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Hummel Column: Speeches, speeches, speeches

As I write this, the Democratic National Convention is just beginning in Denver. Next week the Republicans meet in St. Paul. There will be more speeches in these next two weeks then any one person can listen to. Yet the speeches are important -- very important. Speeches focus thinking, clarify positions, move voters and win elections. Or they can do just the opposite. But the speeches of the next two weeks will not be given by amateurs, but by pros -- the best political speechmakers in both parties.

Only a small minority of folks give speeches. Polls have been taken about what people fear most: death? Surgery? Flying? Confined places? Darkness? Being alone? etc... You know what the number one fear is year after year? The fear of public speaking. Yes, public speaking is more scary than death. But not in Denver or St. Paul.

What makes a good speech anyway? Short speeches are almost always more popular than long ones. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address has been judged one of the greatest ever. It was just about three minutes long. The speaker before Lincoln at the Gettysburg dedication was Edward Everett, an American statesman considered one of the greatest orators of his day. He spoke for two hours. Everett was amazed at Lincoln's logic and ability to say so much in so few words. He predicted that Lincoln's speech would live for generations and his own would be forgotten. He was right.

Senator Ted Kennedy gave a short speech at the Democratic convention the first night, and was very effective because it was brief. But the reason it was so short was his health -- he wasn't strong enough to give a long speech. His doctors didn't want him in Denver at all.

I think Democrats tend to give longer speeches than Republicans. The late Hubert Humphrey, for example, the "Happy Warrior," was a great speaker, but he was not known to be a man of few words. Bill Clinton's speeches usually ran on for over an hour -- he didn't want to miss a single point. I believe any State of the Union speech by a president should be under an hour -- but they rarely are, Democrat or Republican. The mike should go dead on any speech at the end of 60 minutes. But we can have the last word by voting for any politician who can deliver the goods in less than 30 minutes.

Passion usually makes a speech more interesting. Liberal passion (the late Senator Paul Wellston of Minnesota was about as passionate as a speaker could be) and conservative passion (Ronald Reagan was the "Great Communicator") are both stimulating to their audiences. But some speakers confuse volume with passion or even consider length to be passion.

I saw the face of former vice president Walter Mondale in the gallery in Denver. Mondale was a dull speaker and he never had a chance against Ronald Reagan. No passion. He once said, "I wanted to run for president in the worst way and that's exactly what I did." That was the truth.

Humor. A little humor can go a long way in a political speech but sometimes it backfires. Ask Al Franken how difficult it is for a comedian to succeed in a political race. Who had wit and who didn't? Jack Kennedy and Ronald Reagan had wit and knew how to use it, but neither Lyndon Johnson nor Richard Nixon had the least trace of a sense of humor. The more serious a politician is about himself, the more humorless he will be.

We will be exposed to more speeches between now and November than anyone should hear in a lifetime. If you are a political speech junky, tune in and gorge yourself. Stay up late and don't miss a single one. But if you're like most of the rest of us, you'll need to skip more than a few to keep your sanity. Yes, even conscientious voters and died in the wool patriots know when to pull the plug.