Greatest living orators?
June 3, 2007 9:43 AM   Subscribe

When I look at the amazingly eloquent, sophisticated speeches of the past (think those of Milton, Lincoln, Churchill, Gandhi, and many more), I wonder: who are the towering orators of our generation -- the combined profound thinkers, moving speakers, and verbal artists of exquisite capacity?
posted by shivohum to Human Relations (45 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I think that oratory is less valued as a skill now because the speech is a less-important medium of political communication. People today are not very likely to attend meetings or lectures where long speeches are delivered. Speeches are not likely to be shown on T.V. (outside of C-span, which no one watches), and the most people get their information from soundbites on T.V. news. Newspapers in 1920 were much more likely than newspapers now to reprint speeches in their entirety. Street and stump speaking, which were important aspects of popular politics in the 19th and early 20th centuries, have now pretty much disappeared.

This might be different outside of the U.S. But at the moment, I don't think I know who the great orators are, because being a great orator isn't a big political asset.
posted by craichead at 9:49 AM on June 3, 2007

Agree, Noam Chomsky is the first candidate that came to mind.
posted by rolypolyman at 9:50 AM on June 3, 2007

George Galloway.

I agree that grandiose public oration is a thing of the past.
posted by fire&wings at 9:56 AM on June 3, 2007

He's one generation before me, but President Reagan. He wasn't known as The Great Communicator for nothing.

President Clinton is also someone who's generally regarded as a great speaker. He just didn't have any hugely historical speeches (that I can call to mind).
posted by sbutler at 10:01 AM on June 3, 2007


I'm not particularly a fan, but she's very popular at events like university graduation ceremonies.

Also, I think Al Gore is becoming a great speaker. I think it's partly due to his convictions and confidence.
posted by loiseau at 10:09 AM on June 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

Ohhh... I shouldn't say this, but Rush Limbaugh. Whether you believe he's a profound thinker or not depends on your political association. But ignoring that, the guy knows how to use his voice and he's made a very successful career out of it.
posted by sbutler at 10:11 AM on June 3, 2007

I'll probably get smacked around for saying this, but I believe, when he wants to, Bono is.

His speech at the National Prayer Breakfast about ending extreme poverty was just incredible, and his Enniskillen speech in Rattle and Hum still gives me chills.
posted by 4ster at 10:12 AM on June 3, 2007

Seconding Bill Clinton. Jesse Jackson is also a very engaging and powerful orator. (whether you agree with each of these men's politics or not, you can't deny that they stand head and shoulders above most public figures today in terms of their public-speaking skills)
posted by amyms at 10:13 AM on June 3, 2007

I hate myself for this, but former Sen. Rick Santorum gave the best speech I've ever attended.
posted by awesomebrad at 10:16 AM on June 3, 2007

Oh, and I agree with 4ster about Bono. In addition to the examples 4ster gave, here's one that's a little less weighty, but fun: Bono was the introductory speaker at a tribute to Frank Sinatra at the 1994 Grammy Awards and his speech brought the house down. Frank called it "the best introduction I've ever had." (and that's no small feat)
posted by amyms at 10:18 AM on June 3, 2007

Fred Thompson has been getting a lot of attention for his oratory recently.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 10:20 AM on June 3, 2007

Is your question fair? Gandhi's India was struggling for independence, Lincoln's America was defeating slavery, and Churchill's Britain was on the brink of invasion. Perhaps great oratory is associated with momentous, pivotal events. "Cometh the hour, cometh the man". The present doesn't quite compare to the birth of a nation, a civil war, or the spread of the Reich.

George Galloway? Bono? Oprah?! Did you miss the "profound thinker" part?
posted by Aloysius Bear at 10:20 AM on June 3, 2007 [3 favorites]

Pundits joke about Castro's three-hour speeches. But whatever you think of the man, he regularly gave three-hour speeches, and they're not bad ones at that.
posted by holgate at 10:25 AM on June 3, 2007

The present doesn't quite compare to the birth of a nation, a civil war, or the spread of the Reich.
Ok, but there have been plenty of famous orators who weren't involved in such momentous struggles. It's just that people aren't as likely to know about them. I'm thinking of Daniel Webster, for instance, or William Jennings Bryan. They were dealing with big, important issues, but there are plenty of big, important issues facing people right now, too.
posted by craichead at 10:27 AM on June 3, 2007

Malcolm X!!
posted by milarepa at 10:29 AM on June 3, 2007

I think that being a profound thinker has little, if anything, to do with being a good orator/public speaker/rhetorician/whatnot. Is Reagan a worse orator because he was Peggy Noonan's sockpuppet?

Louis Farrakhan!
Robert Byrd!
T.D. Jakes!
Jello Biafra!

Also, I'm amazed that nobody's mentioned Barack Obama yet.
posted by box at 10:36 AM on June 3, 2007

You could probably find a whole bunch at TEDTalks (They've had Al Gore and Clinton). My favorite is Sir Ken Robinson.
posted by theiconoclast31 at 10:37 AM on June 3, 2007

Lech Wałęsa
Desmond Tutu
posted by 4ster at 10:37 AM on June 3, 2007

Peter Storey (former Methodist Bishop of South Africa and appointed by Nelson Mandela to help select the nation's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
posted by 4ster at 10:40 AM on June 3, 2007

"Everybody loves to argue with Milton, particularly when he isn't there." - George Shultz
posted by theiconoclast31 at 10:42 AM on June 3, 2007

Well, though Chomsky is a very bright guy, he isn't much of a speaker... he has a dry, monotonous way about him and he comes off a bit holier-than-thou. I have the utmost respect for him, but he definitely not a gifted orator, in my opinion. A real pity he isn't more charismatic.

I wonder if this trend you write about has to do with the search for the perfect one-liner for the cable news networks.
posted by mateuslee at 10:50 AM on June 3, 2007

Helmut Schmidt
posted by cwittmann at 10:51 AM on June 3, 2007

Perhaps we have this feeling that the make-a-nation-swoon speeches of days of yor no longer happen is in a change in education.

Schools used to teach what is called the Trivium: the three subjects that should be in a basic education (basic for the elite/clergy/etc). It consisted of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. So one could fluently speak the language, make a sound argument, and learn how to present it eloquently.

In America, this is still taught in private school but public schools dropped all but the most rudimentary grammar education around 50 years ago, leaving us with a generation hooked on LOLcats.

The culture has changed as well. With power point presentations to dazzle the eyes and the efficient language of email and text messaging we don't value a well chosen word quite as much. We don't have time for that

"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

when it is so much easier to say "our nation digs equality".

I am sure many Americans believe that we are up against a great evil in that blanket term terrorists, and that our leaders would be sufficiently motivated to come up with Churchillian speeches. And yet, we still get axis of evil. No 'day that will live on in infamy" just 9/11.

But my two cents? James Wolcott. Delish!
posted by munchingzombie at 10:51 AM on June 3, 2007

Obama's Convention speech made me cry, in a good way. He's a bit more low-key on the campaign trail, though.

Late Senator Paul Wellstone was a thrilling speaker.

Jim Wallis, progressive evangelical leader.

I would look out for Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, NJ, who is the best speaker I've seen in a long, long time.

Tony Kushner
posted by lunasol at 10:52 AM on June 3, 2007

Lawrence Lessig.
posted by aparrish at 11:00 AM on June 3, 2007

alistair cook was great and I am almost ashamed to admit that there was a speech mc cain gave (that I heard one late night on NPR about a year ago) that I was quite impressed with. this was before he imploded on the iraq issue.

agreed on TED. find someone who's been there, they have access to DVD's of old talks. I have about eight each from 2003 and 2004 here and I love them to death.

I also agree with helmut schmidt and would add michael naumann but if you don't speak german, you won't be able to enjoy most of their work. (both write for germany's intellectual weekly die zeit.) other noteworthy eloquent germans would be jürgen habermas and peter sloterdijk.
posted by krautland at 11:06 AM on June 3, 2007

Thirding Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.

Also, Maya Angelou. I've seen her speak twice and got goosebumps both times.
posted by SisterHavana at 11:08 AM on June 3, 2007

Mario Cuomo's speech at the 1984 Democratic Convention was amazing. I bought a cassette - the only time in my life I paid for a copy of a speech.

George Galloway is a good speaker ... too bad he's such a demagogue.
posted by lukemeister at 11:22 AM on June 3, 2007

Dr. William F. Schulz, former director of Amnesty International in the US, gave the commencement speech at my graduation, and just blew me away. He received (and absolutely deserved) a standing ovation. He was by turns funny, charming, and extremely powerful.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 11:27 AM on June 3, 2007

Ted O'Neill.

Jonathan Z. Smith.

And nthing Barack Obama... who lives ten blocks from me. Yay!
posted by rhoticity at 11:40 AM on June 3, 2007

I think Al Gore is a riveting public speaker. Some of his recent speeches on the state of the environment have been really affecting.

I'm also going to put in, after seeing the Mefi post earlier this week, a vote for Fred Rogers.
posted by invitapriore at 11:44 AM on June 3, 2007

lukemeister, You beat me to it. Cuomo's 1984 convention speech was one of the best political speeches of our generation. Amazing. I was thinking I had read where someone had put it on YouTube, but I did a cursory search and failed to turn up anything. However, I found a site called, "American Rhetoric" that has the complete audio and a text of the speech. No kidding, after listening to just five minutes, it's maybe even better simply listened to. It was a giant of a political speech.
posted by Gerard Sorme at 11:45 AM on June 3, 2007

Having watched the video of his TED Conference speech, I would say Sir Ken Robinson is an excellent speaker and thinker.

Its also worth rooting around the TED videos - there are dozens or more of great talks on fascinating topics by empassioned speakers.
posted by mooders at 12:06 PM on June 3, 2007

I just remembered that Schulz spoke at Oberlin's graduation teh year after I finished, not my year. Wishful thinking on my part, I guess.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 12:43 PM on June 3, 2007

Seconding Maya Angelou - I've only heard her speak a couple times, but whenever I read something she's written, I hear her voice bouncing around my cranium.

Barack Obama is also great - but perhaps only because everyone else he's compared to has turned their speech into Meet-the-Press-able nuggets of banality.
posted by mdonley at 12:49 PM on June 3, 2007

As an orator, TD Jakes can wail. I was flipping through the channels one night and watched him for an hour. I wasn't intrigued by the message, but his delivery and passion are magnetic.
posted by jasondigitized at 2:26 PM on June 3, 2007


David Armand has said more in pantomime than all the above names put together... with the possible exception of Maya Angelou.

For the real great speakers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, I gotta point the arrow at the comedic speakers of our time -- the humorists. Dick Gregory, George Carlin, Bill Cosby, Whoopi Goldberg, Bill Maher, Dana Gould, Dennis Miller, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Elayne Boosler, Penn & Teller, Ellen Degeneres, and a host of others. I know that's not what you're going for, but stand up comedians have done more to further the art of public speaking in the past hundred years than any politicians or world leaders before or since.

Honorable mention would be David Letterman's returning speech the week after Nine Eleven. He said what I needed to hear at the time. That's enough for me.
posted by ZachsMind at 2:27 PM on June 3, 2007

Addendum: I say 'possible exception of Maya Angelou' because I only have to think of her saying the word "RISE" and I get goosebumps.

She says that one word and conveys volumes.

So come to think of it, that's not a possible exception. She's a living treasure to America, the world, and an exclusatory exception to any rule.
posted by ZachsMind at 2:31 PM on June 3, 2007

Stephen Lewis
posted by madokachan at 2:57 PM on June 3, 2007

I'll probably get flack for this -- and I want to, because I'm curious -- but I've been impressed by what I've heard of Tony Blair. This may partly be my oh-don't-Brits-sound-smart-with-that-posh-accent American naievete, but I try to adjust the gauges for that. I've actually felt he _seemed_ well-considered and thoughtful (whether or not I agree with him).
posted by amtho at 5:28 PM on June 3, 2007

Tim Wise (anti-racist activist and writer and, according to Dinesh D'Souza, "the Uncle Tom of the white race") has given the best speeches/talks I've ever seen. If you have a chance to see him, do.
posted by wemayfreeze at 7:58 PM on June 3, 2007

Penn & Teller

Penn perhaps, but Teller is not exactly known for his oratory skills.
posted by mach at 9:48 PM on June 3, 2007

I think that Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and George Galloway all go back to an old tradition of rhetoric but none are what you would call great calls-to-arms type speakers. I think it must be a dying art.

Most great talkers I can think of now (like Stephen Fry) hardly use it for anything more serious that advertising tea bags.
posted by ClanvidHorse at 2:00 AM on June 4, 2007

Mr. Rogers was a remarkable speaker.
posted by mateuslee at 7:36 AM on June 4, 2007

Maybe I'm biased because I love his books, but I always liked to hear Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. speak.
posted by altcountryman at 9:59 AM on June 4, 2007

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