Asquith ended on the day when he agreed to make what Princess Bibesco calls his "fall upstairs.
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But in spite of this new dignity, it is the name of Asquith which he caused to be inscribed in history, as that of the man who did not hesitate in to put all the forces of the British Empire at the service of Belgium violated and of Justice outraged. His enemies reproach him with it, certain of his friends glory in it. He himself seems sometimes to take a delight in conforming to this portrait. A man who has risen from the most modest social circumstances, first to the school of law, then to the fame of a great pleader, and finally to the greatest career that any statesman of our time could aspire to.
A man who has been fifteen times a minister and eight times President of the Council, and who has always proved not only adequate to his task but in a fair way to tower above it. Who would believe it? The truth is very different. We live in an age of paper. Our civilization rests on the written document, our statesmen spend their days in reading reports and dictating memoranda.
A book counts as the height of achievement. Briand is lazy because, with his hands in his pockets and a cigarette in his mouth, he takes life for his study, observing and listening. Briand is an oral worker. He does not read the reports that are sent to him. He sends for the writers to explain them to him. After a few minutes' conversation he has learned more than is in the report.
Briand has the true orator's temperament. Speech is life to him.
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He has a horror of the written word: in his opinion the letter kills. Briand was once a journalist and whatever he may say of it at press banquets his memories of that time are not pleasant. His daily article was for him, who in another sphere improvizes so brilliantly, a real burden, almost a torture. He has not written a single book.
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We do not believe that even his speeches have been collected and published. They would not lend themselves to publication. The orator's art in that case is only one facet of the writer's talent. There is nothing like that about M. His speech is always impromptu: typed and re-read the form of it might easily appear faulty. What is eloquence! A contact between a man and a crowd. A speech prepared in the quiet of the study, written and conned over, is not a speech. Eloquence is improvization, it is the soul of the hearers reflected in the words of the orator.
It may be remembered at Geneva it always will be what an admirable speech M. Briand made in reply to Herr Stresemann on the day when Germany was admitted to the League of Nations. On the previous day it was learned that Herr Stresemann, himself a powerful impromptu speaker, would read his speech in view of the great importance of the occasion. Briand's colleagues urged him to do the same.
He hesitated for a moment, then suddenly he spoke, "No, certainly not. When two great peoples come together again a man must give himself. And verily, on the following day, M. Briand gave himself. That day he showed all the warmth of his heart, all the generosity of his nature. Many people believe that he speaks extempore to avoid the trouble of preparing his speeches.
Not at all. Briand prepares his speeches carefully and in two different ways.
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First of all he studies the milieu, establishes contact with it, tries to get to the heart of it. Briand entered the French Chamber in at the age of forty, preceded by a great reputation for oratory won in socialist conferences and in the Assize Courts. The members awaited his first speech eagerly. They had to wait for it three years!
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Briand required all that time to absorb the complex ever-changing milieu of French parliamentary life. Three years of strolling about the lobbies, of inconsequent talk, of idle dreaming; three years apparently wasted. But after that time he made his maiden speech without a false note; it was a triumph.
Six months later he was a minister. When he came to Geneva for the first time as the French delegate to the Assembly, the process was repeated but in the reverse way. He began too soon; he had not had time to give sufficient study to a milieu so new to him, at once diplomatic and parliamentary, where the only eloquence that carries any weight is sober, almost academic. It was Mr.
Balfour who reached perfection in that milieu. At first M. Briand was a disappointment. He himself acknowledged it.
He did not immediately speak again, but he did not give up hope. He studied his milieu and when he had occasion to speak again at the Assembly or in the Council he was magnificent. When you see M.
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Briand with his cigarette in his mouth, strolling along the lobbies of the Assembly, giving here a word, there a smile and a handshake, you can be sure that he will speak the following day from the rostrum. Briand has another method of preparation. He practises his periods on a limited audience. He tries them over in a circle of friends. Often when you hear him you find in his speech whole sentences from the conversation you had with him the day before. Briand's private conversations are like rough sketches of the great pictures which he perfects in public.
One day during the War I was lunching along with M. Briand at the house of his friend M. Joseph Reinach. There were about twenty people there. Briand was seated opposite the master of the house. For about a quarter of an hour we all chatted desultorily to one another. Then gradually above the hubbub arose one voice, deep, warm, musical, flexible.
Soon it dominated the rest and we heard no other; we all fell silent.
Briand, who had just left the government, was telling the story of his last ministry. It was world history in its most tragic phase expounded by the actor most directly concerned in it. We all hung on his words. The following day M. Briand made that speech again in the Chamber.
Nevertheless it happens sometimes that M. Briand really does improvize and it is then that his style can be best comprehended. One day at Geneva he was invited to a Press luncheon. Different speakers were down to speak, but his fellow guests wanted to hear him. A cheer arose and he had to submit. He began with a few light pleasantries; you felt that he had nothing to say, that he was casting about in his mind for his next word. That lasted for a few minutes. Then, suddenly, a chance image opened up a great vista before him. His voice became deeper, more vibrant, and he rose to one of his greatest speechesthis time really impromptu.
The quality which M. Briand possesses above all othersand it is a truly statesmanlike qualityis a keen sense of the distinction between what is essential and what is secondary.