Listening to the babbling and braying emanating from elected officials today one pines for the days of classical antiquity when rhetoric was seen as an essential part a quality education.
There’s no doubt that effective communication – particularly public speaking – has waned in recent decades as leaders of all stripes have sought to tailor remarks (in dumbed-down fashion, in many instances) for television cameras, news reporters and, most recently, Twitter feeds.
The problem is, elegant discourse rarely comes in 140 characters or less. Sometimes, you actually have to give a real genuine speech in order to get a point across.
That also means you often have to listen to an entire talk to get its full meaning, or to understand the genius behind it.
Case in point is a brief speech delivered by a young Mississippi lawmaker in 1952.
Noah S. “Soggy” Sweat, finishing his first and only term in the Mississippi Legislature, delivered what became known as the “Whiskey Speech.”
Although Prohibition had been repealed by the 21st Amendment to the Constitution in 1933, states still had the right to restrict or ban the sale of alcohol.
Mississippi was among states which had opted to continue prohibition after the 21st Amendment was passed. However, the state collected what was called a “black market” tax on alcohol totaling millions of dollars annually, according to the Jackson Clarion Ledger.
State lawmakers were debating the merits of legalizing alcohol consumption when Sweat, still in his 20s, delivered a masterful example of political doublespeak, also known as the “If By Whiskey” speech:
My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about whiskey. All right, here is how I feel about whiskey:
If, when you say whiskey, you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of the righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.
But, if, when you say whiskey, you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman’s step on a frosty, crisp morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life’s great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, than certainly I am for it.
That is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.
It is said that Sweat spent more than two months working on his speech. That he devoted considerable time is evident from its smooth phrasing and elegant contrasting points, all of which enabled him to avoid taking a stand.
It’s also apparent that Sweat likely overmatched his colleagues while in the Mississippi Legislature. He would go on a distinguished career as a district attorney, judge and professor at the University of Mississippi before dying in 1996.
Years after the Whiskey Speech, a young law student named John Grisham, who would go on to much greater fame as an author than an attorney, clerked for Sweat.
In this clip Grisham not only provides some background for his experiences with Sweat, but also recites Sweat’s “If By Whiskey” speech. It’s worth the time.