become a lost art here and south of the border. Speeches are pedestrian, platitudinous, full of talking-point cant. Audiences are numbed.
Voters are better educated than they were in the past. But politicians caught up in the populist zeitgeist talk down to them instead of reaching higher to inspire. Where are today’s Stephen Lewises? Back in the day when he was the leader of the Ontario NDP and Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations, his soaring eloquence could lift you from your chair.
Today’s age of rage requires communicators who can counterbalance with imagination, wit, artistry. So it was encouraging to see what happened on Jan. 7, when New York Representative Hakeem Jeffries stepped to the podium in the U.S. Congress shortly after succeeding Nancy Pelosi to become the first Black person to lead a congressional party.
As House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his wackadoodle ultra-right Republicans looked on, the 52-year-old Mr. Jeffries – who some have likened to Barack Obama – employed a striking new rhetorical technique in his transition speech.
To make their words more memorable, politicians use rhetorical devices such as repetition or inverting word order. The latter was nicely deployed in John F. Kennedy’s classic “Ask not what your country can do for you …” address.
Mr. Jeffries let loose with what has been called “the alphabet speech.” To impale his antagonists, he creatively deployed all 26 letters in a zap-you’re-frozen blitzkrieg.
“We will never compromise our principles,” the sixth-term congressman began. “House Democrats will always put American values over autocracy. Benevolence over bigotry. The Constitution over the cult. Democracy over demagogues. Economic opportunity over extremism.”
His voice rising, he continued: “Freedom over fascism. Governing over gaslighting. Hopefulness over hatred. Inclusion over isolation. Justice over judicial overreach. Knowledge over kangaroo courts. Liberty over limitation.”
There was clamour in the chamber by this point, and members roared at Mr. Jeffries’ choice for the letter M: “Maturity over Mar-a-Lago!” Then came “Normalcy over negativity. Opportunity over obstruction. People over politics. Quality-of-life issues over QAnon. Reason over racism. Substance over slander.”
For the finale, Mr. Jeffries – who was speaking without teleprompter – came up with “Triumph over tyranny. Understanding over ugliness. Voting rights over voter suppression. Working families over the well-connected.”
The letter X presented a challenge, but he went with “Xenial over xenophobia.” And lastly: “ ‘Yes, we can’ over ‘you can’t do it,’ and zealous representation over zero-sum confrontation.”
Delivered in a sonorous cadence, the clever but not mean-spirited A-to-Z oration quickly went viral to an audience of millions. As a one-page briefing book for progressives – a table d’hôte with which to feast on the adversary – it will serve the party well.
Its author came to some prominence during Donald Trump’s presidency as a rifle-tongued critic and impeachment prosecutor. Like Mr. Obama, he has a striking first name: Hakeem means “wise and learned” in Arabic. Like the former president, he started in politics at the state level after working in law, and like him, he is charismatic and articulate.
Mr. Jeffries represents generational change for a party that has been headed by plodding platform performers since Mr. Obama left office. He is not yet a household name, but in his new position, he soon will be. The Democrats will sorely need his forceful presence as they go toe-to-toe with a GOP wrecking crew, though his moderate policy stances could be a problem in a party that has been tacking portside with the likes of Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other members of the so-called Squad.
While Mr. Obama reined himself in – to a fault, some would say – Mr. Jeffries shows more emotion and volatility. There is no doubting his ambition, either, though should Joe Biden decide not to run again – which is more than likely, in my customarily fallible opinion – there won’t be a presidential bid by him, not this time. Others are waiting at the gate, the best communicator among them being Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who showed well in the 2020 primaries. Vice-President Kamala Harris will be the likely frontrunner; she has been the recipient of fewer negative headlines of late, but as a retail politician she is a big question mark, particularly given her faceplant in her last bid for the nomination.
As history reveals, the big winners in the Democratic firmament tend to be those, like Hakeem Jeffries, who have the special gift of knowing how to connect. We recall Franklin Delano Roosevelt, JFK, Bill Clinton, Mr. Obama: They were all exceptional communicators. Their words could rise above.