The Late Show (i.e. "Letterman") has been running an hilarious semi-regular segment entitled "Great Moments in Presidential Speeches", poking fun at Dubya. Sure, when JFK's "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country" and FDR's "the only thing to fear is fear itself" speeches are followed up by Dubya mumbling "sometimes you like the pie, ya know, but you don't like, ya know, the slices in the pie!" it's pretty much shooting fish in a barrel, but it still makes a good point.
George W. Bush, Tony Blair, even our esteemed John Howard - none of them give particularly great or inspiring speeches. Even the guys we're s'posed to hate seem to command more attention - just think of the wall-rattlers that Saddam has directed at the prosecution in the last couple of months, or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's angered barbs towards Israel. Of course, it's probably easier to give great speeches and inspire the already angry masses - it's well known that Hitler was one of the greatest orators - but it's no exclusive club.
JFK and FDR are two of the greatest examples, but how about Martin Luther King? Even our own Paul Keating - with the help of his wordsmith Don Watson, of course - had his day.
Do these people exist anymore? Maybe they do, but the public just don't care. Certainly the closest we've got to a leader-of-the-masses type we've got in Australia is AWU national secretary Bill Shorten, yet despite his recent media ubiquiouty (c/o Beaconsfield), he barely registered a blip on the latest ALP leadership polls.
The trend has not gone unnoticed. Joe Klein (best known as the originally-anonymous author of Primary Colors) has written a book that makes more than fleeting reference to the problem, and an excerpt has been published in Time.
Listen to Kennedy's Indianapolis speech and there is a quality of respect for the audience that simply is not present in modern American politics. It isn't merely that he quotes Aeschylus to the destitute and uneducated, although that is remarkable enough. Kennedy's respect for the crowd is not only innate and scrupulous, it is also structural, born of technological innocence: he doesn't know who they are--not scientifically, the way post-modern politicians do.
Respect. It's something barely tangible, yet everybody knows when they command it. And it's something, as Klein says, that barely seems to rate on the political radar these days. It's a shame.