Widlanski talks on ‘Big Mouth’ theory


In international political communications, the wheel that squeaks the loudest gets the most attention, according to Professor Michael Widlanski, Schusterman Visiting Professor of Israel Studies at Washington University. Widlanski, a professor on the faculty of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, outlined his views on what he calls “The Big Mouth Theory: Communication Power in the Global Arena,” in a wide-ranging address in Wilson Hall on the Washington University in St. Louis campus.

Widlanski is the visiting professor in political science and Jewish, Islamic and Near Eastern Studies at Washington University. He earned his Ph.D. degree in political science and communication from Bar-Ilan University. He was introduced and welcomed to the gathering by Ed Macias, vice chancellor and dean of arts and sciences, and Pamela Barmash, head of Jewish, Islamic and Near Eastern Studies, and associate professor of Hebrew Bible and Biblical Hebrew at the university. A native of the United States, Widlanski graduated from Columbia University before earning his doctorate at Bar-Ilan University.

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Good-naturedly calling attention to his own animated and anecdote-filled style of lecturing, Widlanski quipped, “Some may think that my Big Mouth Theory must be autobiographical.” He added, “the title is only my subject’s nickname. You will have to suffer through 4,000 years of history, including Abraham, Moses, and down to Gamal Abdel Nasser and George W. Bush before we conclude these 40 minutes.” Widlanski dedicated his lecture to his parents, “My mother, Esther Widlanski, who became a Yiddish radio broadcaster, and my father, Abraham, who heard my mother on the radio. My father said he went to Hitler’s college and Stalin’s university and graduated from them both. He was an underground fighter during World War II, and before the war he was a soccer player called ‘The Black Devil.'”

“To be a successful modern leader, you need to have a big mouth,” said Widlanski. “Just look at the careers of some key politicians for proof of this fact. Communication is one of the strongest forces of politics. Professor Harold Laslow said that it is important to know who says what, in which channel, to whom and to what effect? Just as there is economic determinism, so is there communications determinism. A leader’s effectiveness is in large part determined by how effectively that leader communicates. The Arabs have understood this quite well.”

Widlanski said that the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser became an extremely effective leader because he knew how to communicate on many levels, to the masses in the vernacular, to the media and intellectuals and to other world leaders. As a result of his charisma and effective ability to communicate, Nasser was able to rise to international prominence after he and other members of the Free Officers Movement overthrew King Farouk of Egypt in 1952. Even though Nasser over-reached politically and militarily in 1956 and 1967 resulting in his being defeated by Israel, “he should not be dismissed as a bungler or a fool.”

By contrast, Israel’s Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, in the tense days of May 1967, when Egypt was threatening to destroy Israel, gave an ineffective, stuttering speech, which set off alarm bells throughout Israel. “Eshkol did not stutter out of fear, but that is how it was perceived, resulting in the demand that Eshkol step aside as Defense Minister, while remaining as Prime Minister. Moshe Dayan was appointed Defense Minister, restoring confidence to the Israeli military leaders and the general public.”

Nasser’s great skills as a communicator were already evident by July 1953, according to Widlanski, when he began broadcasting “The Voice of the Arabs” throughout the Middle East. “Abdel Nasser was a modern, secular nationalist, after whom Saddam Hussein (of Iraq) and Hafez Assad (of Syria) modeled themselves. Nasser used the commonly used form of Arabic. He had the instinctive approach of a very talented politician.”

Widlanski said that Nasser’s closest advisor and one of his best friends was Mohammed Heikal, editor of the “semi-official” Cairo newspaper Al Ahram, one of the most influential publications in the Arab world. “In 1956, during the Suez Crisis, the British bombed the Egyptian radio tower to deter Nasser’s use of his communications skills. It was said that radio was the midwife of the Arab revolution.”

Nasser influenced and inspired nationalist movements to attack existing governments in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, and eventually convinced Syria to merge with Egypt as the United Arab Republic, which would later break apart.

“Saddam Hussein in Iraq clearly tried to imitate Nasser from the beginning,” Widlanski said. “The problem for both is that they may have gotten swept away by their own rhetoric. During the Six-Day War, Nasser’s radio announced ‘our forces are progressive on all fronts,’ aimed in Hebrew at Israeli listeners. They inadvertantly used the Hebrew word for brassiere which only provoked laughter and scorn.”

Widlanski said that in the 1930s, both Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany and Franklin D. Roosevelt in the United States made extremely effective use of the radio. FDR’s famous “Fireside Chats” were used to strong effect during the Depression and World War II.

Throughout history, Widlanski maintains, the truly effective world leaders have all been skilled communicators, including Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, George Washington, Napoleon Bonaparte and Catherine the Great. “Today, there is the added dimension of celebrity, as exemplified by the popularity of the late Princess Diana. She had an army of admirers, and was very skilled at communication in her own way.”

Other examples of leaders who made effective use of various forms of communication cited by Widlanski include President Bill Clinton, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, President Ronald Reagan and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as the late Abba Eban.

He added that effective speechmaking was only part of the equation. “David Lloyd George was perhaps a better speaker than Winston Churchill. But Churchill, like other extremely effective leaders always spoke with conviction. He believed in what he said, and as a result, those among his supporters who heard him also believed in what he said.”

Widlanski also spoke on the topic “What’s So Special About Israel — and Why We Can’t Get It,” as the guest speaker at the Rabbi Robert P. Jacobs Intitute of Adult Jewish Studies at Temple Israel.