Mention John Kennedy and most people will quickly call up the famous line, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." I am not sure why this is so.
To begin with, the line was not his own. It is commonly ascribed to his courtly speechwriter, Ted Sorensen. But even were it really Kennedy's, it is still difficult to see why it clots the pages of every modern quotation book, and is so often invoked as a touchstone of public eloquence.
It is clumsy for one thing. Ask not what your country can do for you is a very odd sequence of modern English. You don't run into a lot of "ask nots" these days. Ask not is an idiom of a time long gone; it has the feel of the overtly poetic about it, the fake suede of greeting-card prose.
The best we can say of Kennedy/Sorensen is that at least they were trying. Kennedy was still alert to the rapidly thinning air of a quite ancient tradition: one that understood that public utterance, especially on ceremonial occasions, should strive for elevation, elegance and dignity. Kennedy may have been the last major leader in the West to carry that ambition. In his case, it probably survived because he was a leader who grew up under the long shadow of Winston Churchill, one of history's great wordsmiths, a man to whom leadership was inseparable from the ability to fashion speech, to draw from words something of their elemental power to bind and inspire.
The energy with which Churchill composed his illustrious speeches is commonplace knowledge. So also is the care he gave to his studiously offhand or "spontaneous" remarks, jibes and witticisms. One of those same witticisms tells us so: "I'm just preparing my impromptu remarks." Churchill represents the end of that great tradition, which is at least as old as the great Latin and Greek orators.
Abraham Lincoln is perhaps his only superior, for Lincoln's oratory had a lyric and affecting quality that Churchill's did not. Churchill could stir: He was a master of the sonorous and martial mode. Lincoln could move: Much of his language had the subtlety and strange power we associate more with poetry than the platform. Lincoln was quiet and deep. Churchill reached for the accents of defiance and glory, as he said himself, to "give the lion's roar."
The volumes of Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien are now competing in our nation's bookstores, but we shall not be going to them to savour or resavour favoured passages from some of their most memorable speeches. That's because there aren't any, which is not as dismissive as it sounds. It may still be possible for leaders to write and give great speeches - Vaclav Havel certainly tried during his tenure - but it is getting more difficult with each advancing year. There was no evidence, for instance, of any exertion toward eloquence in this week's Throne Speech, whose entire elegance was in the person who read it.
We are in the culture of the sound bite. We remember of Mr. Mulroney his onslaught against John Turner ("You had a choice, sir …"), just as of Mr. Chrétien we recall a telling and petty riposte ("For me, pepper, I put it on my plate.") Considering the great number of debates in which these two participated, the number of state occasions during which they spoke, this is a pathetic harvest.
The premiers fare no better. Dalton McGuinty, Jacques Parizeau or Ralph Klein, to take but three large names, may all be remembered in time, but they will not cheat oblivion because they crowded the public mind with imperishable speech.
It is not, by any means, all their fault. Churchill spoke in an age, despite its horrors, more confident of its public men, and during a time when politics itself still retained some association with noble practice. He could speak the largest of words - such as "honour" and "country" - and make appeals to the glory of his people, and neither those words nor appeals sounded hollow in his mouth.
Today, the large words have shrunk, and even in their shrunken stature do not fall obligingly from lips that have had them "poll-tested" and "focus-grouped" beforehand. Even in the many debates we have had on Afghanistan, I cannot recall any sentiment expressed touched with the fineness and depth of that most honourable undertaking.
From Lincoln's day to ours, soapbox to satellite, the means of communication have proliferated. Yet, even Google will not search up a more affecting and noble tribute than a few words spoken at Gettysburg nearly a century and a half ago.
Modern words can blanket the whole world in an instant, and that is as long as most of them will endure. They steal from light nothing but its speed.