The Lost Art of Harvard Oratory

'Tis the season when smiling choruses of admissions officers, tour guides and sundry administrators begin to sing of Harvard's virtues, the foremost of which, recently, is the diversity of its students and graduates. The College, they croon, produces poets and priests, musicians and physicians, athletes and artists. But nowhere is this resplendent diversity so evident as in the difference between two of its most prominent and successful alma libres, Al Gore '69 and Alan L. Keyes '72.

Of the two, Gore is more the Harvard type: a sensible and moderate, if somewhat stolid, liberal. Keyes, on the other hand, seems an unlikely product of late-1960s and early-1970s Harvard. After all, in Keyes' perfect world there are no abortions and no 16th amendment, and the wall between Church and State is a shoji screen.

But what is most remarkable about Keyes is his ability to win converts to his extreme conservatism via exceptional spiritedness and oratorical flair; in short, his charisma.

Nowadays, "charisma" has come to mean little more than "charm" or "attractiveness." It is in this spirit that a Seattle Times reporter recently dubbed the Indigo Girls a "charismatic duo," and the Minneapolis Star Tribune called Minn. Gov. Jesse Ventura "a man so charismatic, he can insult and inspire in the same breath."

Max Weber, who first developed the term, considered Jesus Christ, Joseph Smith and Martin Luther "charismatic," but would surely not have extended the honor to the Indigo Girls. For Weber, followers are drawn to a charismatic leader because of his extraordinary, almost god-like, personal qualities. By virtue of his heroic personality, the charismatic leader gives rules without regard to traditional authority ("It is written, but I say unto you") and commands total devotion from his disciples.

The best way to identify a charismatic leader, argues Weber, is to observe the effect he has on his followers. Keyes has had quite an influence over his. One devotee, in a letter distributed by Keyes' campaign to the "Keyes 2000" e-mail list, wrote that each time he saw Keyes in action he "came away with greater conviction that God has raised him up for such a time as this. Sometimes it seemed as though Dr. Keyes was another John the Baptist...a voice crying out in the wilderness or Gideon with his army of 300...or Elijah and the thousands who had not bowed down to Baal or David going up against the strong and powerful Goliath."

Charisma draws on personal magnetism--followers are drawn foremost to the leader himself, not necessarily to his ideas. For this reason, charisma is expressed more in oratory, direct communication from the leader to devoted (or potentially devoted) listeners, than in writing. Charisma itself is natural--some have a little, others a lot, no one can gain charisma through education alone--but insofar as charismatic authority depends on oratory, people can be educated to take advantage of whatever natural charisma they possess.

At one time, oratory was central to undergraduate life. At some schools, this tradition remains: Princeton's Whig-Clio, Yale's Political Union and Oxford's famed debating societies all host regular debates on campus, and a fair number of students participate.

Presently at Harvard, however, writing is the primary medium of political debate. At last count, there are more than twenty student publications but only one debating club. This is generally a good thing--on paper, it is considerably more difficult to hide flawed arguments amidst rhetorical flourishes.

If Harvard produces few skilled orators these days, perhaps essayists and polemicists hardened by the demands of written debate are sufficient compensation. But the cardinal virtue of written argument--its compatibility with dispassionate, well-reasoned debate--may also be its primary shortcoming. Written debate, precisely because it favors calm discussion to fiery rhetoric, does not allow charisma much of a forum. (Keyes is infinitely more convincing in person than on paper.) Consequently, debate devoid of the energy of charismatic orators like Keyes is less enjoyable for debaters and audiences alike.

The recent rarity of undergraduate oratory is largely due to lack of an organization to support it. Harvard has its Boylston Prize, its Parliamentary Speech and Debate Club and the occasional course on rhetoric, but no organization sponsors regular campus debates. To all but the most politically involved undergraduates, spoken debates are confined to dining halls and dorm rooms.

Even with the necessary support, though--say, a debating society or political union--incivility might still squelch debate. Today, most questions on which reasonable people can disagree are respectfully discussed, although casual accusations of bigotry limit debate on issues related to homosexuality or race. In the 1960s and 1970s, however, such name-calling (occasionally backed with force) silenced genuine debate on a much wider range of issues.

As a result, men and women who studied at Harvard during that time and later became politicians--Gore, for instance--are, generally speaking, unremarkable orators, and any natural charisma remains untapped. It is odd that the same institution produced both the charismatic Keyes and the stoic Gore. But such is Harvard's wonderful diversity.

Hugh P. Liebert '01 is a social studies concentrator in Eliot House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.