An individual with strong political opinions who does not hesitate to express them.
Typically, a park bench orator speaks out about their views in public. It means much the same thing as a soap box orator, who might be found making impassioned speeches about politics on a street corner or in a park.
Perhaps the most famous park bench orator was Bernard Baruch. Baruch started his career as a Wall Street investor. He later went to work for President Woodrow Wilson, as a national defense advisor; later in his career, he worked as an advisor for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Baruch is probably best remembered for his quirky habit of spending long periods of time sitting on a park bench and talking politics. Baruch’s favorite bench was located in Lafayette Park, right next to the statue of Andrew Jackson.
According to the National Parks Service, Baruch didn’t like the process of being driven to the White House to meet with the president. Instead, he decided that he’d sit on his favorite park bench and wait until the president was ready to see him; Baruch arranged for a signal light to go on when it was time for the meeting. Over time, Baruch became famous for this habit. He became such a fixture of Lafayette Park that the post office once delivered a letter to him which was addressed simply to “Bernard Baruch, Lafayette Park, Washington, D.C.”
Today, a commemorative bench with a plaque bearing Baruch’s name is where he used to sit. In New York City, Baruch College – which is named after him – contains a sculpture of Baruch sitting on a park bench. And a 1944 biography of Baruch was titled, of course, The Gentleman on the Park Bench; BERNARD BARUCH, Park Bench Statesman.
Barnard Baruch is an unusual park bench orator, one with power and connections who commanded respect. Most of the time, the phrase has been used as an insult. Today, it’s mostly passed out of use, but it has been used as a way of describing an amateur philosopher who might not have a strong grip on reality. The phrase implies a lack of self-control and a slight sense of public humiliation.
Park bench orators are also vulnerable; until fairly recently, vagrancy laws in many regions allowed the police to arrest people for sitting on a park bench and ranting.
At Guilford College in South Carolina, college administrators actively encourage students to practice their soapbox (or park bench) oratory. The practice started in 2000, when a storm blew down many of the trees on campus, leaving stumps behind. “We had all these stumps everywhere, and we thought we might as well make use of the gift that God dropped in our laps,” the campus minister coordinator said. The stumps have since been replaced with stone benches. Every Wednesday, the school encourages students to climb up on a stone “stump” and address passers-by about whatever topic they find important.