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Contrasting Oratorical Styles in Action

Clinton on Trial

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  • By David Von Drehle
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, January 17, 1999; Page A26

    "I'm done."

    It was a strangely affecting little touch, a simple, matter-of-fact conclusion to a soaring, idealistic speech, and with these words Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) ended the three-day marathon in which his team presented the impeachment case against President Clinton.

    Hyde is one of the better speechmakers in the U.S. Congress. He knows the art of delivering lofty sentences in a plainspoken way, which places him in a proud tradition of American oratory of which Lincoln is the greatest example and Ronald Reagan the most recent virtuoso.

    And so, as he wrapped up some 15 hours of the prosecution's argument, no one was surprised to find the House Judiciary Committee chairman scaling the heights. "Some of us have been called Clinton-haters," said the tall, broad, white-haired Hyde. "I must tell you, distinguished senators, that this impeachment trial is not for those of us from the House a question of hating anyone.

    "This is not a question of who we hate; it's a question of what we love.

    "And among the things we love are the rule of law, equal justice before the law and honor in our public life," Hyde declared. "All of us are trying as hard as we can to do our duty as we see it; no more and no less."

    He spoke of "bedrock principles" and of "the foundation stones of our freedom." He pledged "faith with our ancestors from Bunker Hill, Lexington, Concord to Flanders Fields, Normandy, Hiroshima, Panmunjom, Saigon and Desert Storm." Reprising his closing speech in the impeachment debate on the floor of the House last month, he sketched the history of civilization, from the Ten Commandments to the Roman law to the Magna Carta to 1776.

    And yet, just as last month's similar speech shifted not one vote in the House, it is doubtful whether any senator was persuaded by Hyde's address. True, there were some misty eyes in the Senate chamber as Hyde read a letter from a Chicago third-grader named William Preston Summers, who asked: "If you cannot believe the president, who can you believe? If you have no one to believe in, then how do you run your life?"

    Minutes later, one moderate Democrat, Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, brushed aside such emotional appeals. "If that becomes a factor," he said of the boy's letter, "we're gonna have third-graders all across the country impeaching a lot of people."

    If any speaker moved votes, it was probably Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who comes from a very different, more contemporary, oratorical tradition -- the Bill Clinton tradition.

    The Clinton style, as the country knows, is informal, highly personal, free-associative and loquacious. It's a style designed to be heard -- actually, to be looked at -- and seems somehow diminished in print. That's because the conversational quality is essential; that -- rather than Moses or Flanders Field -- is where the credibility comes from.

    "And this has been billed as a constitutional drama; by some of the pundits, that's called a snoozer, and I can understand that a little bit. I'm the twelfth lawyer you've had to listen to, and I think my colleagues have done a very good job," Graham said in his soft southern voice.

    "But it's a very long, tedious process in many ways, and it's hard to sit here and listen to 12 lawyers talk to you. But you've done a wonderful job, I think. I'm very proud of the United States Senate. You've paid great attention.

    "But the fact that people call this boring is not a bad thing to me. I think it shows the confidence we've achieved in 200 years as a republic, that people can go on about their business -- and they're upset; I know my phone rings a lot and your phones ring a lot about what to do, but there's a calmness in this country in the midst of something so important like this -- that tells me we've done it right for a long time."

    That's a pretty rambling read, but it was effective when he delivered it. He spoke from notes but certainly didn't seem bound by them. If something popped into his head, he said it. He wandered now and then from behind the lectern. Sometimes he spoke with his hands stuffed into his pockets.

    He was just-folksy: "My father and mother owned a restaurant -- a beer joint I guess is what we'd say in South Carolina."

    And he employed candor, acknowledging that the charges against Clinton "are colored by sex. And there's absolutely no way to get around that. And I know it's uncomfortable to listen to."

    He even acknowledged that if he ever found himself suddenly being asked questions about an affair, he might start lying. "Because it is personal to have to talk about intimate things," he allowed. "And our human nature is to protect ourselves, our family -- that's just human nature."

    Through the decades, many more great speeches have been heard in the Senate chamber in the Hyde tradition than in the Graham manner. But at this remarkable hour, a chat seems to stand up better than a peroration. It feels more consistent with the matter at hand. Yes, this is history, but as Graham acknowledged, it's history with a strong tinge of soap opera.

    A speech can be lofted on updrafts of honor, justice and the rule of law. But as soon as it gains altitude, one sees dangling beneath it the thong, the creep and the blue dress.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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