Friday, June 18, 2010

His Finest Hour

This week may go down as something of a watershed in the Obama Presidency. Judging by reactions to his Oval Office address on the Gulf oil spill, it looks like Mr. Obama's gift for oratory finally failed him. The speech was roundly criticized as flat, uninspiring--and worse. MSNBC's Keith Olbermann (hardly a member of the vast right-wing conspiracy) described it as "a great speech...if you've been on another planet for the past 57 days.

Mr. Obama's failed attempt illustrates a cardinal rule of political speech-making. Without genuine leadership (and a clear vision), rhetorical flourishes--no matter how well they might be delivered--ring hollow and false. Instead of conveying the impression that he was in command of the situation, Mr. Obama was viewed to be in full damage-control mode, offering homilies aimed at shifting attention away from government failures during this crisis.

And, there is a certain, historical irony in the president's flop. It came as many of us remembered one of the great speeches in human history, delivered 70 years ago by Winston Churchill, before the British Parliament, and later to a nationwide radio audience. We refer, of course, to Mr. Churchill's legendary "finest hour" address of June 18, 1940.

Almost anyone with a cursory knowledge of Churchill (or the Second World War) can recite its signature line, delivered at the end of the speech:

What General Weygand has called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.

But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, This was their finest hour.

While the resolve and determination of Churchill's message are crystal clear, it's worth remembering the circumstances that prompted his address. It came just over a month after he became Prime Minister, just as Allied fortunes took a turn towards disaster. The "phony war" in the west had given way to the German blitzkrieg that quickly overran the low countries and France. Much of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had been rescued from the beaches at Dunkirk, but without their tanks, artillery and heavy equipment. With the capitulation of France assured, Great Britain faced the Nazi horde alone.

And, there was genuine pessimism regarding Britain's ability to fend off an expected German invasion. Rescued elements of the BEF would need months to reequip. The Royal Air Force had acquitted itself well in France, but had suffered steep losses in pilots and aircraft. Facing the prospect of a prolonged enemy air assault, the RAF was rushing pilots to fighter squadrons with minimal training, while British factories ramped up production of front-line fighters like the Hurricane and Spitfire. At sea, the Royal Navy remained dominant, but as the Norway campaign had demonstrated, surface forces could not survive without adequate air cover.

Indeed, Britain's outlook was so bleak that some in Parliament believed privately that Churchill should negotiate some sort of peace settlement with the Nazis. David Lloyd George, the World War I British Prime Minister still serving as a member of Parliament, believed his nation's prospects in the war were dim. "I shall wait until Winston is bust," Lloyd George told his private secretary, indicating that he would push for a negotiated end to the war after Churchill failed. He was not alone in those views.

Against that backdrop, Mr. Churchill labored over his June 18th speech. A new examination of his papers, detailed recently in the UK Telegraph, shows the Prime Minister worked (and re-worked) the address until literally the last minute, fully aware of its necessity--and impact--at that particularly dark moment in British history:

"...while many consider Churchill’s oratorical mastery to have sometimes been improvised or off-the-cuff, a new examination of his papers, held at Cambridge University’s Churchill Archives Centre, reveals the toil that went into early drafts – and the revisions made until the last possible moment before delivery.

They show how the speech went through at least two drafts – the first dictated to his secretaries, then revised in longhand and then put into blank verse form for emphasis and rhythm.

Even this draft he would revise and correct right up to the last minute in red and blue ink – even insert completely new phrases.

The best example of this is on the penultimate page of these final speaking notes.

Just before the phrase "The Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin", he added in his own red pen, at the last moment, "all shall be restored".

The speech, of course, was widely praised, rallying British spirits as the nation's wartime fortunes reached their nadir. There would be more bad news in the months to come, but Churchill's magnificent oratory helped crystallize British determination and resolve. Little wonder that Mr. Churchill labored so long over his June 18th address.

It was, arguably, his finest hour. Yet, not everyone was impressed. Churchill's private secretary, Sir Jock Colville, later noted in his diaries that the Prime Minister "spoke less well" during the radio version of the address. "It was too long and he sounded tired," Colville wrote (while adding), "he ended magnificently."

Indeed he did.

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