23 September 2010

Time-travel and political debates

We've been watching The Civil War, the documentary series produced by Ken Burns several years ago. It is a truly great series. The other night we watched the episode that included Lincoln's speech at Gettysburg. One of the interesting things about this speech is that Lincoln was invited in sort of an off-handed way. The folks dedicating the new cemetery realized they probably should extend an invitation to the president, and he knew that he'd be called upon to speak. However, he was not invited as the primary speaker. The chief orator was Edward Everett. His speech lasted a couple of hours. Of course, Lincoln's was only a few minutes, and it was one of the most eloquent and beautiful speeches most of us have ever read.

With all that background, here is my point: Can you imagine listening to somebody speak for over two hours? In the 1860s that was really common. Most politicians gave speeches that lasted that long. Sermons were that long too. Mormons attend a semi-annual conference each year. Each conference includes six two-hour sessions, four of which are directed at the entire church. (Meaning that at any given conference you probably will only attend as many as five sessions.) Don't get me wrong, I love General Conference, but sitting for two hours at a time and listening to speakers is a little tiring, and we're talking about NUMEROUS speakers in each session, plus songs! And I still find myself very ready for each session to end.

It is hard for me to imagine politicians of today, who are trained to speak in soundbites and quippy remarks having a debate with a politician of the 1860s. I mean, really, can you imagine Abraham Lincoln participating in the Republican presidential primaries with Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin and John McCain? If anything on earth could make our current politicians look even dumber, I think that would be it. Of course, Americans, as a rule, appreciate the shorter, quippy remarks to the logical, thoughtful political explanations. (Thank you, television.) Not only that, but can you imagine a politician of the 1860s having to respond to debate questions within a 90-second limit?

Now, I'm not advocating a return to lengthy political speeches. I just thought it was interesting how very different our political discussions are now than what they were 150 years ago. The style of political discourse is so vastly different than it once was, that it really is like comparing apples and oranges. But I still do wonder if truly eloquent politicians of ages past are looking down on the Sarah Palins (and others, oh, there are others!) of today and shake their heads in disappointment.

1 comment:

Jenny said...

I think your subject could be interesting across the board... could you imagine Mary Todd Lincoln nuking a hot pocket for Abraham as he ran off to give his quick speech?