Oxford County’s GOP has its Lincoln Day Dinner on Friday February 9, Franklin County’s Republicans have theirs the following Saturday. It’s 209 years since his birth on February 12 in Hodgenville, Kentucky and a good time to look at the huge impact of his speeches. Ronald Reagan was not up to his standard, no president before or since is, but the rise of both can be traced to their eloquence. Reagan’s speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater in 1963 brought a flood of small contributions. He ceased being a mere retired actor from that point on. The radio talks that followed spread the idea that he might be a good conservative candidate for public office. And so it came to pass.

Reagan expressed his beliefs and objectives with greater clarity than any other Oval Office tenant in my lifetime. An extract from a letter he wrote in 1986 clearly and succinctly expressed the idea that framed his domestic policies: “This is the very thing that the Founding Fathers sought to minimize. They knew that governments don’t control things. A government can’t control the economy without controlling the people. And they know that when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purposes.”

A speech Lincoln delivered in Peoria criticizing the Kansas-Nebraska Act (which would allow the expansion of slavery) revived his political career after a single term in the U.S. House of Representatives. His debates with Stephen Douglas in the contest for a Senate seat did not win him the election but brought his to national prominence. The Cooper Union address in New York City made him a presidential candidate.

Abraham Lincoln’s leading competitors at the GOP convention all had more education and more impressive political credentials. His principal rival had been a governor, a US Representative and a US senator. He had served one political office after another since 1838. It would go too far to say that Lincoln won because of his speeches alone, politics are never that simple, but it’s clear that his eloquence was an area where he towered over the competition.

Now look what we have come to. Last week Rep. Nancy Pelosi set a House of Representatives record by gassing away continuously for eight hours and seven minutes. Her topic doesn’t matter since she convinced no one. She had no listeners who weren’t paid for that painful duty. Her blithering has certainly earned her a place in the Guinness record book. Unlike that now forgotten Texas blonde who snagged a useless gubernatorial nomination by gabbling for hours against abortion restrictions while shod in pink sneakers, Nancy stood up in stilettos. I’m not calling the perpetually speaking ex-Speaker “old” (we are the same age) but this was an amazing achievement for a woman of her age.

Whatever we may think of Ghastly Nancy, we have to recognize that she stands out in her way amidst a crowd of oratorical nullities. We read in a best-selling insider’s account of her campaign that Hillary had ten people in a speech-writing team to prepare the speech announcing her candidacy. Never have so many worked so hard to produce so little. And before her there was that feather-weight Teleprompter-peripheral. And before him Bush the blurter. And before him “I feel your pain”/ “I did not have sexual relations with that woman…” And, of course, George H.W. Bush, who suffered from a paranoid fear that the English language was an enemy lying in ambush. He was at ease writing gracious thank-you notes but grew nervous when faced with more complex formulations.

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And now? A Tweeter happy with a middle school vocabulary, who sometimes managed something comical, but never anything witty.

It’s only fair to say that all of our contemporary orators were a lot better looking than lanky old Abe. Read this description from an English magazine in 1862: “To say that he is ugly is nothing; to add that his figure is grotesque is to convey no adequate impression. Fancy a man almost six feet high [he was actually six feet four inches], and thin in proportion, with long bony arms, and legs which always seem to be in the way…Add to this the figure of a head, a coconut shaped and somewhat too small for such a stature, covered with rough, uncombed hair, that stands out in every direction at once, a face, furrowed, wrinkled and indented as though it had been scarred with vitriol.”

Twenty-first century American like their presidents to be prettier. That shouldn’t be hard, but we have no hope of ever seeing a wiser and more eloquent one. It seems clear that most of us are not looking for one.

John Frary of Farmington is a former candidate for U.S. Congress, a retired history professor, an Emeritus Board Member of Maine Taxpayers United, a Maine Citizen’s Coalition Board member, and publisher of FraryHomeCompanion.com. He can be reached at [email protected].


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