Make your point powerfully: Give a stump speech (painting by George Caleb Bingham)

World O’ Words: No stumpage fees for the speechmakers

As long as man has been using fire, he has been chopping down trees. Even in our pre-forestry, pre-agriculture days. Back then, when we were foragers, we made use of everything possible in our environment. The chopped down tree was easy to make use of. But what possible use could there be for the stump left behind? A stump is possibly the most useless thing ever created by humanity. With the possibility of the 8-track tape.

As long as man has been using fire, he has been chopping down trees. Even in our pre-forestry, pre-agriculture days. Back then, when we were foragers, we made use of everything possible in our environment. The chopped down tree was easy to make use of. But what possible use could there be for the stump left behind? A stump is possibly the most useless thing ever created by humanity. With the possibility of the 8-track tape.

But wait! There is one important thing a stump lends itself to perfectly.

When groups of nomadic hominids, wandering aimlessly over the earth, leaving stumps from chopping down trees, starting coalescing from small family or multifamily units into larger tribal groups, some ambitious early human found a stump ideal for jumping up on, so all members of the tribe could all hear him speaking in their proto-language, that he should be the alpha male of all the group — or that she should be the alpha female of all the group.

Thus, the political stump speech, lost in the misty origins of our beginnings, is a human invention older than the wheel.

For instance, Andrew Wilkinson, seeking the BC Liberal leadership, came stumping through Cranbrook this week. He was on the stump, as they say. He gave a stump speech, then everyone went their separate ways.

There are certain traits that define a stump speech, as opposed to opening or closing statements at a political candidates’ debate, or a speech for a special occasion. A stump speech is a candidate’s or politician’s standard campaign speech, generally for a sympathetic crowd, that is word for word like the speech the candidate gave the day before. During an election or leadership campaign, these speeches are generally ignored by national media, though they are bread and butter to us small town types.

In my impossibly long life, I have been witness to stump speeches galore, starting during the federal election of 1968, when for reasons I don’t remember, I found myself, aged 6, in a park where Pierre Trudeau was giving a speech. I don’t recall anything about his speech, but I do recall the crowd chanting “We want Trudeau … We want Trudeau,” and then a fight broke out right beside me. Some guy taking issue with some protesters. How exciting that was!

Decades later, I took in Stockwell Day’s Canadian Alliance leadership campaign stump speech in Cranbrook. It was a good speech, and Day was well-spoken. I observed how cleverly his speech had been written — for example, he would follow up each point he was making with “that’s what I believe, don’t you?” which forced his audience to applaud (Jim Abbott was MP at the time, and Kootenay-Columbia was for Preston Manning. Day went on to win the leadership).

In the newspaper business, we hear innumerable stump speeches — and then seek access to the candidate for a one-one-one interview. Here we hope to draw the candidate out to say something more soulful than the rote words they recite during their stump speeches. The clever politician won’t be caught so off-guard though, and has another set of rote words to recite no matter what the question.

Reporter: “Mr. Candidate, if you could be any animal, what would it be?”

Candidate: “At the end of the day, the proposed value-added tax reform will offer taxpayers much needed relief.”

Stump as a word defining a political speech has endured over the ages, but seems to be finally falling out of general usage, following on the heels of its companion term, the now obsolete “whistle-stop” — as in when politicians rode trains on their campaigns, and when the train pulled into the station, gave their speeches from the rear platform to the assembled crowd. “Andrew Wilkison made a whistle-stop in Cranbrook, and gave a quick stump speech before leaving on the Midnight Train To Georgia.”

The subject came up, in fact, in reference to Wilkinson’s recent whistle-stop in Cranbrook. The Townsman duly used the term “stump,” to the perplexity of a younger generation of editors. Hence this column.

Stump’s use as a term to describe being stuck for an answer is still around. But by and large, that old paleolithic use of the term stump as something to jump up on and give a speech has been in decline, ever since we learned how to pull those stumps out of the ground so the agricultural revolution (circa 10,000 BC) could begin.