Blast From The Past: Old-Fashioned Rhetoric, Or Simple Common Sense?

Late last night, with a little time to myself, I found myself watching clips of Ronald Reagan speeches; I thought that if we were all to take off our partisan and opinionated hats and have a look at these closely, there’s a story there — one which reflects on all of us pretty poorly.

Readers know that I have been following the US election closely; I also think most of you know that articles at The Red And The Blue have been very sparse owing to the disproportionate amount of time I have spent these past few months on a major project I’ve been working on with my media hat on. Often, it’s only after midnight that I get a little (if any) time to post, and whilst that will resolve fairly soon, it’s odd what turns up in the wee small hours.

I found some old clips of Ronald Reagan speaking last night, and have posted one here that I encourage everyone to watch. It’s only a few minutes long, and it will make sense of the comments I wish to make.

Just for a little perspective: the speech was given in 1964, two years before Reagan became Governor of California, and 16 years before he won the US Presidency; Reagan was speaking in support of that year’s Republican candidate for the Presidency, Barry Goldwater, who of course suffered one of the heaviest defeats of a Republican candidate in US history at the hands of Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson.

It was the height of the Cold War, and two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962; and whilst the issues of the day were, in many ways, far more serious than what passes for retail politics today, there was still room for sloganeering.

Reagan makes a reference to “(knowing) in their hearts…” which is a direct lift from Goldwater’s election slogan, “In your heart, you know he’s right,” and which in turn was parodied by the Democrats to deadly effect — motivated by the Democratic position that Goldwater’s policies on the Soviet Union would ignite a nuclear war — as “In your guts, you know he’s nuts.”

(But I digress…)

The reason I wanted to post this, having spent my short stipend of time last night looking for clips on YouTube of news digests from the USA covering the past few days of campaigning, is that it occurs to me that Reagan (and some of his contemporaries) exercised professional political communication as an art, not the degraded brawling drudge that the grind of politics has become today.

Reagan — the “Gipper,” the Great Communicator — was a masterful politician, with a skill for mass political communication as simple as it was devastating.

Have a listen again to the clip I’ve posted. These are complex (and to some extent, dangerous) ideas from a complex and enigmatic figure in Reagan, communicated in stark simplicity yet to great effect, and with the brutal import of the full weight of the message he seeks to convey present in every sentence.

It really doesn’t matter whether you stand on the left or right of the political spectrum (a divide broadly between Liberals and Conservatives/Democrats and Republicans in the US, and between Labor and Liberal in Australia); it isn’t even necessary to particularly like Ronald Reagan, or other politicians of his generation across the Western world.

The point is that our own politicians are shameful by comparison. Go back over the speech. Can anyone seriously imagine Julia Gillard droning boringly on, with her nasal twang and that frightful accent, and covering the issues Reagan speaks about with even a modicum of the effectiveness of the Reagan speech? Or Tony Abbott, aaah-ing and halting and smirking his way through a speech on the same terms?

More to the point, would anyone pay much attention to either of them in such a circumstance?

It’s little wonder that politics and politicians are sometimes held in such low regard these days for a range of reasons, but watching this old clip last night, it hit me right between the eyes that the most basic problem — at the most fundamental of levels — is that our politicians don’t speak to people.

Sounds silly, doesn’t it? At least it sounds like a silly thing to say until you realise it’s actually true.

Politics is many things; the art of the possible, governed by the numbers, the way to change the world, or whatever other prism through which you care to look at it.

But politicians in Australia — on both sides of politics, at all levels of government, and across the country — are all guilty of transmogrifying into regurgitators of scripted remarks for television airtime opportunities rather than being the communicative link between the people and their governments that they should be.

The most imbecilic and moronic manifestation of this in recent years was that stupid “Moving Forward” line Gillard used during the last election campaign, even in sentences and contexts in which it was totally inappropriate.

Not to be outdone, however, Abbott scores a close second with some of his more shrill pronouncements on the carbon tax.

I’d like to hear what people think — if, after another involuntary hiatus in posting articles my readers are still here, that is! Seriously, though — I could have picked a clip from one of a dozen leaders from the 1960s instead of the one from Reagan; even our own Bob Menzies, or Britain’s Harold Wilson, are contemporaries of Reagan who ¬†exemplify the point I’m making.

And in singling Australian politicians out — and some of them must rank among the worst in the democratic world in terms of communication skills — my point is borne out by the contrastingly reasoned, reasonable and authentic campaigns being conducted by Mitt Romney and Barack Obama for the US Presidency at present, weighed against what will almost certainly be a further onslaught of verbal diarrhoea from our own politicians in the run-up to next year’s federal election.

Would you pay more attention to politicians if they actually spoke to their audience — even if you disagreed with their message — instead of spouting slickly packaged spin lines?

Or when it comes to politics and politicians, is it literally a case of a pox upon both their houses for you…and best left at that?