It was long the policy of Vital Speeches of the Day magazine not to publish campaign speeches, essentially because the editors thought campaign speeches were bullshit.
In the seven years I've been editor, I've taken a looser stance, publishing the major convention speeches and other campaign speeches that seemed as if they might have historical import, or were simply good examples of effective rhetoric.
We haven't yet published any speeches from the current U.S. presidential campaigns. But listening to clips from Donald Trump's speech yesterday at Liberty University, it occurred to me to ask, about him anyway: Is this actually a speech? Is Donald Trump giving speeches at all?
MSNBC's Chris Matthews remarked so casually that I wasn't sure I'd heard it right, that Trump "listens with his tongue." A wonderful description that meant, as I understood it, that Trump says a thing, gauges the crowd's response, and decides on his feet whether to continue to pursue that line of argument, or—hard a lee!—to change tack.
Perhaps Trump's talks have an internal structure that I can't see. (He must step up to the lectern with some plan of attack!) But to me, describing these as speeches is pushing it. They are patter. They are jive. They are stand-up comedy. They are bits, strung together. They are political scat.
But I don't think they are speeches. They are not coherent arguments, or even incoherent arguments. They're soundbites without the speech attached.
And during this eye-rubbing campaign, what I'll be watching for is whether Trump, if he actually gets the nomination, feels obligated to give a more traditional speech at the Republican National Convention. Will he add some binding bread crumbs and give a whole rhetorical meal rather than just soundbite snacks for a Republican rally and CNN snickering? Will he offer something for people starting to actually wonder: Does Donald Trump have a knowable system of thinking? Was he serious when he promised that if he were president, American department stores would have "Merry Christmas" signs up all of the place? Or was he kidding about that?
Because though we enjoy a joke as much as the next guy, I don't think Americans will go to work for a person—or hire a person go to work for them—unless he or she can demonstrate more philosophical accountability than this.
Donald Trump, I'm thinking you'd better start looking for a speechwriter, just in case.