Eloquent Oration Versus Vile Vitriol

I always thought it would be an interesting challenge to be a speechwriter. These days, I live vicariously through Rowan Layne, post-middle-aged protagonist of my Other Worldly series. Rowan has not only written speeches for others, she’s had the opportunity to be a persuasive, passionate orator before members of Congress and Britain’s Parliament, as well as to introduce an otherworldly vice-presidential candidate at the first ever Omnipresent Party presidential election convention.

While earning a degree in journalism in the early eighties, I took a speech class where I learned not only fundamentals of public speaking, but also basics of drafting the written word to be spoken aloud to an audience. And I know there are many who clam up at the thought of being centerstage, imparting their truths. Yet I embrace the opportunity to both write and deliver a written message to the public, despite the daunting reality that it can be dangerous to do so these days.

In law school, drafting opening statements and closing arguments to a mock jury in trial advocacy class was a kind of speech writing and orating. So much so I might have become a litigator—if it weren’t for the not-so-eloquent or decidedly less-than-dramatic tedium of the procedural process in between the beginning and end of adjudicating a case.

Last week the American public was witness to two very different closing arguments from the prosecution and defense in a trial. One eloquent, the other an atrocity.

Composition of speeches and the intent behind them is of great fascination to me, whether written to entertain, to inform, or to persuade. A good speech likely entails all three.

Speeches should invoke a feeling, strike a righteous nerve, or galvanize others to action, like John F. Kennedy’s Ask not what your country can do for you missive. Effective speeches often use reverberation to instill an ideal, like Gen. Douglas MacArthur speaking to West Point graduates about duty, honor, country.

There’s Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic call for racial equality in his I Have a Dream speech, or Abraham Lincoln’s short and hastily drafted Gettysburg Address to inspire Americans to continue to fight for a united nation and the proposition that all men are created equal.

Perhaps if women had been included in that sentiment from the get-go, there’d be more famous speeches presented by women in history, not only in the US, but on Earth.

Unfortunately, too many political and other public figures these days engage in an appeal to baser instincts of hate and bigotry, with an aim of inciting violence and insurrection. The polar opposite of the goals of Abraham Lincoln as they spew utter nonsense and outright lies in their quest to destroy democratic principles while abandoning any modicum of human decency.

In my Other Worldly novels, Rowan Layne, an advocate for rights of extraterrestrial beings, is tasked with writing speeches that decry anti-alien sentiment and vitriol. Messages that denounce those whose aim is to eradicate any and all who don’t look or think or believe as they do.

Does this sound familiar to current realities when it comes to a plethora of sociopolitical issues including race, gender, socioeconomic status, or supposed religious beliefs? As we’ve seen during the COVID pandemic, it’s not easy to implore certain individuals, through public speech or the written word, to care about others when they see themselves as the only race or gender or religion deserving of liberty and justice.

But one prosecutor made a difference in her speech last week, giving closing arguments to a jury deciding whether the lynch-mob mentality murder of a black man in the deep south would be bigoted business as usual for those set on white supremacist rule, including far too many public officials in Georgia.

Linda Dunikoski’s name should be remembered for generations to come. The voice of calm reason, of compelling outrage at a vile, senseless tragedy wrought by hatred and ignorance and depravity of the human spirit.

A lawyer from out of town, outnumbered by those who would stop at nothing to force this trial into a mockery of justice like the recent one in Wisconsin. Dunikoski’s speech was savvy, careful, and coherent. She didn’t resort to racial tropes against the deceased victim, as one particularly vile defense attorney demeaned herself and her profession to do.

Ms. Dunikoski is a great orator, a great lawyer, a great American, and a stellar human being. Those drafting closing arguments or speeches of any kind would do well to emulate her grace and her gift of imparting facts:

“They can’t claim self-defense under the law because they were the initial, unjustified aggressors,” Dunikoski told that jury, “and they started this.”

Simple, effective, and eloquent.


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