I was talking to a friend not long ago who was pretty down on politics in all its forms. “I actually find real enjoyment in politics,” I told him. He asked if I was nuts.
No, I said, there’s a lot of pleasure — even joy — to be found in participating. Case in point: getting the chance to listen to gifted speakers.
For many years, I was fortunate to have a seat on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, which gave me a chance to observe some of the best orators in the nation.
For instance, there was Hale Boggs from Louisiana, the outstanding Democratic leader who tragically disappeared on a plane flight in Alaska in 1972. He was, in many ways, like an actor — he spoke with complete confidence, enjoyed commanding a crowd, and reveled in the performance; you could listen and relax in the knowledge that you were in the hands of a master.
I also remember Carl Albert, from Oklahoma, who was House Speaker in the 1970s. He never referred to notes; he always appeared to be speaking extemporaneously — though I sometimes thought he must have practiced a great deal. One of his great gifts was that he had an impressive grasp of many different pieces of legislation, and so could speak knowledgeably and cogently on any of them.
John Lewis, the Georgia congressman and civil rights icon, had a marvelous, booming voice. People couldn’t help themselves: when he took the floor, they stopped whatever they were doing to listen. He had a gift for elevating any particular issue to a higher plane that called on people to remember the best in their nation and in themselves, which may be why, whenever he came into the House well to speak, young staff members would gather in the back of the chamber to listen to him.
Republican John Anderson of Illinois took a different approach. He wasn’t so much an orator as a debater, a politician of high intelligence who enjoyed the intellectual challenge of politics. As a result, he was a superb debater, with a great fondness for the verbal give and take as he faced off against an ideological opponent. He mastered every subject he took on and defended his positions with wit and verve.
So did John McCormack from Massachusetts, who was House Speaker during the 1960s. Very quick on the draw, he would turn to his adversary in debate and say something like, “I hold the gentleman in minimum high regard,” to the amusement of everyone around. He, too, loved being in the fray: he would readily relinquish the Speaker’s chair so he could go down to the floor and throw himself into verbal combat.
Edith Green, from Oregon, had been a schoolteacher and then a lobbyist for the state education association before coming to Congress, and she carried those skills with her to the House. In a sense, she made the House her classroom, and when she had the mic, she was engaging but firm as she battled to advance women’s issues and social reform.
Mo Udall of Arizona took a different approach: He always spoke with humor and tried to make his listeners see the lighter side of things. He believed you should have a good time while you participated in serious subjects; he had a memorable ability to come up with just the right anecdote to illustrate the points he wanted to make. He made you want to listen because it was so enjoyable to do so.
Despite their different approaches, these people — and other great speakers — were articulate, spoke fluidly and clearly, and showed great confidence and ease. They obviously enjoyed it. They were people who strove to make themselves understood, without showing the effort involved.
So, while oratory may come in different packages, the chance to watch great communicators at work gives you a better sense of who they are, why they have succeeded, and why our multi-faceted political system is so interesting, engaging and important.
Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar of the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.