Why Aussie pollies are crumby speakers

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President Jed Bartlett (Martin Sheen) from The West WingAt the end of one episode of the US drama series The West Wing, which chronicled the fictional presidency of Josiah 'Jed' Bartlett (Martin Sheen, pictured), the key characters sit on a stoop sharing a beer. Their efforts to increase Democrat numbers in the Congress have failed but as the music swells and the screen fades they raise a toast: 'God Bless America'.

These public servants are cynical about many things, but never their country.

Australian liberals were drawn to the program's political vision, and the integrity of its hero, leader of the Democratic Administration President Josiah Bartlett. But The West Wing exposed stark national differences. To Australian viewers the patriotic idealism was unbearably corny. But wasn't there something magnificent there too?

We Australians don't do magnificence. The American vision excels at the grand scale, while our monuments, our fiction, and our food portions are of a humbler nature. The publisher Ivor Indyk has identified it as a kind of national 'shyness'. That shyness is nowhere clearer than in our political rhetoric.

In November last year Australians voted for a new government, hoping, it seemed, for the kind of change Jed Bartlett was committed to bringing to his country. But recall Rudd's acceptance speech and it's clear what different worlds Jed and Kevin belong to. The crowd greeting him at Brisbane's Suncorp Stadium was ecstatic but the new Prime Minister seemed determined to keep a lid on things.

He began with a sobering, 'Okay guys', and with the measured tones of a diligent scout master, plodded through a list of platitudes.

Not surprisingly, there is a greater resonance between Bartlett and presidential candidate, Barack Obama — the obvious intelligence, the liberal progressiveness and, above all, the sweeping oratory. The creator of The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin, even wrote an op-ed for The New York Times imagining Bartlett visiting Obama to give advice.

But even in his wildest flights of lyrical idealism, Sorkin never came up with the kind of language Obama has been wooing the world with. Take this from the speech he delivered after Hilary Clinton's win at the New Hampshire Primary in January:

Yes we can.
It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation. Yes we can.
It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail toward freedom through the darkest of nights. Yes we can.

It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness. Yes we can.

It was the call of workers who organised; women who reached for the ballot; a President who chose the moon as our new frontier; and a King who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the Promised Land.
Yes we can to justice and equality. Yes we can to opportunity and prosperity.Yes we can heal this nation. Yes we can repair this world. Yes we can.

This is a speech so immediately emotive and musical that it has been made into a song, one watched millions of times on our age's version of Speaker's Corner, YouTube.

Compare it to the moment in Rudd's speech which garnered the biggest reaction:

You can have a strong cup of tea if you want in the meantime.
Even an Iced Vo Vo on the way through.
But the celebration should stop there.
We have a job of work to do.

There are pundits who wonder if Obama's visionary language and oratorical passion will backfire. Many Americans, they warn, are uncomfortable with exceptionalism. They want a leader who reassures them 'I'm just like you — I pray like you, I hunt like you, and I talk like you'.

And it is doubtful whether Obama's rhetorical grandeur would work here. Veteran Labor speechwriter Graham Freudenberg has been praising Rudd's natural approach, lamenting that 'Everyone wants to write a Gettysburg Address these days'.

Even in fiction we prefer to leave the serious drama of politics to the Americans — our own recent exploration down the corridors of ministerial power happened with satire in The Hollowmen.

For many Australians these differences in national imagination are something to be grateful for. I'm happy, for example, that despite the best efforts of Brendan Nelson (when he was Education Minister), devotion to the flag has never become a national religion here the way it is in the US.

But would an Australian Gettysburg Address be such a bad thing? Describing the world in a different way allows us to imagine it afresh. Few of us would want to swap political cultures with the empire across the Pacific, but we can enjoy their idealism vicariously — in the sometimes magic world of television, and in the imagined magic of an Obama Presidency. Yes we can.


Sarah KanowskiSarah Kanowski is a Sydney writer, and a producer with ABC Radio National. She was the winner of the 2005 Margaret Dooley Award.

Topic tags: sarah kanowski, barack obama, kevin rudd, jed bartlett, the west wing, speechifying, Graham Freudenberg

 

 

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Existing comments

A friend describes good leaders as "wearing the feathers and knowing the dance" ... Obama (and Keating) wears the feathers and knows the dance ... Kevin neither wears the feathers or knows the dance in spite of his articulate talk.
Judy | 30 October 2008


Hope springs eternal, and I guess I wouldn't want it otherwise. But it always surprises me that people are so ready to believe that a new political leader will be able to sweep away all the problems and usher in a some sort of golden age. Why doesn't living through a dozen or more election campaigns cure people of this false hope?

If I were an American, I'd vote for Obama, but I'd expect at best some incremental improvements in the sorry pattern of America's recent performance.

It will take many years of insightful and wise leadership for the US to regain respect on the world stage.
Rob Brennan | 30 October 2008


An interesting comment by Sarah. Australia has come into being from a different situation to that experience in the US. Apart from clashes with the indigenious peoples, we have not experienced a War of Independence nor a Civil War, unless you call "Eureka Stockade" one. We have not had to fight on our own soil for nationhood- we did that elsewhere,so maybe that explains the national shyness to shout from the rooftops about our sense of nationhood. I resonate with Obama's speech but I understand Kevin's softly softly approach and it gels with my view of our nationhood.
Gavin | 30 October 2008


I'm all for the lacing together of beautiful words into memorable speaches. And it is true that America has made this an art form, but do we need to have our poetry dressed in politics? When I want words, I go to Shakespear or Shelley, but when I want good government I go for substance over surface decoration. Less talk, more action.

David.
david akenson | 30 October 2008


Kevin Rudd's iced vo-vo speech as recorded here reads like a poem. A fairly bad one, but it's interesting how a rhyme has slipped in after the enticing balance of vo-vo. Dunked itself in, you could say. No champagne here, just a special bikkie.



Penelope | 30 October 2008


Fine words, Sarah. I think that much of our political language - our public language in general - is impoverished and is very dry, very prosaic. That is not altogether bad: it gives one a strong sense of when one is being strung along, as it were. But I think it also points to a deep unease we have in our culture with giving voice to the mysterious, the abstract, dare I say it, the religious. Thank you for a good article.
Cameron | 30 October 2008


Sarah, I cannot agree! Political speak has become declined in the last 20 years, I do agree! I put this down to the departure of Keating, Hawke, Fraser, Whitlam, Calwell, Chifley and Curtin from the hollowed halls of our democracy. Now we are stuck with the 'America Speak', imported by the current crop, notably JWH et al.
Let us go back to the marvellous use of metaphor and analogy so ably used by Australian politicians based on the Australian Language, not some ertaz concoction which tries to ape the American longwindedness and inability to call a spade a spade.eg " As miserable as an orphaned koala on a burnt-out ridge." Henry Parkes OR " AS stinking as an overflowing dunny-can" Anon re corruption in an anonymous state govt
John | 30 October 2008


Great article Sarah. I venture to suggest that Rudd can speak lyrically --- he just does it in Mandarin.

My druthers are with John - would love to hear more true-blue, dinky-di ockerisms littering our national political parlance. But just as we don't expect a labourer to speak with a plum in his mouth, we shouldn't expect Rudd to express himself too differently to his practical bureaucratese - that's generally what he's comfortable with. Keating was a discursive master; Howard's rhetoric hardly stretched much further than My Fellow Australians. Their speeches reflected their personalities. I value authenticity. Bring on the Iced Vo Vos.
Anna LM | 31 October 2008


The idealism and momentum inspired by Obama's oratorical poetry is a useful tool in rallying people to beleive in and act to effect change. The danger, to quote another poet is that the words may be "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing". Getting and keeping people excited can be a distraction in the same way as keeping people afraid(think George W Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech as one example) acts as a distraction from the far less clear cut reality of issues. The proof is in the unglamorous day to day decision making of elected leaders and the capacity of the grass roots to act.
Natalie | 31 October 2008


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