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Autumn is around the corner, and in America it’s not looking mellow. The first presidential debate takes place at the end of this month and the polls are tightening. Those debates will be the decisive electoral showdown, shaping the election of 2016 and, with it, the fate of our nervy, beleaguered world.

Do I hear a sceptical snort? “They aren’t debates and they never make a difference”? Well, yes, a re-run of Nicias vs Alcibiades arguing the wisdom of an Athenian expedition to Syracuse is probably not in the offing; nor Lincoln-Douglas on slavery and the Union for that matter. Yet even within the mechanical, made-for-television conventions of media folk asking questions and limiting replies to two paltry minutes, engaged argument is possible. Real debates have happened, in the recent past.

Going against the grain of sound-bite triviality, John Kerry and William Weld actually debated eight times while competing for the Massachusetts senate in 1996. Millions watched, enthralled and enlightened by the duel. The gladiatorial cut and thrust of informed argument, civility without undue mateyness (hey, one was Harvard the other Yale), was hailed as a reminder that America, at its best, could still be a democracy of contending ideas. And television does make a difference. Kerry, who had been lagging in the polls, did well enough in the final debate to overtake Weld and win the election.

Decisive moments abound in the history of the presidential debates too — though not all of them turn on the force of verbal eloquence. The contrast in the first debate of 1960 was, famously, more a matter of how the candidates looked — Nixon’s sweat-slicked five o’clock shadow next to Kennedy’s glamorous grooming — than what they said. If you listen to rather than watch their performances, there is not that much to separate them but Nixon’s throaty rumble still seems to come from some dark corner of the world, when contrasted with the breezy assertiveness of Kennedy. What was established, visually as well as vocally, was what Aristotle in his treatise on rhetoric called their “ethos”: the impression of personal character. Once that stuck, it was hard to reverse.

Jimmy Carter at a debate with Ronald Reagan in 1980 © Rex Features

Twenty years later Ronald Reagan, much helped by the gifted speechwriter Peggy Noonan, projected the ethos of can-do, good-natured America suffocating under the weight of tax-sucking government. He offered simply spoken lightness and brightness. In response to one of Jimmy Carter’s characteristically earnest recitations of the facts of the matter, Reagan famously cocked his shining pompadour to one side and remarked with devastating quietness and a sly grin, “There you go again.” While the remark meant absolutely nothing, it nonetheless managed to be a knockout blow, establishing Carter’s ethos as that of the gloomy-guts preacher ordering America to repent its wasteful ways before time was up.

Unlike Donald Trump, Reagan knew how to deploy disarming charm. When he faced Walter Mondale in 1984, he needed that easy good humour. His concluding speech in the first debate had gone worryingly off-piste. Scripted as a kind of paean to America, Reagan embarked on a meandering lyrical drive down California’s scenic Route One, swerving back and forth across the centre-line of his logic without noticing that his rhetorical tyres had gone flat and the tank was running on empty. Rumours that age was getting to him (the poignant truth of his Alzheimer’s was not yet known, of course) dogged him into the second debate. When asked whether he would feel up to it if a crisis came calling in the wee hours, Reagan countered that he would not “make age an issue of this campaign”. (Perfect pause.) “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Mondale, a good sort, joined in the merriment and that was pretty much that.

This kind of feint-and jab shadow boxing looks like sophisticated exercise of rhetoric compared with the impending mud-wrestling that seems likely if Trump sticks to what he thinks he does best: debate by abuse, insinuation, unsupported personal accusations, giving the shoulder-shrug to glaring contradictions and indignant denials of inconvenient truths.

The Democratic debates, if sometimes suffering from the stuck-needle performances of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, did at least offer a genuine choice between pragmatism and social radicalism. The Republicans, on the other hand, were trapped, as if on a rollercoaster car gone berserk, on a sickening plunge to the bottom in which manic bluster, puerile name-calling and empty bombast set the tone. Jeb Bush, whose inhibitions about wallowing in the ordure were derided as “low energy”, turned out to be too sanguine when he implied that Trump would not be able to “insult his way to the presidency.” As the Republican nominee, he’s halfway there already.

The debasement of political language, its morphing into reality-show crassness, has gone so far, so quickly that some of its targets have been tempted into competing vulgarity. Witness Marco Rubio’s descent into the world of smirk and nudge. Much good it did him. Reports that Clinton is preparing counter-goading as a debate strategy are not a good sign. But Trumpian attack-dog barking puts her on the spot. If she affects appalled superiority and counters craziness with actual knowledge, she risks being sandbagged by the “There you go again” strategy. If she goes for needling the thin-skinned enemy, she is in danger of being pulled down into Trump’s grimy sandbox.

Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy take part in a televised debate during the 1960 presidential campaign © Kean Collection/Getty Images

How did we get to this wretched terminus ad quem of the noble art of rhetoric? In his timely book Enough Said, the former BBC director-general Mark Thompson surveys the play of rhetoric from Aristotle to its relentless vulgarisation in our own time. But even he may underestimate the extent to which free politics and the maintenance of civil society depends on a healthy culture of informed debate, of reason kindled by eloquence. Growing up in London after the war, the indispensability of articulate debate to survival was a truism. My father drilled into me his favourite maxim that “a Jew’s best weapon is his mouth” — even though his own had lost a few teeth in brawls with Mosleyite blackshirts in the 1930s while sounding off on street-corner soapboxes. But he also made sure that if school wasn’t going to teach me the proper parts of classical oratory as set out by Cicero and Quintilian — from exordium to peroration — he would do the job himself. Thus I became, in short order, a kind of miniature, kosherised Demosthenes, competing hard in debates from one end of London to the other, affecting Shakespearean sonorities and grandiose gestures.

It was a commonplace then that Churchill’s speeches had rallied Britain in the darkest days of the war and pushed back against appeasers who saw no option but to make some accommodation with the Axis powers. The historical truth was more complicated, but if we credit Hugh Dalton’s eyewitness account (and there is no reason not to), it was the famous cabinet meeting of May 1940 that ended the possibility of a compromise peace with Hitler and Mussolini. Churchill proclaimed, Ciceronian-style, “If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood”.

Grave political crises after the war also gave voice to rhetoric of the highest order. When the Labour party debated unilateral nuclear disarmament in 1960, both Hugh Gaitskell and Aneurin Bevan spoke with the grave passion the terrible subject demanded. Where are giants when you need them?

Persuasiveness — the capacity to change minds through articulate discussion survives and even flourishes in the debating societies of schools and universities on both sides of the Atlantic. But, in the age of the tweet, it has to compete with something like its antithesis. There’s not much room for exordium, narratio, confirmatio and the rest in 140 characters (although some of my cleverest fellow tweeters will confound me by doing just that). It’s no surprise that the tweet is Trump’s favoured form of public utterance; though much of the time the bird sound evoked is more that of the crested parrot, squawking repeatedly between nibbling on its cuttlefish: “SAD!” “WEAK!” “WIN”.

It has not always been thus. In the young United States, where you might have expected common speech resistance to silver-tongued English eloquence, it found a new home. In 1771 Boston merchant Nicholas Boylston founded a chair in rhetoric at Harvard, occupied for a while by John Quincy Adams, who went on to be the sixth US president. He lost re-election to Andrew Jackson, a populist whose whole ethos was a rebuke to the high falutin, but the importance of eloquence to political persuasion continued to flower — in the speeches of the African-American social reformer Frederick Douglass, as well as that devoted student of the classical tradition Abraham Lincoln.

In the 20th century, both Roosevelts were, in their different ways, powerful practitioners. And although Lyndon Johnson’s speeches are often overshadowed by Kennedy’s, those that Richard Goodwin wrote for him when he attempted to reconcile the country to the Civil Rights and the Voting Rights Acts (now under threat) are among the most inspiring ever uttered in American history and all the more effective for being spoken in broad Texan.

Was there ever a braver introductory exordium than Johnson’s on March 15 1965, one week after Selma, when bringing the Voting Rights Act before Congress? “I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy” — asserting in one sentence the interdependence of those two values. Uncoincidentally, it was the Republican connoisseur of great oratory, senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois (who recorded an album of himself reciting speeches from American history), whose vote for cloture had ended the filibuster against the Civil Rights Act the previous year.

If you delve deeply in one of the older American university libraries, you might still come across a relic of the days when rhetoric was a fixture of the curriculum; when that presupposed not just some sort of written exercise, divided into its countless obscure figures, but the practical art of public delivery. Central to the instructional literature was the three-volume treatise (on “Belles Lettres” as well as Rhetoric) by Scottish clergyman Hugh Blair, first published in 1787. Blair’s book is a mash-up of the classical canon: Quintilian, Cicero (with a sprinkling of Aristotle), along with a winning history of great exponents — Demosthenes, always “speaking to the purpose” and Pericles, who would rehearse on the seashore so that the roar of the tide crashing on pebbles would prepare him for the noise of the crowd.

Abraham Lincoln debating with Steven Douglas (c1858) © Kean Collection/Getty Images

Movingly, Blair begins (echoing Cicero) with the act of speech as the sovereign distinction separating mankind from animals — “the great instrument by which man becomes beneficial to man” — and muses on the way that some spoken languages (French and Italian) developed more musically than others. He then lingers on the skills needed for the distinct parts of a strong oration but returns, especially in volume II, to useful hints on pace, gesture (Cicero had insisted that “the hand must not saw the air”) tone and volume. “It is a great mistake to imagine that one must take the highest pitch of his voice in order to be heard by a great assembly.” Clinton, who has some work to do in these areas, could do worse than consult those wisdoms of Blair.

Throughout Blair, like his classical exemplars, stresses that the persuasiveness of eloquence is conditional on the orator’s “fund of knowledge” of the matter at hand. Without that foundation of study — he advises, at a minimum, history, philosophy and poetry — the words are merely vehement nothings. The other indispensable quality, he insisted, was modesty. “If the orator sets out with an air of arrogance and ostentation”, he will be dogged by the suspicion of the audience.

With their credentials established, the narrative of the speech delivered, the refutation of opposing arguments accomplished, the orator becomes free to move towards the climactic pay-off: the moment when persuasion is achieved through emotion. This is, at the same time, the most crucial and the most perilous moment for the speaker: it demands both passionate performance and the effacement of any impression of calculated showmanship. What must be conveyed, above all, is unaffected sincerity, true conviction. All the great teachers, ancient and modern, stress that no audience will be moved unless they see, especially in the eyes and body language of the orator, the unmistakable signs of their being personally affected by what is being described.

There is a word for this unembarrassed communion of feeling and it is one that might surprise Donald Trump since, delivering pathos from the platform, the true leader must above all strive to be, in its ancient and noble, sense, truly pathetic.

Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor. You can see him speaking on Saturday at the inaugural FT Weekend Festival at Kenwood House in London where he will talk to Jan Dalley, Arts Editor on how art translates to television and other broadcast media.

Photographs: Getty Images; Rex/Shutterstock; Kean Collection/Getty Images

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