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Monday, December 12, 2011

A Politician with an Aversion to Public Speaking

Thomas Jefferson is said to have had an aversion to public speaking.  For example, he never appeared before Congress for an annual message, but always sent it in writing.  He gave as one reason the following:

On December 20, 1801, he wrote to Benjamin Rush, "Our winter campaign [the winter session of Congress] has opened with more good humor than I expected. By sending a message, instead of making a speech at the opening of the session, I have prevented the bloody conflict to which the making an answer would have committed them. They consequently were able to set into real business at once, without losing 10. or 12. days in combating an answer…."  Again defending his reason for sending a written message, Jefferson wrote to Thomas Mann Randolph, January 1, 1802, "Congress have not yet done anything, nor passed a vote which has produced a division. The sending a message instead of making a speech to be answered is acknowledged to have had the best effect towards preserving harmony....” (Source

One cannot help but wonder how the present day bias for showmanship might be influencing the ability of our country to arrive at effective policy.  The task to accomplish can be lost in theatrics and public antics.  Take any job where skill, knowledge, and precision are involved.  We can ask ourselves how would public theatrics help or hinder that endeavor.  I like to take the extreme example of brain surgery.  Who in their right minds would submit to brain surgery to be performed in a circus atmosphere where the contending surgeons had to continuously play to an audience and please that audience with heroics, controversy, posturing, and bravado?  Talk about a situation that would bring out the worst rather than conforming to the best interest of the patient!

Of course, controversy is in the nature of politics as various interests vie for recognition.  Even so, we should surely consider what might be done to maintain “the best effect towards preserving harmony.”  Essentially this would entail lowering the level of aggressiveness on the one hand and defensiveness on the other.  We must ask ourselves, are we really ready or able to give up free-for-all entertainment for quiet and low key accomplishment.

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