BOOK REVIEW / And the word was mightier than the oil can: 'Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History' - Ed. William Safire: Norton, 25 pounds

IT IS a fact universally unacknowledged that the weight of an opinion stands in direct proportion to the size of the person to whom it belongs. Only the heavy brigade - Healey, Lawson, Heath, Jenkins, Maxwell and so on - are said to 'weigh in' with an observation or a thought. Little guys, however brilliant or solemn, are rarely described as big guns. Their views do not tip the scales, though once in a while they can be the last straw.

As with people, so with books. Lend Me Your Ears is a substantial volume. William Safire notes that it weighs 2.4lb, and commends Antiphlogiston - an ointment for the book-holding deltoid muscles - as the most effective remedy against any spasms or twinges that might follow an enthusiastic reading. But while it is tempting to dwell on the intellectual weight of the 200 speeches squashed between its covers, they are for the most part models of lightness.

The contents page is a roll-call of the great, the good, the bad, and the extra bad. The anthology travels in time from the condemned Socrates ('At what price would you not estimate a conference with Orpheus and Musaeus, Hesiod and Homer?') to the born-again Billy Graham: 'Yes, man has a terminal disease. It is called sin.'

In between, we are offered the words of Churchill, Napoleon, Luther, Zola, Demosthenes, Lenin, Job, Marx, St Francis, Hitler, Jefferson, Cicero, Stalin and many, many more. The editor even includes an oration of his own, a witty and cunning attack on the telephone as the enemy of literature: 'My subject today is 'The Decline of the Written Word'. If the speech I have written is disjointed and confusing, you will get my point the hard way.'

Of the 200 speeches in question, only 44 are by people who lived outside the United States, and only 13 are by women. Delivering speeches, it seems, is a manly and American calling. The stiff entry requirements demanded of the overseas contingent lead to some unsettling juxtapositions. After James Wright resigns as Speaker of the House ('I shall never cease to be thankful to the Twelfth District of Texas') we turn to Jesus: 'Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt . . .'

After Martin Luther King's famous and heart-wrenching anthem ('I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be laid low') we move to a perky defence of the marigold by some senator: 'It is as sprightly as the daffodil, as colourful as the rose.'

But these are inevitable quirks, and do not detract from the collection's seductive appeal. It is not a question of the spoken word being more dramatic, or simpler, than the written word. The best speeches are written and spoken - a fusion of the rhetorical arts, or what we now call 'language skills'. Besides, American is a rich and versatile tongue. It was slower to dispense with the shapeliness of biblical language, quicker to accommodate the fleet-footedness of everyday speech, and seems more varied and supple than our own aloof version.

It is a shame, though, that the book leans so hard on politics, a field of endeavour that generates the least interesting work. Presumably for comic reasons, Safire has included Dan Quayle's trapped-in- the-headlights performance in the televised vice-presidential debate. But he also finds room for several rambling, evasive monologues by Richard Nixon; and then there's Barry Goldwater, George Bush, Jimmy Carter, Jack Kemp, Hubert Humphrey, Harry Truman, and so on. Real zingers, all of them.

The trouble is that the theme of any campaigning speech is: vote for me. Alongside the truly grand utterances in this book - the rallying cries or elegies of King, Byron, Havel, Nehru and others - this seems, er, lightweight. Obviously, the contributors who rose to their feet at the turning points of history - Lincoln at Gettysburg, Churchill in 1940 - had an unfair advantage. And some were dealt even more outrageous hands. When Charles I stroked the axe and addressed the audience at his execution, he had the benefit of 17th-century English, which allowed him to say things like: 'I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown, where no disturbance can be.'

And Mark Antony was lucky enough ('So are they all, all honourable men') to have Shakespeare as his speechwriter.

Throughout, as befits a man who describes himself as being 'in the rhetorics dodge', Safire keeps one ear on the linguistic formalities. His introductions highlight the use of parallel structure, metonymy, anaphora (the repetition of a phrase) and much else. Of these, perhaps the most popular is the famous quotation with twist. Ask not what broadcasting can do for you; ask what you can do for broadcasting. Never have so few owed so much to so many. The Lady's not for turning. The oil can is mightier than the sword.

And they are both mightier than the pen, right? This book suggests the opposite. Lurking between loud chunks of political bluster are the quiet, steadfast voices. Gandhi, for instance: 'My public life began in 1893 in South Africa in troubled weather.' Or Eugene Debs, a US anti-war protestor in 1918: 'I recognise the feebleness of my effort, but fortunately I am not alone.' At Gettysburg, in his great hymn to the fallen, Lincoln said: 'The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.' Parallel structure, anaphora . . . it's all there. But he was wrong. We have forgotten the men who died; yet the words are as fresh as a marigold.