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The power of public speaking

America may be the only surviving superpower, but Yanks still can't debate like Brits. By Derrick Hill.

The United Kingdom and the United States may share a com­mon political tradition and a common language — but when Americans try to speak about this political tradition, they sound illequipped. Simply put, American politicians cannot debate.

There are a handful of grand counterexamples: US President Ronald Reagan in Berlin saying "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" or besting his political opponent with the line "there you go again". And so on. But Mr. Reagan is an exception. President George Bush was perpetually tangled up in verb tenses the way

President Gerald Ford was tripping over his own feet. President Bill Clinton could give an emotionally powerful speech, but it always had a forced and cloying quality to it — but he never soared to the rhetorical heights the way Abraham Lincoln, Fran­klin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy did.

America's most recent political debates only confirm the rise of poor speakers to the highest debating stage in the USA. The problem, as with most American debates, is that candidates ap­pear to be effective by seeming to be in command of the high moral ground. In debating terms, the debate is not exactly So-cratic.

So why do debates resemble not so much a clash of intellects and ideas, but a dialogue of the deaf, with each candidate deliv­ering prepared canned speeches and sound bites? The reason is quite straightforward: practice.

The British system makes more demands on those aspiring to high office — to become a cabinet minister if not prime min­ister — and among them is the ability to put an argument force­fully and the ability to think on one's feet.

And the House of Commons, for all the changes it has under­gone in recent decades, is still the area that both tests and refines the ability to speak and debate.

Every new member of Parliament sets off for Westminster nurturing a hope to be prime minister. The Commons chamber is the cockpit that establishes whether he has the right stuff to rise in British politics.

Those, who can command the attention and respect of the House of Commons through their debating skills, are almost unvaryingly marked for promotion by their appropriate party managers. Those less gifted in speech are left on the back bench­es. The British political system actually puts a premium on pub­lic speaking ability, while the American system rewards medi­ocre speakers who know how to skillfully cut deals in caucus rooms.

But even these days, when television increasingly undermines the House of Commons' once pre-eminent position in British political life, debating skill is vital. News of debating success may make fewer column inches in the press than previously, but a party leader who scores in debate cheers up the parliamentary troops. Conversely, one who is consistently bested is likely to have only a demoralized and restive force at his back. Indeed, the only bright spot for the Tories was Mr. Hague's ability to discomfit Mr. Blair regularly in their once-weekly joust at prime minister's question time.

Of course, Mr. Hague is a man who made headlines as a pre­cocious 16-year-old for a sickeningly well-assured and rousing speech from the floor of the Conservative Party's annual confer­ence. Soon after, he went to Oxford University, where, inevita­bly, he joined one of the two great elite houses of political debat­ing skill in Britain, the Oxford Union. The other is its Cambridge equivalent, the Cambridge Union.

Successive generations of British cabinet ministers have had their first real training as debaters in one or the other. Indeed, such an apprenticeship has long been considered a requirement for any undergraduate with political ambitions.

Another factor that keeps the spirit of political debate more vibrant on this side of the Atlantic is the aggressive interviewing techniques of broadcast journalists. All the leading news and current affairs programs boast rottweiler-like interrogators, for whom roughing up politicians has become a veritable sport. Min­isters and senior opposition politicians who venture before a mike or camera know they are in for a hard time and need to be at their argumentative best if they are to escape with dignity and reputa­tion intact.

Genuine debate remains an inextricable part of a politician's life, in a way that is no longer seen in the USA — particularly in a forum like the US Senate, where the urge to find consensus is markedly more pronounced than in the British House of Com­mons.

So the British remain the best English-speaking debaters. But for how much longer? British politicians, too, prefer the sound bite to genuine argument — they are easier and less nerve-rack­ing, after all, than the cut and thrust of debate. Meanwhile, the importance of the House of Commons is diminishing rapidly as

Westminster loses power to Brussels. So if you want real politi­cal debate by all means look to Britain. But you had better be quick.

Mr. Hill is a leader writer for the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday in London. Taken from the Wall Street Journal

Tasks to the text:

  1. The text mentions many American Presidents of different historical periods. Prepare a political profile of one.

  2. Explain the difference between "a minister", "a cabinet minister", and "prime minister".

Exercise 21

Interpret the following lines and answer the questions.

  1. "Ronald Reagan... besting his political opponent with the line "thereyou go again ". What does the phrase mean? Why did it help Ronald Reagan to best his opponent?

  2. "In debating terms, the debate is not exactly Socratic". Who is Socrates? What are the characteristic features of Socratic debate?

  3. "The Commons chamber is the cockpit that establishes wheth­er he has the right stuff to rise in British politics". What kind of metaphor does the author create using the words "cock­pit" and "rise"?

  4. "A party leader who scores in debate cheers up parliamenta­ry troops". What does the military term mean in this con­text?

  5. "Indeed, the only bright spot for the Tories was Mr. Hague's ability to discomfit Mr. Blair regularly at their once-weekly jousts at prime minister's question time". What is the prime minister's question time? What does the author refer to as "jousts"? How does the choice of the word characterize the attitude of the author to both people? What did Mr. Hague do to discomfit Mr. Blair?

  1. "All the leading news and current affairs programs boast rot­tweiler-like interrogators, for whom roughing up politicians has; become a veritable sport\ Who does the author mean by "rottweiler-like interrogators"? Can you explain his compar­ison? What do those people do when they are roughing up politicians? Why do they look upon the activity as sport?

  2. "The importance of the House of Commons is diminishing rapidly as Westminster loses power to Brussels". What does the author mean by this remark?

  3. How long is a decade? An inch? A foot? A yard? A mile?

Exercise 22

Translate the following sentences into Russian, paying attention to the underlined parts.

  1. So why do debates resemble not so much a clash of intellects and ideas, but a dialogue of the deaf, with each candidate delivering prepared canned speeches and sound bites?

  2. And the House of Commons, for all the changes it has under­gone in recent decades, is still the area that both tests and refines the ability to speak and debate.

  3. Ministers and senior opposition politicians who venture be­fore a mike or camera know they are in for a hard time and need to be at their argumentative best if they are to escape with dignity and reputation intact.

Questions for discussion:

  1. Do you agree with the author's explanation of the reason why debates resemble "a dialogue of the deaf rather than "a clash of intellects"? Can you think of any other reasons?

  2. Why does "being in command of high moral ground" help candidates during debates?

  3. How important is the skill of public speaking in a political career?

Does the Russian political system put any premium on pub­lic speaking ability? Why? / Why not?

  1. Have you joined a debating club yet?

  2. Is the author impartial or biased in his judgement of the de­bating skills of the British and the Americans? Do you agree with his point of view?

Exercise 23

Write a summary of the text.

Exercise 24

Define the following words in English:

  1. mediocre

  2. caucus rooms

  3. joust

  4. consensus

  5. apprenticeship

  6. forum

Exercise 25

Find the English equivalents for the following Russian words and phrases:

  1. быстро соображать

  2. питать, лелеять надежду

  3. иметь необходимые качества

  4. смущать кого-либо, доставлять неудобства

  5. с достоинством выйти из трудной ситуации

  6. сохранить репутацию безупречной

Exercise 26

Give the Russian equivalents for the following word combina­tions and recall how they are used in the text:

  1. to soar to the rhetorical heights

  2. to be in command of the high moral ground

  3. to best one's political opponent

  1. clash of intellects and ideas

  2. to deliver prepared canned speeches

  3. to aspire to high office

  4. to test and refine the ability to speak and debate

  5. to rise in politics

  6. to command the attention and respect of

  7. to put a premium on public speaking ability

  8. rousing speech

Use the above combinations in the following sentences.

1. The speakers and candidates in the USA should be in if they are to in politics.

2. The ability to deliver rather than speeches is practically lost nowadays.

3. Recent US presidents with few exceptions never heights. US President Ronald Reagan gifted in speech

could of his audience. But all the rest who - office — to become a cabinet minister or prime

minister —failed to have a fingerprint in American political debate.

4. Though the United Kingdom and United States share a common political tradition the UK speaking ability

while the US rewards skillful dealers of non-Socratic type.

5. MPs have a possibility to test and to speak and debate, nurturing a hope to in British politics.

  1. Modern debate is no longer a but an unemo­tional exchange of opinions between the opponents.

  2. Among the demands made by the British system on politi­cians is the ability to put an argument forcefully to __________opponent and the ability to speeches to and admiration of an audience.

8. A party leader who is able opponent cheers up his fellow-MPs, and the one who fails

heights is likely to discourage his party members.

9. It is the House of Commons that is still the area that puts__________ ability.

Exercise 27

Look at the ways of saying that something increases

  1. gradually over a period of time: to rise, to go up, to grow

  2. greatly: to multiply — to increase greatly in number to double — to become twice as much/many to proliferate — to increase quickly in the number of exam­ples of smth

  3. very quickly or suddenly: to soar, to rocket, to spiral (un­controllably)

Now use the verbs mentioned above in the following sentences.

1. Income tax is due to from 20 percent to 25 percent.

2. New public libraries have in the UK, the USA and elsewhere.

  1. Opportunities for crime have in recent years.

  2. Industrial unemployment to 40 percent.

  3. The divorce rate has steadily since the 1950s.

  4. Gold prices have to their highest level since 1983.

  5. The population is expected to by 20 percent in the next ten years.

  1. The country was close to economic collapse as inflation out of control.

  2. The actual number of women managers in major banks from 104 to 208.

Exercise 28

Look up the following verbs in the dictionary and study the dif­ference between them. Then do the exercise, using the verbs in the correct form.

to rise / to raise / to arise / to arouse / to rouse

1. People's hopes by a report that peace talks had begun.

2. The whole audience to cheer the speaker.

3. The speaker tried _______ the listeners from their apathy.

4. The journalist's long absence doubts about his safety.

5. A serious problem which will take time to solve.

6. He eventually to an important position in the firm.

7. When the management ticket prices, attendance dropped.

8. The rival didn't want their suspicions that he might be interested in taking over the business.

9. Spending on education by about 4 billion since the government came into power.

10. The head of the expedition the travelers at six in the morning to set out in search of the settlement.

  1. The number of people out of work lately.

  2. The resignation of the president is certain fears about the future of the country.

  3. Increased Sales Tax prices all around.

  4. The prime minister's remarks expectations of tax cuts.

Exercise 29

Study the following derivatives and complete each sentence with the correct form of the words.

to politicize — politics — policy — politician — political — politic — politically

  1. Even the most resolutely untheoretical parties, movements and reflect concepts, assumptions and prin­ciples.

  2. The public servant decided it would be to agree with his boss on every point

  3. The relationship between ideas and public ____________is complex and often two way.

  1. Market research was employed to enable par­ties to deliver what the voters wanted.

  2. The of privatization pursued by the Thatcher governments clearly reflected a belief in the virtues of the free market.

6. Modern has often seemed to reflect the ideas of leading economists rather than thinkers.

7. The ideas that influence public are not just the ideas of leading .

  1. Criticizing the activities of the organization soon became unacceptable.

  2. How to solve this problem is still a matter for debate, howev­er, it should not __________too much.

Exercise 30

Fill each of the blanks with a wordfrom the list, putting the verbs into the correct tenses.

prosperity (2) to drop

idealism opportunity to raise

concerns rise to rise

service tolerance to diminish

persuasion trust to stand

eloquence literacy to provide

ethics to pursue

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