Posts Tagged ‘rhetoric’

But First Let Me Say….

Posted in General on May 23rd, 2011 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

President Obama was supposed to give an important speech on the Middle East; at least that is what CNN told me.  Since the alternative was the Bowery Boys Sunday morning feature on Turner Classic Movies, I decided to listen.  The President began talking at 10; the speech started five minutes later.  Those first five minutes were a litany of thanks, hellos, asides, and how abouts….This was a Jewish audience, so the President mentioned who’s son got into Brown, Buddy Sorrell’s bar mitzvah on “The Dick Van Dyke” show and  Abe Vigoda’s 90th birthday.  Perhaps the President hoped that the audience would be so gratified or numbed that it would cede the Palestinians the West Bank and the Hillcrest Country Club. 

We will have to wait and see.

However, I generally find those rambling prologues to be annoying if not subversive.  I suppose that it is good manners to mention everyone at the speaker’s table, but unless the topic of the speech is etiquette it is also stupefying irrelevant.  I presume that the President wanted me to think about the Middle East, but he distracted with some allusion to a “Rosey” Rosenberg playing basketball.  Who and huh?

You have to wonder if the great speeches of history all had these introductory meanderings?  Did Pericles, in his eulogy for the Athenian dead, first praise Nestor Junior High’s spear and flute corps for the evening’s entertainment?  Did Jesus began the Sermon on the Mount with a thanks to the Sigma Chi house at Caesarea Tech for raising 112 shekels with its chariot wash?  Did Lincoln feel obliged to mention that the Gettysburg County Republican chairman was great at horseshoes?  If they did, thank God for editing.

p.s.  Let’s not forget the historic significance of this day (and it will probably be an episode on the next season of The Borgias): http://finermanworks.com/your_rda_of_irony/2009/05/23/on-this-day-in-1498-2/

Ghostwriting for Caligula

Posted in General on January 20th, 2008 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

As the ongoing–and ongoing–political campaign reminds us, the history of rhetoric is replete with the shameless and the preposterous. Let me reassure you, however, that it could be worse. From a speechwriter’s perspective, the Roman Empire was the Golden Age of hypocrisy.

There has never been a more shameless gang of orators than the Roman Senate. Those patricians once ruled the Roman Republic, but they abdicated their power and self-respect. Their sole remaining responsibility was to flatter the Emperor. The senators did not merely praise the tyrant; they prayed to him. Their speeches were orgies of hyperbole. Of course, such profuse unction was often prudent. If faced with the choice of death or hypocrisy, you too might decide that Nero was an artistic genius. Most of the Emperors, however, were not mad or particularly murderous; they limited their killing to predecessors, their own relatives and the aspiring saints.

If terror did not inspire the speakers, ambition did. The speeches actually were audition for government office. Within the Empire’s bureaucracy, there were many prestigious positions that offered wonderful opportunities for graft. When the Emperor had to fill such posts, he certainly chose his most devoted advocates. The positions required some ability, but the Emperor did not mistake flattery for talent. On the contrary, the Romans appraised a man’s talents by his mastery of rhetoric. An excellent speaker demonstrated intelligence, education and discipline. His sincerity was irrelevant, but his eloquence made him a suitable candidate for honors and office.

One can only imagine the ambition that prompted this praise of the Emperor Elagabalus. The third-century ruler was proclaimed the son of a god, “the unconquered, the supreme, the harmonious.” In fact, Elagabalus was a teenage transvestite; he was considered such an embarrassment that his own grandmother arranged his murder. From the third century, we also have this example of a profitable speech.

The Emperor Philippus was depressed by his own incompetence, so he went to the Senate for reassurance. In that chorus of sycophants, Senator Decius distinguished himself. The orator exclaimed that the Gods were devoted to Philippus; an Emperor so beloved by Olympus need have no worries on earth. Philippus’ confidence was restored, and he rewarded Decius with a strategic command in the army. Perhaps the Gods were devoted to Philippus, but the army and Decius were not. A year later, Decius was the Emperor. He was to reign only two years, but at least he was not killed by a fellow speechwriter.