The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An anthology of great speeches, from the inspirational to the ominous

President John F. Kennedy, pictured in 1961, studied historical addresses and oratory to help him shape his own speeches. Today’s public speakers hew to the more informal “conversational style.” (John Rous/AP Photo, File)

One late December in the 1950s, Sen. John F. Kennedy received a Christmas present from his speechwriter, Ted Sorensen: a thick, clothbound volume titled “A Treasury of the World’s Great Speeches.” It was not an immodest gift. Both men imagined that someday, their work together might merit inclusion in an anthology like that, alongside Cicero, Lincoln and Disraeli. Kennedy “devoured” the book, Sorensen recalled years later, “often citing passages to me” for use in his own speeches.

No one can argue with the results. (Indeed, later editions contained two speeches by JFK.) Why, then, is it so hard to picture a present-day politician dog-earing the pages of a speech anthology and studying, as Kennedy did, the cadences of Churchill? Today’s would-be Sorensens, searching for inspiration, are more likely to pull up a video of Barack or Michelle Obama than to dust off the “Treasury” and consult the oratory of, say, Pitt the Younger. Even the word “oratory,” from our postmillennial point of view, seems outdated, the rhetorical equivalent of knee breeches and frock coats. The surest way to get yanked off the stage — any stage — is to clear one’s throat and begin to orate.

Highly polished, heavily rehearsed remarks still have an audience, as the popularity of Ted talks makes clear. But most modern speeches reflect what Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the University of Pennsylvania has called the “conversational style”: not ineloquent, necessarily, but informal, plain-spoken. The trick, the sleight of hand, is a script that doesn’t seem scripted. “This sounds like a speech,” Bill Clinton would sometimes complain when reviewing a draft. “I just want to talk to people.” The conversational style is not new — its roots run through the speeches of Clinton and Ronald Reagan to the fireside chats of Franklin Roosevelt — but in the past few decades it has become the default. It fulfills our yearning for “authenticity”: Colloquial speech sounds direct and unpremeditated. It also happens to suit a time when speeches are delivered to screens of little people-squares rather than crowded ballrooms. Grandiloquence plays poorly on a laptop.

Our sense of what constitutes a great speech is, as ever, evolving. So is our sense of who might deliver one. The compendium that Sorensen gave Kennedy contains about 150 speeches. These include three by the 18th-century French statesman Comte de Mirabeau, but only two by women (Queen Elizabeth I and Elizabeth Cady Stanton) and two by Black speakers (Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington). “Lend Me Your Ears,” edited by William Safire, remains the gold standard after nearly 30 years in print, but its gender imbalance is almost as glaring as that in the “Treasury.” It is hardly alone in this regard, as an analysis by the speechwriter Dana Rubin reveals. The canon of great speeches is a stag party. (Rubin, in response, has launched Speaking While Female, an online archive of women’s speeches.)

Clearly, the anthology of speeches, as an institution, is ripe for a reboot. If it is to remain — in that cruelest of adjectives — relevant, it has to make room for new voices and for “talk” that reads, in many cases, like a transcript. And it must do these things while establishing, for readers who might assume otherwise, that we still have something to draw from the traditional wellsprings of rhetoric: the Greeks, British prime ministers, American presidents. The late Brian MacArthur, a British journalist, worked assiduously for years to update Penguin’s volumes of speeches; now we also have “Voices of History,” a compelling collection by the historian Simon Sebag Montefiore.

The classics, Montefiore contends, have not lost their power to inspire, to instruct, to challenge the conscience. But today, given the global reach of technology, “oratory is flourishing in a way that is more visceral and popular than it ever was. . . . Young speakers like Greta Thunberg and Malala can become instantly world-famous in one televised speech” — a speech that can then be viewed online millions of times. A few such speeches are included here, among them a 2012 Ted talk on feminism by the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (“The problem with gender is that it prescribes how we should be rather than recognizing how we are”).

But Montefiore’s focus is on noting — and warning — that “words have consequences.” Those consequences, as this collection shows, have been measured both in human progress and in bloodshed. “Our age of populism, racism, anti-Semitism and conspiracism,” Montefiore writes, makes us acutely aware that “the violence of language . . . leads inexorably towards the practice of violence.” While the balance sheet here favors the peacemakers — the Gandhis, Kings and Mandelas — the book includes, as it must, despots and demagogues. If we ever did before, we can no longer read the maledictions of Himmler or of Robespierre (“Terror is nothing other than justice”) with a sense of safe remove; the narcissistic pathos of Eva Perón (“You will pick up my name and will carry it to victory as a banner”) and Nero in his final moments (“What an artist the world is losing in me! . . . So this is loyalty?”) have an all-too-familiar and ominous ring. Evil, as Montefiore notes, often arrives in the guise of absurdity, but we cannot, today, be quick to laugh.

As anthologies go, this one is fairly compact: Montefiore intends his book to be read, not consigned to the reference shelf. Yet he seems a bit worried about losing his audience. A writer of fiction and popular histories, Montefiore is a vivid storyteller, but his commentary on speeches often has a rushed, perfunctory feel. Winston Churchill’s vow to “fight on the beaches” gets only a paragraph of introduction; Barack Obama’s 2008 election night speech, we are told, reflects “the idealism of the American experience” — a phrase that invites explication it does not receive. The texts, one might argue, speak for themselves, but “Voices of History” would have greater value if it shed more light on how they were drafted, on the tools and techniques that achieve their effects, on their echoes of great speeches of the past.

Still, this collection contains plenty of fodder for future Sorensens — maybe even a JFK. There are words to echo and recall, and words better thrown on the ash heap of history. Either way: “Words matter,” as Montefiore concludes. “Respect them.” The voices in this book make a strong case for that.

Voices of History

Speeches That Changed the World

By Simon Sebag Montefiore

298 pp. 16.95 paperback