LOOKING back on his country's dire predicament in the dark years of World War II, the leader whose wartime speeches did everything that words could possibly do to change the course of history observed: ``Rhetoric was no guarantee of survival.'' Words, alas, were no substitute for weapons and armies. But Winston S. Churchill's magnificent oratory touched the boundary between saying and doing, revealing the point at which words become deeds in publishing the truth, expressing and interpreting the meaning of events, and inspiring people with the will not only to survive but to prevail.Skip to next paragraph
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To an extent that few modern leaders have equaled, Churchill was a man of words and deeds, beginning his career in the last years of the 19th century as a soldier and journalist, emerging as spokesman, chief strategist, and chronicler of Britain's greatest struggle for survival, and winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953. In an age of increasing specialization, when the politician became a sort of composite figure housing teams of speech-writers, policymakers, and image-consultants, Churchill was a living embodiment of the classical ideal of the statesman as leader, thinker, and speaker.
It is no exaggeration to say that Churchill became a byword for eloquence: His name appears in Roget's Thesaurus - in the select company of Demosthenes, Cicero, and William Jennings Bryant - as a synonym for ``orator,'' and ``rhetorician.''
Rhetoric, or the art of speaking persuasively, sometimes connotes speech that is artificial, even misleading. The artful speaker can use words to mask or twist the truth, to stir up passion while obscuring facts and logic. Yet, without rhetoric in its positive sense, it can be hard to convince people of the truth, get them to see logic, or persuade them to do what is right.
Churchill was a master of rhetoric in the finest sense of that problematic word. Phrases from his wartime speeches still resonate today. Who is not stirred by the echoes of:
``I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.'' ``Never have so many owed so much to so few.'' Seen in context, the famous phrases are even more powerful. (See his 1940 speech following the evacuation of Dunkirk.)
Beyond the grandeur of the cadences, the force and clarity of the diction, Churchill's speeches took strength from a basic truthfulness: a willingness to acknowledge the gravity of the situation and a forthright determination to say what should be done.
Much later, in his 80th birthday speech, Churchill modestly characterized the relationship between orator and public as a simple case of the former expressing the latter's will: ``... if I found the right words you just remember that I have always earned my living by my pen and by my tongue. It was a nation and race dwelling all round the globe that had the lion heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.'' Such modesty is, of course, itself a rhetorical device, but points to an essential truth about the dynamic between speaker and listeners.
THE single volume of Churchill's speeches edited by David Cannadine offers an excellent selection of the great wartime orations as well as earlier and later speeches.
The range is impressive - in style and content - from his 1901 maiden speech in the House of Commons defending Britain's conduct in the Boer War, to his witty attack on the House of Lords, his impassioned denunciation of Bolshevist tyranny in the wake of the Russian Revolution, his gallant (and, in the latter case, surprising) tributes to Franklin Roosevelt and Neville Chamberlain, his stern warning about the postwar ``Iron Curtain,'' and his prescient prophecy of European unity.
With so much to choose from, it would be easy for aficionados to quibble with Professor Cannadine's selection, but hardly worthwhile. Within the constraints of a single volume he has chosen well. Only his headnotes - superfluous to the expert, too skimpy for the ordinary reader - leave something to be desired.
Throughout his career, Churchill was no stranger to controversy, and some of the themes he sounds may strike modern readers even more jarringly than they did his contemporaries.