Politics has always presented tension between word and deed, often devastatingly so. Though actions can dominate a politician’s legacy, it is misguided to believe his or her words do not matter. How many of JFK’s policies, almost 50 years after his death, do we remember? I’d wager that for most Americans today, his words calling us to mend racial fault lines with empathy, to serve the country with courage, to educate our children with urgency and to put a man on the moon are more resonant. Of course, Kennedy’s work was cut painfully short, but in word, President Obama has been likened to the king of “Camelot.” While he has received similar praise as an orator, he’s also been handed more derision for his impressive speechmaking than his Democratic forebear ever was. Conversely, George W. Bush’s verbal fumbles have been punch lines for a decade running.
So what, in 2011, do we look for in our leaders? What do we expect from officials now under the microscope of 24-hour punditry, Twitter feeds and the unending ebb and tide of praise and ridicule from an ocean of Facebook groups?
In the 1930s, England’s George VI had only talking over “the wireless”—and I mean radio—to worry about. Still, George VI was an underdog king if there ever was such a thing. Even now, clever linguist Winston Churchill towers over George VI as the face of WWII-era England. After King Edward VI abdicated the throne to marry a twice-divorced American actress, his brother “Bertie” Windsor was called to the crown, which meant giving regular radio addresses and pride-rallying wartime speeches despite a lifelong, debilitating stutter.
“In the past, all a king had to do was wear a uniform and not fall off his horse,” recalls George V in director Tom Hooper’s powerful new WWII drama The King’s Speech.
Humanizing King George VI in The King’s Speech is Colin Firth, an actor who has done his share of stammering before—albeit out of shy affectation more than any lingual deficiency—as Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Anyone with a wife or girlfriend was likely introduced to Firth courtesy of the six-hour BBC mini-series based on the Jane Austen novel. BBC’s mid-1990s adaptation proved popular with chivalry-seeking, miscommunication-fatigued women across the country.
Our culture appears tired of misinformation and misdirection these days, too, which may bode well for Firth, Hooper and The King’s Speech at this month’s Academy Awards. Geoffrey Rush co-stars as Lionel Logue, a failed actor-turned-speech therapist who is hired to turn the stuttering sovereign into a room-commanding king strong enough to bolster his people’s courage in the face of hailed orator Adolf Hitler and his Nazi assault on Europe and Great Britain. George VI rose to the challenge—and, of course, the Allies won the war.
So, is the medium the message? Maybe the messenger is the message, and maybe Kennedy, like George VI before him, wanted all who listened to be his message, too.
“As we express our gratitude,” Kennedy once said, “we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”
The King’s Speech is nominated for multiple Academy Awards. It is slated for release on DVD later this year. The 83rd Annual Academy Awards are held Feb. 27.