The 8 Worst Speeches in Modern Political History

The 8 Worst Speeches in Modern Political History

Alexander Meddings - October 16, 2017

Plato once wrote that we should be suspicious of persuasive speakers. He was in a perfect position to judge. Throughout the late fifth century, his native city of Athens had been ravaged by the Peloponnesian War, an ill-advised yet eagerly fought conflict with Sparta spurred on by a succession of persuasive Athenian orators.

The susceptibility of the people (or demos) to fall for these orators’ powers of persuasion instilled in Plato — and subsequent philosophers — an inherent distrust in the power of rhetoric. This leads to an important question: what constitutes a good (or for that matter bad) political speech?

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is often held up as the gold standard of American oratory: combining rhetorical flair with emotional appeals which critically engaged his listeners with questions about their national identity. Fast-forward 60 years or so and you have a more universally famous, though much more controversial, example: Hitler’s Nuremberg Speeches.

You don’t need to be fluent in German to grasp their magnetic, demagogic, and palatably chilling allure. But judge them on their result, and they were undisputedly catastrophic: rallying a beleaguered but bellicose nation to a war that ultimately cost of millions upon millions of lives. How Plato had a point. How history repeats.

If we assume that a good speech must be emotionally engaging, rhetorically proficient and lead to good outcomes, then a bad speech must, by definition, be flat, garbled and publicly damaging either for the speaker or for the cause they’re seeking to promote. Here are eight examples that firmly fit into the second category.

William Henry Harrison’s Presidential Inauguration Address

Oratory might not be an exact science, but it has a number of essential components. Content is the most obvious one. Engaging, popular and relevant, a good speech captures the zeitgeist of its time. Just as important as the content is its delivery — not just the natural charisma of the speaker but also their ability to sprinkle their speech with rhetorical flair.

Then there’s the location. A good speech will ideally take place in a setting of some symbolic relevance which, even in the worst weather conditions, isn’t too demanding on its audience. Where William Harrison’s inauguration speech is historically exceptional is that it failed on every single one of these accounts.

The 8 Worst Speeches in Modern Political History
William Henry Harrison’s Inauguration Address. Wikipedia

On March 4, 1841, President William Henry Harrison delivered what many consider to be the worst inaugural address in history. Amounting to 8,445 words, twice the length of this article, the speech took Harrison an hour-forty-five minutes to deliver. Nor did it engage. The address took the shape of a tired exposition on the role of government, glued together by vague and uninspiring anecdotes from Greco-Roman history. The overall effect seemed more like a poorly planned school lecture than an inaugural presidential address.

Ultimately the speech spelt death: not just of Harrison’s reputation as a public speaker but of the poor president himself. Without wearing a coat or hat, the 68-year-old delivered his address during a raging snowstorm, after which he then took up position outside the White House so he could greet well-wishers throughout the evening and attended several events. All of this proved too much for Harrison and 32 days later he succumbed to pneumonia. Earning William Henry Harrison the dubious historical distinction of delivering the longest presidential inaugural speech while holding the shortest term in office.

The 8 Worst Speeches in Modern Political History
Andrew Johnson. Thinglink

Andrew Johnson’s Vice Presidential Inauguration Address

Andrew Johnson never had much of a penchant for public speaking. As president, his Swing Around the Circle campaign deserves honorable mention here as possibly the most unsuccessful public speaking campaign in history, characterized by awkward pauses, heckling mobs and even collapsing public platforms. “The campaign would have been better”, one of Johnson’s supporters would later lament, “had it never been made”.

But even this campaign wasn’t the most excruciating performance of Johnson’s political life. That moment came earlier, during his inaugural speech as Abraham Lincoln’s vice president on March 4, 1865. Recovering from a nasty bout of typhoid fever, Johnson spent the eve of his inauguration self-medicating at a fellow senator’s party by getting steaming, stumbling drunk. Suffice to say he felt terrible the next day, and faced with having to walk to the Capitol through wet and windy weather, he decided to fortify himself for the task ahead by getting straight back on the sauce.

Warmed by three tumblers of whiskey, Johnson waited for his predecessor, Hamlin, to finish his short valedictory before embarking on what ended up being a rambling (and one imagines somewhat slurred) 90-minute tirade. He spoke at length about his plebeian roots, boasting about how despite all odds he’d managed to snub the rebel aristocracy. Unfortunately, the “rebel aristocracy” were his precise audience, receiving his incoherent address in a state of shock and utter silence.

On several occasions, Hamlin tugged at Johnson’s coattails to try and get his colleague to either sit down or at least shorten his remarks. His efforts, however, were in vain. His face flushed red and swaying slightly from side to side, Johnson stood in stark contrast to his president, Abraham Lincoln, who according to contemporary accounts bore throughout the ordeal an expression of “unutterable sorrow”.

Lincoln wasn’t the only one. Senator Charles Sumer reportedly hid his face in his hands, unable to watch the oratorical car crash unfolding before his eyes. But even despite the solemnity of the occasion, 90 minutes still wasn’t enough to sober Johnson up. As his speech slurred to a conclusion, the vice president was still too far gone to perform the customary task of swearing in the new senators, and the responsibility was passed to a Senate clerk. Fortunately for the incumbent government, Lincoln’s subsequent address would go on to be remembered as one of the most eloquent in history.

The 8 Worst Speeches in Modern Political History
Enoch Powell. Birmingham Mail

Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” Speech

The speech conservative MP Enoch Powell gave on 20 April 1968 still stands as the most inflammatory and racially divisive political address in post-war British history. Before becoming a member of parliament, Powell had been a well-respected classicist, a specialist in the Greek historian Herodotus, but well versed in Greek and Latin literature as a whole.

As an outspoken parliamentarian, he would often color his political rhetoric with classical references, and on no occasion would he do this more (in)famously than during his Party Conference Speech when he pronounced:

As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood…”

Powell erroneously adapted this line from Virgil’s Aeneid, the most famous example of Latin epic to have survived from antiquity. He took it from the part where the protagonist Aeneas (a Trojan, not a Roman) is visiting the underworld, and receives a prophecy from the Greek Sibyl predicting the civil wars that will consume the Roman world at the end of the Republic: “I see wars, horrid wars, and the River Tiber will foam with much blood.”

The cultural context of Powell’s speech and its unsubtle allusion to violent civil strife turned his comments into a national scandal. In his address, Powell had been speaking out against the Labour Party’s Race Relations Act which prohibited racial discrimination in any sphere of British life, including the divisive issue of housing.

But in the broader historical context, because the speech was delivered at a time of mass immigration to the UK from across the Commonwealth countries, it exacerbated xenophobic sentiments among segments of Britain’s native population who felt immigrants were making no attempt to integrate into their adopted society.

Powell’s speech exploded into controversy. Politicians from all parties pushed for his removal from the shadow cabinet — something his party leader was soon forced to comply with — while some suggesting he be prosecuted for trying to incite racial violence. The Times declared it an “evil speech”, only likely to increase the racial tensions already bubbling under Britain’s surface. However, to the shame of the nation, to call it a complete political failure would be disingenuous.

Powell’s anti-immigration stance won him considerable support among the working classes, particularly in London and in his constituency, and my native city, of Wolverhampton. Many historians believe Powell’s speech strongly contributed to his party’s surprise win in the 1970 General Election, winning over vast swathes of far-right voters. Some would argue this should mark the speech out as great. But as it played on xenophobia, scapegoating, and fear-mongering, I wouldn’t count myself as one of them.

The Evil Speech: BBC Under Fire Over Plan to Broadcast Transcript!

The 8 Worst Speeches in Modern Political History
Jimmy Carter’s “Malaise” or “Crisis of Confidence” Address. CBS News

Jimmy Carter’s “Malaise” Speech

Socrates once argued that the main purpose of rhetoric was not to persuade but to flatter. Win over the hearts of your audience, he believed, and they’re bound to open themselves up more to the message you’re trying to convey. He certainly had a point: as the rise in modern populism is making ever clearer, we’re naturally more inclined towards those who make successful appeals to our emotions rather than those who just tell us what we want to hear.

Judging by Socrates’s definition of good rhetoric, however, Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech must, on account of its sheer, unrelenting bleakness, go down as one of the worst in American political history.

Carter’s US of 1979 was in the grip of the energy crisis, a nationwide problem demanding immediate political action. Carter had originally scheduled to give a speech on the issue on July 5 but had canceled abruptly two days before the due date. This wasn’t the smartest move, making a nation already fed up of waiting for hours to get gas wait even longer. But 10 days later, on the evening 15 July, he sat down in the Oval Office to deliver his long-awaited address.

From start to finish the whole thing was damning: half a presidential indictment of the average American, half a sermonising lecture in which the country’s faults were many but forthcoming solutions not involving “faith” were few. After just eight minutes Carter dropped the c-bomb, the “crisis of confidence“, rebuking the antipathy of the nation and the plight it was suffering.

In Carter’s defense, he was speaking from the heart. For someone who didn’t naturally ooze charisma and positive energy, however, he should have given honesty a backseat to emotional tact. Yet remarkably Carter’s gamble paid off. Despite later claims that he had alienated the American people and spelt the beginning of the end of the Carter Administration, the speech actually worked. Positive feedback flooded the White House over the following days, praising the heartfelt honesty with which the president had spoken.

So why, given its supposed success, has Carter’s speech made it onto this list? Because the president never built on the platform the speech was supposed to provide. Just two days after the speech, Carter fired his Cabinet, projecting the crisis of confidence he so passionately berated directly onto his own government.

The 8 Worst Speeches in Modern Political History
Ronald Reagan. Pinterest

Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra Speech

“We did not — repeat, did not — trade weapons or anything else for hostages, nor will we.”

Reagan’s first televised address on the Iranian arms scandal, given on 13 November 1986, was the diplomatic equivalent of Clinton’s “I did not have sexual relations with that woman“. The speech was supposed to put to bed rumors that the NSC was supplying arms to Iran. Not only would doing so be violating publicly stated government policy, even if it was for the exchange for American hostages held by Shī’ite terrorist groups, but it would also be assisting a country believed to support international terrorism, engaged in a lengthy war against Iraq.

Unlike most presidential addresses, the speech was not prepared over days or weeks, pored over by teams of specialists and advisors, and assiduously fact-checked. It was rushed, sketchy, and full of errors. People in government knew it and the audience at home heard it.

Reagan tried to pawn off the content of his speech as “facts from a white house source”, but its brazen inaccuracy was obvious. He talked, for example, only about modest deliveries to Iran that could fit into a single cargo plane — some 1,000 TOW antitank missiles — while it was clear to everyone within his administration that the number was at least double.

Reagan delivered his speech at a politically precarious time for the GOP. Nicholas Daniloff had been arrested by the Kremlin just months earlier, further straining diplomatic tensions between the two world superpowers. Reagan’s National Security Advisor, John Poindexter, was embroiled in a scandal about leaking misinformation to Colonel Gaddafi, informing him of his imminent removal from power. And then there was the domestic icing on the cake: for the first time in six years, the Democrats had just won control of the Senate.

It didn’t take long for the truth to come out. Beginning in November 1986, three independent inquiries gradually brought to light the fact that the NSC had both bypassed the trade embargo with Iran and continued to fund Contras in Nicaragua above the limit approved by Congress.

Both John Poindexter and his deputy Oliver North were prosecuted, and while Reagan escaped prosecution his political reputation suffered a lethal blow. At best he was complicit and had lied under oath to the American people; at worst he was incompetent, an ineffectual president presiding over a runaway train of an administration.

Read Next: President Regan Orders The CIA To Set Up The Contras.

The 8 Worst Speeches in Modern Political History
Ahmadinejad’s UN Address. International Business Times

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s UN Address(es)

You’d be forgiven for thinking the former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would turn up to UN assemblies with a checklist of incendiary comments, or that he saw the occasion as a form of politically incorrect bingo where (unbeknownst to him) the prize was his nation’s political ostracism from the United Nations.

Every one of his eight addresses given from 2005 to 2016 caused controversy. But that given on September 22, 2011, must go down as the most controversial for the severity of its attacks on Israel and the West.

The first blow he struck was his implication that 9/11 was an inside job, orchestrated by the American government as a pretext to invade Afghanistan and Iraq. This understandably went down badly, especially given the timing of the speech just one day after the attack’s anniversary. It was made even worse when he proceeded to harangue the US for not bringing Osama bin Laden to justice, opting instead to execute him without trial and dispose of his corpse by chucking it into the sea.

Ahmadinejad’s next bombshells were his branding of all Israelis as “Zionists“, his criticism of how many western nations supported them, and his call for the creation of a self-governing independent Palestine, particularly incendiary given not just the context of the Israel-Palestine border but also contemporary Israeli sanctions against Iran and its nuclear programme.

Representatives from several countries walked out during the speech. US delegates took their leave when the president began questioning the official veracity of 9/11, while the two former imperialistic powers of Britain and France walked out when Ahmadinejad said that if the West were still compensating the Zionists for the Holocaust through the preservation of Israel, they also ought to pay reparations for slavery.

The speech’s brevity may well have been its saving grace. Had it lasted any longer than 30 minutes, it may well have prompted the walkout of every single member nation present at the assembly. Ahmadinejad’s record at the UN, however, suggests he might not have minded that much.

The 8 Worst Speeches in Modern Political History
Trump’s Address at Sun City. Bluffton Today

Donald Trump’s Sun City Address

Though too recent not to cause controversy, the speech Trump delivered on campaign in Sun City, South Carolina on July 21, 2015, cannot but feature for its absolute bumbling incomprehensibility. Devoid of both context and content, the address made as little sense as his presidency (as is apparent from the facial expressions of those present). What makes it bizarrely impressive, however, especially for writers like myself, is that he managed to fit it all into one sentence. The speech went as follows.

What most people agree started off as a discourse about nuclear energy soon deviated into a biography about his uncle John Trump, a professor and scientist at MIT. That John Trump was a smart man should be self-evident from his job title, but the presidential candidate chose to drive the message home. But then the Republican candidate went completely off the rails, and seeing as I have absolutely no idea how to summarise what he wanted to say, I’m just going to go ahead and provide the full text:

“…you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, OK, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world—it’s true!—but when you’re a conservative Republican they try—oh, do they do a number—that’s why I always start off: Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune—you know I have to give my like credentials all the time, because we’re a little disadvantaged…”

Drifting seamlessly back into the nuclear issue, he then told his audience that his uncle told him about the power of nuclear energy 35 years ago, that there are four prisoners (apparently it used to be three, now it’s four) and that we haven’t yet worked out that women are smarter than men — we’ll find this out, apparently, within 150 years. If this seems utterly incomprehensible that’s because it is, constituting an erratic stream-of-consciousness in what many consider the most perplexing speech in recent political history.

Nor was Trump’s rare endorsement of female superiority even the end. Conclusions, as we all know, are important, and they’re at their most effective when they tie together the speech’s overall theme. This being the case, Trump completely missed the mark, finishing this part of his speech / run-on sentence by talking about how the Persians and Iranians alike are great negotiators. The latter “they just killed us…”

The 8 Worst Speeches in Modern Political History
The signage at the end of Theresa May’s Conference Speech. Reuters

Theresa May’s Conservative Party Conference Speech

On October 3, 2017, the British Prime Minister Theresa May delivered a speech historians are already judging as the worst in modern British political history. May’s position was already tenuous. With Brexit looming large and infighting tearing apart her cabinet because she’d just lost her parliamentary majority by holding a totally unnecessary snap election, even those within her own party were howling for her blood. This speech, if you can call it that, only made the wolves hungrier.

Almost everything that could go wrong did. And fast. Mere minutes into her address, a British comedian famous for high-profile practical jokes managed to make it to the podium and hand the prime minister a P45 (a tax letter you receive at the end of your employment, a bit like the American “pink slip”). Then May’s vocal cords abandoned her, leaving her coughing, rasping and inaudibly whispering her way through the final (P)45 minutes.

To top it all off, some of the characters from the pretty un-inspirational sign behind her started dropping to the ground. So what originally read as, “Building a country that works for everyone” ended up reading, “Building a country that works or everyone”. Then again, with the word country in the text, things could have been a lot, lot worse.

Reactions to the speech ranged from the stunned to the furious. When interviewed by The Sun newspaper, one conservative minister eloquently summarised his response as, “what the f-king f-k f-k f-k. F-k.” Many called for May’s resignation and the appointment of a new party leader. Her cabinet members were kinder, however, praising her “mettle” for making it to the end. Though with recent accusations of the prime minister being robotic, they might have chosen their words more carefully.

Throughout the speech, Theresa May kept referring to the “British Dream”. As a Brit I have no idea what this means. I suspect it has nothing to do with the Brexiteer dream, which traditionally involves standing in long queues, waving little red and white flags and invoking our God-given right of telling foreigners to go home.

But as her address dragged on I began to understand. That for many, this was the British Dream — watching a lying politician flounder like a clown in a minefield as they publicly botch their way through an oratorical car crash. And that in unfaltering service to the national interest, at last our strong and stable prime minister was delivering.