Let us bring justice to our enemies

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Indy Politics

Among those who saw on television the events of 11 September, there was a consensus: words were not enough. And yet, society requires its leaders to speak. When Tony Blair and George W Bush made their first formal reactions to the attacks, they knew that every word would be weighed and measured by friends and enemies alike.

Otherwise, their positions were quite different. Tony Blair addressed the Labour conference as an experienced and successful speaker. For President Bush, in a State of the Union address, it was quite new. What's more, his reputation as a speaker was not strong. Off the cuff, he is clumsy.

Aware of his difficulties, Bush uses five speechwriters, led by Michael Gerson, an evangelical Christian who likes biblical language and fine phrases. Try this, from the inaugural address: "An angel still rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm."

Bush seems to like the poetic note. But Gerson's phrases are often toned down by long-term aide Karen Hughes before he speaks them. Since the attacks, the keynote has been simplicity. In the State of the Union address, there were some attractive phrases: the chiasmus of "whether we bring our enemies to justice, or justice to our enemies"; the contrast in "all of this was brought upon us in a single day, and night fell on a different world".

Mr Bush's delivery was flawless. Using the invisible glass autocue known as the "sincerity machine, he was calm, measured and forceful. When he declared that "the entire world has seen for itself the state of our Union – and it is strong", the last three words were hammered home with a hand-chopping gesture. Congress rose.

Soliciting applause is central to public speaking. In his book Our Masters' Voices, the public-speaking coach Max Atkinson identified a string of techniques. "Rhetoric has got a bad name," he says. "You can't be a good communicator without using it. It's a bit like complaining that sentences have verbs."

"It was a cracker, wasn't it?" he says of Tony Blair's speech to conference. "He was cranking out the rhetorical devices like nobody's business."

Some described the speech as Churchillian, and in ambition it may have been. But it didn't sound like a Churchill speech. As a speaker, Churchill was influenced by the New York congressman Bourke Cockran, who advised him to use long, wave-like cadences, rising to a peak of intensity and then dropping back. While Churchill intoned long rolling paragraphs, Blair speaks in fragments. Short bursts. Often without verbs.

Max Atkinson believes that Mr Blair wrote the speech himself. Churchill, of course, wrote his own speeches. When he was 23, he wrote a little article about rhetoric. "Before the orator can inspire audiences with any emotion he must be swayed by it himself," he wrote. "When he would rouse their indignation his heart is filled with anger. Before he can move their tears his own must flow. "

True, but rhetorical technique never goes amiss, either.