A different tradition of speech-making

The durable importance and appeal of set-piece oratory in American political life, even in the age of television’s ersatz intimacy, is a remarkable thing. It’s tempting to see all the attention being paid to Barack Obama’s inaugural address as a sort of artifact of an era when formal political rhetoric—delivered from platforms, rather than on talk shows—was of central importance.

But the inauguration speech isn’t really a throwback event, at least not in the U.S. Between elections, the tradition of the state of the union address goes a long way toward ensuring that presidents must, at least once a year, attempt an encompassing speech. In Canada, there’s no comparable moment when a prime minister is called upon to compellingly sum up both the country’s temper and the government’s business.

Indeed, our traditions tend to put the big summary addresses in a voice other than the sitting prime minister’s. The governor general reads the Speech from the Throne, making it impossible to hear the speech as a direct expression of prime-ministerial vision. A throne speech is presented as a governmental to-do list, rather impersonally delivered by the vice-regal appointee. The big annual pitch in Parliament is the budget speech, which of course is a finance minister’s job.

As with a throne speech, a budget might well be mostly a reflection of a prime minister’s priorities, but the rhetorical moment does not belong to him.

Inaugural and state-of-the-union addresses establish an oratorical signature for any president. And I imagine the fact that presidencies are partly built around these formal moments changes the office. A president is expected to be a speech-maker who can sum things up, so presidents are expected to prove they can do it on the campaign trail, too.

In Canada, we rarely remember a prime minister for the way he sweepingly summed up the mood of the nation or its challenges in a big speech. Instead, at least in recent decades, we’ve tended to remember what they said in a moment of crisis, often a test to national unity.

And these testing points tend to call, not for uplifting eloquence, so much as flinty resolve. Think of Pierre Trudeau’s no-frills TV address at the time of the October Crisis, or even his May, 14, 1980 Paul Sauvé Arena speech in Montreal, during the first sovereignty-association referendum. In that one, it wasn’t his ability to convey a vision of the country, but his verbal combat with René Levesque that made the words crackle. It was unforgettable, but nothing like the tone an American president has to reach for in an inauguration speech.

Even when we reach back to Sir John A. Macdonald, surely a great speaker, it’s not his ability to draft a speech with poetry that lasts that impresses. The great thing about a Macdonald speech is how his charm and humanity ring through. “And, I really must say, as a bloated aristocrat and office-holder,” he joked as he got rolling in his famous May 30, 1881, National Workingmen’s Union of Canada speech in Toronto, “that I myself am not a bit the worse for my three year’s salary. I therefore congratulate myself, you, and the country, that after three years I come back and find enthusiasm, hope—not only hope, but certainty—of the future.”

But there’s no Macdonald speech that can be read alongside Lincoln. Yet I’m not sure I would welcome an attempt to import the U.S. presidential speech-making tradition. It is, after all, an element of the American sense of a president as a sort of elected king. Maybe we’re just as well off thinking of our prime ministers as politicians who must talk to us about particular things, not near-monarchs whose job it is to crystallize their times into words.

Still, on a day like this, I can’t help but look—or rather listen—from Ottawa to Washington with envy.