In The King’s Speech, George VI (played by Colin Firth) watches a newsreel of Adolf Hitler dominating an arena with his voice. It's a poignant moment for the newly crowned king, who is desperate to rally Britons to meet the existential threat of Nazism but is hobbled by a debilitating stammer and a raft of insecurities. Who will follow a leader who can’t summon his own voice?
In Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote that "every great movement on this globe owes its rise to the great speakers and not the great writers." Fortunately, the führer had an oratorical competitor: Winston Churchill transformed Britain into the home of the brave in part by his repeated, rousing pronouncements that it was so. Similarly FDR, Martin Luther King Jr., and JFK shaped perceptions, events, and history through spoken words. Reading John Kenneth Galbraith’s Ambassador’s Journal recently, I was struck by Galbraith’s insistent claim to authorship of a felicitous phrase— "Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate" — in Kennedy’s inaugural address. Galbraith was ambassador to India, a best-selling author, a Harvard-pedigreed public intellectual, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom winner. Yet he cherished his tie to a dozen words in someone else's speech. Aside from some memorable lines from Ronald Reagan, the most resonant words of recent presidents have been errant ones ("Read my lips"; "That woman"; "Heckuva job"). Barack Obama was expected to return eloquence to the presidency, but so far he's produced mixed, and sometimes muddled, results. Hitler turned a forked tongue into a vicious weapon. But as The King’s Speech reminds us, oratory can also elevate a nation, maybe even save it.