Sean Gabb Reviews Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History by William Safire

From Free Life, Issue 19, November 1993
ISSN: 0260 5112

Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History
William Safire (Ed.)
W.W. Norton & Company, New York and London, 1992, 957 pp., £25
(ISBN 0 393 03368 6)

According the the puff on the dust jacket of this very thick book, “this anthology contains the finest examples of the art of speechmaking in human experience…. [E]ditor and subject matter have met to result in a book that draws from the ages – and that will last for decades as the definitive word on human eloquence.” According to William F. Buckley Jr, quoted in the same place, it is “wonderfully done, the taste in the selection eclectic, discriminating, piquant, and enchantingly introduced”.

My own estimate of the book, I regret, is less flattering to Mr Safire’s vanity. I find it perhaps as worthless a performance as has yet been reviewed in these pages. It is defective alike in scholarship and in taste. I am astonished at the time and money wasted on its production. If I felt the least concern for the environment, I might shed tears for the acres of forest cut down to supply the press on which it was printed.

My general opinion stated, I will pass to detailed criticism. This falls under three headings.

First, Mr Safire’s principle of selection is deeply flawed. He has chosen speeches delivered by, among others of their kind, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Margaret Thatcher. It is, of course, no valid criticism that these people were without exception corrupted, self-serving administers of national decline: that applies to most politicians. But it is notoriously true that none ever made a speech of any importance that had not been written by others. On Mr Safire’s principle, I might just as well anthologise Marlon Brando for Antony’s funeral oration in the filmed version of Julius Caesar. I might do so, indeed, on better grounds, for Mr Brando is at least a great actor who spoke his lines with memorable effect. Lady Thatcher’s delivery is memorable only for its badness – all heavy stresses, with a pause every three commas for a standing ovation. Mr Bush is simply incoherent. I remember one occasion during his 1988 Presidential campaign when his speechwriters had to ascribe a quotation from Thucydides to Plato, the former name falling outside his range of pronounceable sounds.

I might pardon all this ghosted stuff had so much other real oratory not been overlooked. But there is nothing here from Bossuet, or Trotsky, or Thomas Erskine, or Saint Paul, or John Bright, or dozens of others whose unborrowed eloquence has moved audiences for good or ill.

Second, except where copyright compels, Mr Safire’s invariable practice is not to reveal his sources. On pp. 157-58, for example, we are given the passage in Burke’s Reflections beginning with the words “It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France”. The passage is cut brutally short, ending with the words “and under which vice itself lost half its evil by losing all its grossness”. Burke is thereby misrepresented as an almost comical reactionary, weeping over the fate of a woman who in herself deserved little sympathy. On both artistic and logical grounds, he should be allowed to continue another eight paragraphs to end with the words “possessing nothing at present, and hoping for nothing hereafter”.1 This would show the true purpose of his lament, which is to introduce one of the greatest of all attacks on rationalism in politics. It would also show the full power and effectiveness of his style.

Certainly, to have quoted the passage in full would have expanded an already large book. But this would have been a justified expansion. At worst, it might have been compensated by including less of the wit and wisdom of Spiro T. Agnew and Edward M. Kennedy.

However, I digress. My real objection is that, having read this mutilated fragment, and perhaps interested to read more, the reader is given no indication whatever of its source. In his introduction to the passage, Mr Safire states that it was “delivered” suggesting that it comes from a speech. This will send any interested but uninformed reader to a vain search through about a thousand pages of Burke’s published oratory.

In some other cases, clues are given as to an original source. Inauguration addresses, parliamentary speeches, anything containing topical references – these can with a little effort be traced. Sometimes Mr Safire even gives an approximate date of delivery in his introduction to a passage. But these are exceptions. We are for the most part given no evidence that the passages selected were ever written or delivered by the persons to whom they are ascribed, and no means by which the accuracy of quotation may be checked. Perhaps Mr Safire does not think these omissions at all reprehensible. He may have yet to realise that a quotation without a source is a waste of the time taken to read it.

Third, Mr Safire’s introductions are in many cases inaccurate. The passage from Burke discussed above is headed “Edmund Burke Laments the Death of Marie Antoinette”. Now, the French Queen was executed on the 16th October 1793. Burke’s Reflections were published in November 1790. For all his reputation as a prophet, I doubt if Burke can be credited with such specific foresight.

Again, on p.37 we are given the speech by which the Empress Theodora persuaded her husband Justinian against flight from Constantinople during the Nika Riots of January 532. As ever, no source is given – it comes from Procopius, De Bello Persico, i:33-38. Nor are we given the source of the quotation in the final sentence: “As for me, I agree with the adage that the royal purple is the noblest shroud” – it comes from the Archidamos of Isocrates, c. 45.

Once more, however, I digress. Mr Safire says that the rebellion was led by Hypatius. In fact, Hypatius had been pulled unwilling from his house and crowned by the mob, and was sending agitated apologies to Justinian throughout the revolt. Worse, Mr Safire says that Theodora’s speech kept Justinian in Rome. In this case, many readers will look up from the passage not merely uninformed, but positively misinformed.

I could continue like this for some time, giving further instances of bad scholarship. It is enough, though, to say that Mr Safire’s book is not something to be trusted in the hands of young people. It is not to be trusted even to satisfy the most idle curiosity. This is a pity, since much industry has gone into the book’s production, and only a little more would have made it a work of considerable value.

Marian Halcombe (Sean Gabb)

Notes

1. The whole quotation comes from Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), “Everyman” edition, J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, London, 1910, pp. 73-77. It took me less than a minute to identify the quotation, and another minute to type its full citation. I assume – though he gives no proof – that Mr Safire used original and not secondary sources: in which case by far the greatest labour of politeness to the reader had already been performed.

© 1993 – 2018, seangabb.

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