During a meet-up with friends at a coffeshop, I met a fellow whose background is in radio announcing. He tried to convince us that Rush Limbaugh and Adolph Hitler are/were two of the greatest public speakers in the history of mankind. I responded that while they are clearly effective speakers, I wasn’t prepared to separate their respective messages from the style of delivery and award them my unreserved admiration. He kept insisting that in terms of pure oratorical skill, these two are unsurpassed. I then replied that it is a common modern gloss to believe that recent history is the most important. Considering how the Greeks had raised oratory and rhetoric to a high form of expression, it is impossible to say “of all time” with respect to someone so recent without it being hyperbole. Still, the discussion got me thinking about the differing goals and modes of public speech.
I’ve only really seen newsreel footage of Hitler when his pitch and affect at the end of a speech had risen to that of a madman. Hindsight bias makes that assessment a foregone conclusion. But his renown as a public speaker was very real prior to the worst parts of German history, and he apparently could whip his audiences into hysterics where they would agree to nearly anything by carefully modulating his speech, delivered over a sustained interval of time (sometimes two or more hours), to create an inexorable crescendo where he was literally screaming at the tail end. There were other elements at work, such as staging, lighting, appeals to myth and the occult, and those very snappy uniforms. The totality of the onslaught must have been irresistable.
Limbaugh, OTOH, tends to stay at a high pitch continuously — especially in terms of simple provocation. I find that easy to tune out, but it apparently fuels and satisfies some of the talking head junkies out there (called dittoheads when they’re Limbaugh fans). It’s also clear that a not insignificant part of Limbaugh’s aim is to gather up market share, as opposed to leading the German people during the Weimar Republic, and that saying and doing newsworthy and infamous things to keep attention fixed on himself might be a little less than genuine. In short, it’s a show, entertaining but mean-spirited and manipulative in the extreme.
Contrast these styles of overwrought oratory with Obama’s careful, even prosaic rolling out of policy, opinion, and planning in his speeches, and it’s easy to see why Obama, while credited with being a superior speaker, is unable to motivate the masses to embrace his message without a good many falling away over time or actively opposing him for partisan reasons.
A slick speaker is cause for concern among those of us who recognized that we’re more vulnerable to manipulation and propaganda than we’d like to admit. Which of these speakers is actually more dangerous might seem an obvious determination, but history isn’t yet done with two of them. The question is nonsensical, actually, since the damage wrought by poisoning the public sphere can’t really be quantified as well as, say, the lives lost in WWII.