1. Satan in Hell:
There’s no orator to compete with the Prince of Lies. The speech Lucifer makes to his lieutenant Beelzebub after both have been cast into hell following their failed rebellion against God—brilliantly read here by the late Ian Richardson—is a fabulously sinuous attempt to make the best of a bad lot. Blame is shirked or shared, Beelzebub flattered, and the conversation rapidly moved from present disaster to fantasies of future triumph. Satan makes defeat sound like a victory.
2. Richard Nixon’s “Checkers” speech:
Backed into a corner by allegations of irregularities in his campaign funding, Tricky Dicky made the speech of his career: rounding on his accusers with a virtuosic personal appeal, in which he positions himself as a hardscrabble American individualist victimised by a plutocratic Beltway establishment. Then he does the bit about the puppy. Shameless. Dog biscuits and chew toys poured into his campaign HQ.
3. Margaret Thatcher after the Falklands:
I can’t find video for more than a snatch of this, but the text shows The Lady on fine form. Peacocking over the Falklands victory, she turns it into a sermon on the way “the spirit of the South Atlantic” might be turned to peacetime advantage. Specifically, she attempts to isolate striking railworkers from “the new mood of the nation.” An effective piece of eye-gouging: red meat for a 1982 rally at Cheltenham.
4. Tony Blair’s last conference speech as PM:
Tony Blair, cheesy though he could sometimes be, is one of the most accomplished political orators of the age. Here he’s at his best. His register—which sometimes comes over as messianic—is intimate. He talks to the Labour party like family. It’s a strong defence of his record and a fine example of how effectively he’s able to use the plain style.
5. Barack Obama on election night:
This speech instantly entered the canon. Artfully constructed, unapologetic in its high style and its rhetorical contrivance, it cunningly and consciously fused the language of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. Still thrilling.
…and here’s how not to do it:
1. Sarah Palin after the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords:
This gets it wrong in so many ways. The stagy setting (is that really what her front room looks like?) looks contrived, and the glassy…