COLUMN: Barb Gustafson — April 2, 2014

Barb Gustafson
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Last week, I had the opportunity to hear Premier Brad Wall speak in Prince Albert. While I was listening to his speech, I was also thinking of the many other political speakers I have had the chance to hear over the years.

One of the great benefits -- and perhaps a negative, as well -- of having been a journalist is that you get to know a lot more about politicians than the average person. Along with interviews and conversations, you are expected to attend political events like rallies and fundraisers, where notables speak to the assembled crowd. It’s blatantly partisan in these setting, but also highly entertaining in many instances.

I thought back to some of my earliest experiences with political speechmakers. I had the chance to hear John Diefenbaker speak to our high school class. Dave Steuart was the guest speaker at our graduation. In both cases, these were non-political speeches, but the powerful oratory skills of these politicians were demonstrated, nonetheless.

As a beginning reporter at the Daily Herald, I was on the evening beat and that included Conservative Party dinners where then-Premier Grant Devine would speak. Agree or disagree with his decisions and policies, most people would agree he was a dynamic speaker. Peppered with colloquialisms like “Give ‘er snoose, Bruce” his speeches definitely got the crowd fired up. In many ways, although he avoids the comparison, Wall’s style is very similar to Devine’s: the folksy references, the expressed belief in Saskatchewan’s potential for growth, and the enthusiasm for all we can be are just put into different words. What’s the difference, really, between “Give ‘er snoose, Bruce” and “we ought to stop talking about what’s possible in the province, and we ought to start acting on what is possible,” except for a few more words?

The Devine legacy is something we would all like to forget, but shouldn’t, because the lessons of history are important and because of the people who worked so hard to turn that dismal state around. Roy Romanow came in as premier to clean up the mess and to restore Saskatchewan’s faith in the future. I would say, of all the politicians I have heard speak, Romanow was the best. I remember a packed Exhibition Centre filled with energy after a speech in the early 1990s. And when you think of it, which is the tougher job: encouraging people in good times, or encouraging people in the depths of economic troubles?

After Romanow came Lorne Calvert as premier. Calvert was a good speaker, too, but in a different vein. His background as a United Church minister always came through, if only a bit, in his political speeches. My favourite memory of Calvert as premier was having coffee with him and then-MLA Myron Kowalsky when I was editor. I asked Calvert if he thought he would be a premier in the mode of Woodrow Lloyd, someone with a style of quiet competence following a highly dynamic leader into a time of voter restlessness. He denied the comparison, but it did prove true; however, Calvert managed to outdo Lloyd in years as premier.

Wall is a speechmaker in the tradition of these others. He’s at ease at the podium, in the way that a highly skilled performer appears to be effortless while simultaneously making a multitude of things work together. A joke that seems casual is actually carefully done. The timing is practised. He is very good at his job of being the spokesperson and face of his party.

Clearly, his predecessor, Elwin Hermanson, was not. I have also heard Hermanson speak, and while he was a staunch believer in what the party stood for, he was no Romanow when it came to speaking. It took Wall to put the party platform forward in a way that Saskatchewan people could endorse with enough votes to form a government.

The tradition of political speechmaking extends much further back in history than my lifetime. Within Saskatchewan, we remember Tommy Douglas as one of the great political speakers. Within Canada, there are many names associated with political oration, right back to the beginnings of our country and Prime Minister John A. MacDonald.

What I find interesting is that, despite all the changes in our world, the speech delivered live, in front of an audience, is still so powerful. Campaigns today are often focused around massive television advertising buys, social media management, use of Twitter, and staying on top of viral topics on the internet. Why, then, would Wall or any other politician spend the time and money to visit town after town, speaking to dinner after dinner, when there are all these other means to reach the people?

The answer, I think, is that public speaking is still one of the best ways to influence voters. The American system creates much more of a spectacle in this regard compared to Canada. To be the nomination speaker for the presidential candidate, for example, is seen as a trial run for your own nomination in the future; do a good job of speaking in front of thousands in an arena, and millions on television, and you could be the next candidate. And, like any good performance, it’s worth watching, regardless of your political leanings.

There’s something real and emotional about sitting in a crowd and hearing someone who is a skilled orator speak, something that electronic media can’t quite match. It’s the equivalent of watching a Shakespearean play performed on stage instead of on film, or in print. It’s the difference between hearing your favourite band in concert versus in recorded form.

The times may have changed, but human beings haven’t. And smart politicians like our premier know that a good rousing political speech is still the best way to influence people.

 

Barb Gustafson is a lifelong Prince Albert resident and a former managing editor and publisher of the Prince Albert Daily Herald. Email: gustafsonba@gmail.com

Organizations: Prince Albert, Conservative Party, United Church

Geographic location: Saskatchewan, Canada

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