Impersonating Nobel Laureates, At-Large Terrorists, Dead Actors and Presidents; or How I Learned to Start Worrying and Enjoy RhetoricBy Kip Tobin
March 28, 2007
Like most expats and/or struggling writers, you take pretty much whatever work comes your way.
I’ve done a lot of trickle down jobs that range from networking computers, translation, travel guide writing and DJing to the obligatory English teaching.
I sometimes call the last one “slingin’ ‘glish” (but never to my students).
Nothing beats the one I’m currently doing in terms of sheer oddity and the psychological effect it’s leaving in its wake.
Yolanda, an old friend and corporal in the Spanish Armed Forces, called me up a few weeks ago and asked me if would give some speeches to her interpretation class.
She speaks five languages (Spanish, English, German, French and Chinese).
When she’s done with this translation school, she’ll be officially qualified to interpret between German and English to Spanish. She could be a UN interpretor if she really wanted.
‘What kind of speeches would I have to give?’ I asked.
‘Whatever you want.’
I asked for a little more direction and she said, ‘Really, just bring 3 or 4 and they’ll be fine.’
‘Any particular kinds of speeches or subjects you’d like me to try and find?’
So I went to American Rhetoric and browsed through the Top 100 political speeches of the 21st century.
When one thinks of famous speeches, I’d venture to guess that most Americans would name MLK’s “I have a dream…” and JFK’s Inaugural address (the one where he says “Ask NOT what your country can do for you…”) and that would pretty much be it.
At least that was case with me.
Those are number one and two, respectively.
They’re recalled easily because they stir our hot-blooded, American souls, calling the hairs on our necks and arms to attention.
The crux of this job is to read a speech effectively.
I had to be careful, especially to budding young interpretors.
I had to pronounce the typical midwestern “t” as a “d”, as in “wah-Ter” and not the normal “wah-Der”.
I had use the proper intonation and rhythm and not simply read text out loud, monotonously.
In short, I had to act as if these were my words and that I believed them with some conviction.
Oh yeah, the class was comprised of all women ages 22-29, seven in total.
They all sat in semi-soundproofed booths and wore headphones and stared at me.
For my first speech I told them, word for word, what Obama told everyone when he announced he was running for president back in February.
With a certain degree of forced cadence that wasn’t innate, I spoke
into a microphone:
‘We all made this journey for a reason. It’s humbling to see a crowd like this ,
but in my heart I know you didn’t come here just for me. No, you came here
because you believe in what this country can be. In the face of war, you
believe there can be peace…”
“…In the face of despair, you believe there can be
hope. In the face of a politics that’s shut you out, that’s told you to settle,
that’s divided us for too long, you believe that we can be one people, reaching
for what’s possible, building that more perfect union.“
I could hear their muffled voices rattling off the
translations from the booths.
Then I was an actual president, Ronald Reagan, nationally mourning the deaths of the seven astronauts who died that fateful day on January 28, 1986.
“The crew of the
space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their
lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning,
as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the
surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”‘
“Thank you,” I said.
(BTW – this is considered to be the 8th best speech of the 20th century.)
I decided to switch it up and become a famous sci-fi/fantasy author, Ursula LeGuinn.
I gave her
“Left-Handed Commencement Address” to the women of Mills College in
(Number 84 of all time best speeches)
And then I rattled off an essay-delivered-as-a-speech by an unknown Australian about the war in Iraq.
I graciously accepted their money and went home.
They were quite pleased with my speech-reading abilities and asked me back for another round.
The next week I spoke about globalization by a member of the WTO and how it was good for the world despite some of the criticism to the contrary.
I was Rudy Giuliani addressing at the opening remarks to the UN General Assembly’s Special Session on Terrorism on October 1, 2001.
I sounded almost exactly like Bush:
“Look at that destruction, that massive, senseless, cruel loss of human life, and then
I ask you to look in your hearts and recognize that there is no room for
neutrality on the issue of terrorism. You’re either with civilization or with
“On one side is democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human life; on the
other is tyranny, arbitrary executions, and mass murder.”
“We’re right and they’re wrong. It’s as simple as that.”
And then I did a one-eighty and was evil incarnate himself, Usama Bin Laden, reciting my 15-point dispatch to terror agents on the eve of 9/11:
“Number one: Make an oath to die and renew your intentions. Shave excess hair from the
body and wear cologne. Shower.”
And because all of this heavy political proselytizing was starting to weigh on my soul, I decided to choose a couple of classic monologues from American cinema from the A.R. site.
Just for kicks.
I was Atticus Finch in his closing argument at the trial of Tom Robinson from “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“Now I am confident that you gentlemen will review without passion the evidence that
you have heard, come to a decision, and restore this man to his family.”
“In the name of God, ” I said emphatically, “do your duty.”
“In the name of God, believe Tom Robinson.“
Finally, I was Howard Beale, the deranged newscaster in 1976’s brilliant (and timeless) Network.
“So, I want you to get up now,’ I said raising my voice, ‘I want you to get up out
of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it,
and stick your head out and yell, I’M MAD AS HELL AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE IT
For my third and (thus far) final session, I was Robert Kennedy on April 4, 1968, announcing the shocking death of MLK:
“…but the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land…”
I was Richard M. Nixon announcing his resignation to his cabinet and staff:
“…so I say to you on this occasion, we leave, proud of the people who have stood by us and worked for us, and served this government and this country…”
I was FDR addressing the nation about Pearl Harbor on December 8, 1941:
“…I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when i assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us…”
For a quick change, I was William Faulkner accepting his Nobel prize in 1950:
“The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these [struggles of humanity’s] things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”
They complained after that one; it was too difficult, too poetic.
Finally, I had to choose between Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “Atom’s for Peace” speech (number 36 on the list) and GW Bush’s first post-911 address (you know, the one where he said “You’re either with us or…”)
I opted for the Bush one, because it seemed much easier than Eisenhower’s semi-complicated choice of words.
“Our nation, this generation, will lift the dark threat of violence from our people and our future. We will rally the world to this cause by our efforts, by our courage. We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail.”
As of tonight, I’ve read more than 40 speeches in all, and recited about 20 – most of them political in nature and two to seven pages long.
I used to think that rhetoric was a fancy word for bullshit.
Many times, it is.
Try and convince anyone–at least here in Europe and presumably throughout the vast majority of the world and probably now throughout much of the country itself–that the US isn’t failing miserably in its war against terror and they’ll laugh at you.
Tell anyone who isn’t a radical Islamic fundamentalist to make an oath to die, shave off their body hair and shower and they might smack you.
Maybe it’s all just relative.
Kenneth Burke defines rhetoric quite accurately:
—The most characteristic concern of rhetoric [is] the manipulation of men’s
beliefs for political ends….the basic function of rhetoric [is] the use of
words by human agents to form attitudes or to induce actions in other human
Through all this speech-reading (and in a weird way – role playing), it was impossible not to speculate as to the true meaning and intention behind all these words.
But there is still one gnawing question that won’t leave me alone.
Why haven’t there been any really memorable, spine-tingling speeches in the past 20 years?
Or maybe, even, since the MLK and JFK?
Kip’s still livin’ in Madrid, slingin’ ‘glish, DJin’, pennin’ short stories, filmin’ TNB youtube shorts and a third of the way through a screenplay that he’s convinced will be filmed sometime in his lifetime. He’s also tryin’ to enjoy the short term benefits of global warmin’ while he can.
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