by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Nelson Mandela’s recent visit may have reminded Americans of the things we take for granted, but it also suggested something we sorely miss: great speakers.

Mandela came to Detroit Thursday and, with his thick South African accent, ignited a group of autoworkers by declaring “I am your flesh and blood. I am your comrade.” Later, before a packed house at Tiger Stadium, he recited the words to, of all things, a Marvin Gaye song — and again set the crowd on fire. “Brother . . . brother . . . there’s far too many of you dying. . . .”

Forget his politics for a moment. The man knows how to speak. He knows how to project, to pause, and, ultimately, inspire. This has long been a trait of the world’s great historical figures, from Socrates to Winston Churchill.

But sadly in America it seems to be a dying art. Who was the last president to stir you with his words? Who was the last political figure to make you weep as you listened? Our country, which gave the world such glorious prose as “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” now finds its highest leader, George Bush, most recognized by the phrase: “Read my lips.”

If only those lips said something. Few speak their minds Why have we lost our great orators? Several reasons, I figure. First of all, nowadays, when a guy gets powerful in America, he is immediately parodied by everything from “Saturday Night Live” to Rich Little’s Las Vegas act. Morning radio hosts do daily impersonations. Chances are you heard people “doing” Ronald Reagan more often than you ever heard the president himself. This compromises a speaker’s credibility.

So does the fact that we are a TV and movie nation, so overdosed on speeches by actors — as the music swells and the tears flow — that we are inevitably disappointed when real people say real things. Nobody is as good as Paul Newman at the end of “The Verdict” or Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.” Yet, somehow, we still expect it. We elected an actor president, didn’t we?

Most of all, however, our lack of stirring speakers has to do with who they are and what they want. Usually, we don’t trust it. We are so used to being lied to by our leaders that every sentence is taken with a grain of salt.
“They’re just after votes,” we tell ourselves. We tune them out. It is no accident that the three most stirring people to address Congress in recent years were Mandela, Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa, three foreigners, three regular men who had fought for what they believed in and had been imprisoned for it. These were men with passion, speaking for a cause, not for personal gain or election to office.

As one senator was quoted: “They are willing to die for what they believe. We’re not willing to risk one bad poll.” Less art, more matter Many feel that President Kennedy was the last great speaker to hold that office. Lyndon Johnson rarely twanged anything truly memorable, and Richard Nixon became most famous for saying, “I am not a crook.” Gerald Ford was credible but uninspiring. Jimmy Carter was wimpy, Reagan became a caricature of himself.

Now I am not saying these men were bad presidents; history will judge that. But none made you want to throw your fist in the air and say “Yes!” when he spoke. Isn’t that part of being a leader?

It is. But a bigger part, I guess, is being sincere. Speaking from the heart. Our political leaders are so afraid of saying the wrong thing that they often wind up saying nothing. That was not the case with Mandela. He spoke from his heart, even when it offended people. You cannot help but be moved by that.

America has people who speak from the heart. But they are most often not in the spotlight. They are in quieter places, farms, factories, row homes in the city. They are, as were Mandela, Havel and Walesa, amongst the real people. We need to find them again, to hear what they have to say.

After Mandela left, people wiped tears from their eyes and said they were inspired to do something about South Africa. Great. But there are plenty of causes in this country that need the same spirit. We can only hope a voice from our own backyard will be able to inspire us the way Mandela did. Isn’t there someone out there who can still speak from the heart?


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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