Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Henry V - The Great Communicator

Fift Finishers,

We've volleyed back and forth ― mock … mock … mock ― quite a bit about Henry's character, and Gil has pointed us more than once at Henry's language, particularly as it pertains to "any cause of policy." I want to muse briefly about the relationship between rhetoric and leadership, though perhaps with less seriousness than Gil has done. I'll begin with a digression:

The Denver Broncos, who recently hired a new head coach, Josh McDaniels, have spent the last month filling their other coaching staff positions, including hiring former San Francisco 49'ers head coach Mike Nolan as defensive coordinator. McDaniels told The Denver Post "Mike is a very good coach; he's a good communicator." The Denver Post also asked Nolan's old boss, Dan Reeves, about him. Reeve's responded, "He just did a phenomenal job for me … He's a great communicator."

In sports, this smacks of euphemism. You can almost hear the begged question: Do great communicators necessarily win? Maybe not. As a head coach with San Francisco, Mr. Nolan was 18-37. If it were 37-18, he wouldn't be the Denver Broncos defensive coordinator right now and Dan Reeves might forgo the "great communicator" epithet in favor of "winner." Still Nolan's communication skills have impressed more than one boss, and because coaching is all about motivation and leadership and inspirational half-time speeches, no doubt rhetoric is near the top of the job skill set. (I'm not actually certain about this, and I'd love to read a good book on different coaches' communication styles.)

In Henry V, the bishops of Canterbury and Ely are as effusive about Henry's language skills as Nolan's head coaches have been about his. In fact, Henry's "sweet and honey'd sentences" have adjusted the clergy's opinion of him from someone of relatively base quality to someone more strawberry-esque. (That's good.) Yes, the two limit their praise of Henry's rhetoric to "discourse of war" and causes "of policy," which is a little like saying he's an articulate policy wonk. What we learn over the rest of the play, though, is that Henry adroitly adapts his language to fit each situation, whether it be his eloquent scorn at the Dauphin's mockery, his fiery brutality at the gates of Harfleur, his sprinkling of righteous phrases before the nobles and religious folk, his patriotic rousing of the troops before Agincourt, or his "plain" words of love to Katherine. I opened my portion of our discussion deciding that Henry was a bit bombastic; I am pressed to revise that impression, impressed as I am now by Henry's perfect rhetorical aptness. He is, in the words of Dan Reeves, a "great communicator."

Henry's rhetorical appropriateness brings to mind our current president, Barack Obama, who, it seems, can't make a major speech without pundits discussing in advance whether he will salt his language with words that call to mind a specific ethnicity or cast a neutral veil over his speech, whether he will evoke the cadences of Martin Luther King, Jr. or eschew rhythmic variation, whether he will go for flights of rhetorical whoopdedoo or deliver something more plain and straightforward. And whenever he does the latter, Jon Stewart plays clips from his early 2008 campaign speeches ― "yes, we can" ― and looks wistful.

What's interesting is that after eight years of George W. Bush, whose rhetorical reaction to every event regardless of its significance sounded exactly the same, the punditocracy would still be aware that different objectives might dictate different rhetorical styles. I think any discussion of what type of rhetoric Obama should employ is a form of praise, an acknowledgement of the power of language, even in America where we're darned suspicious of fancy-pants speeches. It may be yet another testament to his skill that Obama has largely muted this sort of anti-intellectualism. That said, I think the jury on Obama's leadership is still out and will be determined more by his success with the economic, military, and governmental crises we face than by what he has to say about it.

Of course, when we use the phrase "great communicator," another president comes to mind: Ronald Reagan. CNN, in an online summary of a documentary they did on Reagan, said: "His language gave meaning to a national triumph, comforted Americans in a national tragedy and made complex international policy disputes understandable to millions. He spoke in clear, simple terms ― too simple, his critics said ― and painted vivid pictures that sometimes reflected a reality of his own making."

Reagan's status as a great communicator makes an interesting point ― one does not need poetic eloquence to turn language into effective leadership. (Aw shucks, Jimmy Stewart could've told you that.) It is Reagan's simplicity that people respected and responded to. Subsequent presidents may have taken this too far. Did the mangled words of the elder Bush and, even more egregiously, the younger Bush project an inability to lead? Did Clinton's ability to parse his phrases with lawyerly elusiveness inspire devotion? I'm currently teaching Macbeth, the story of a man whose leadership skills deteriorate precipitously, mostly due to his tyranny, while his rhetoric remains intact, though its eloquence is mostly turned inward. We don't discuss whether Macbeth's rhetoric is connected to his ability to lead.

Henry's rhetoric is undeniably directed outward, a tool of his leadership more than a product of his character. I come away from all this ― a text, three films, one production, and a wonderful conversation ― with a clear sense of Henry's rhetorical prowess, but a vaguer sense of the relationship between rhetoric and leadership. Political rhetoric, to be effective, must speak to people, not in spite of them. It must motivate, inspire, connect, awe, instruct. In short, it must be heard. So it must be in tune with what can be heard. Henry does that, and with such art that he doesn't seem cynically manipulative as he varies his modes. We accept "I am no tyrant, but a Christian king." We accept the obvious inspirational conceit at Agincourt. We accept his claims of plainness. And in the end his words move us, as the five-star ratings on countless clips from Branagh's version of the St. Crispin's Day speech on YouTube attest.

Great rhetoric may not always signify great leadership, but in Henry the two are inseparable. If you were down 35-10 at half-time, you'd want him giving the half-time speech to your football team.


No comments: