A few recent political speeches worthy of the history books.
To consider the multitude of possible political speeches, including a number of excellent speeches on the Senate floor, would be too tall an order for a brief list such as this. This list will instead feature speeches given by politicians playing, as former president Barack Obama might phrase it, “at the highest level of politics.” Heads of state and those who compete for that role, regrettably or otherwise, often receive the lion’s share of attention in democracy, and, for better or worse, that tradition will continue for this list.
With honorable mention to Douglas MacArthur (“The world has turned over many times since I took the oath on the plain at West Point…”), Ted Kennedy’s eulogy for his brother Robert (“My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it…”) and George W. Bush’s eulogy for John McCain (“We sometimes talked of that intense period like football players, remembering a big game. In the process, rivalry melted away…”), here are those who said it best. While the credit is perhaps to the speechwriters, any speechwriter worth his salt says that his or her words belong to the politician who speaks them. With that said, here are a few favorites.
Speaking in Atlantic City ten months after the death of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy was, in the words of one commentator, “…the representation of what they had lost.” After a standing ovation that lasted nearly twenty minutes, Kennedy took the stage to reflect on his brother’s legacy. Those who were there reported that when he finished speaking, Kennedy was so overcome with emotion that he left the building, sat on the fire escape, and cried:
“When I think of President Kennedy, I think of what Shakespeare said in Romeo and Juliet: ‘When he shall die take him and cut him out into stars and he shall make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun.'”
On what he described as a “beautiful Arizona night,” the Senior Senator from Arizona conceded defeat to fellow senator Barack Obama in the presidential election of 2008. Ending nearly a decade of presidential aspirations, McCain gracefully conceded defeat to his supporters in a campaign that was marked by a now-quaint sense of civility:
“A century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt’s invitation of Booker T. Washington to visit—to dine at the White House—was taken as an outrage in many quarters. America today is a world away from the cruel and prideful bigotry of that time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African-American to the presidency of the United States. Let there be no reason now for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship in this, the greatest nation on Earth.”
For a man who had based his entire life on the idea of toughness and sticktoitiveness, quitting was beyond the pale. But with little choice remaining, President Nixon addressed the White House Staff on the morning of August 9, 1974, the day after announcing his resignation to the nation from the Oval Office. He speaks of new beginnings that can emerge even from the depths of suffering and defeat, if one is optimistic enough to continue to look for them:
“We think that when someone dear to us dies, we think that when we lose an election, we think that when we suffer a defeat, that all is ended. We think, as T.R. said, that the light had left his life forever.
Not true. It’s only a beginning—always. The young must know it; the old must know it. It must always sustain us because the greatness comes not when things go always good for you, but the greatness comes when you are really tested, when you take some knocks, some disappointments, when sadness comes…”
Looking out over Chicago’s Grant Park, Barack Obama took the stage—on a jacketless November night—with his wife and two daughters before standing behind the podium to say, “Hello Chicago. If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.” A particularly memorable part of his historic victory speech concerned a 106 year-old black woman in Atlanta casting her ballot for then-Senator Obama:
“But one that’s on my mind tonight’s about a woman who cast her ballot in Atlanta. She’s a lot like the millions of others who stood in line to make their voice heard in this election except for one thing: Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old.
She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn’t vote for two reasons—because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin…
So tonight, let us ask ourselves—if our children should live to see the next century; if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper, what change will they see? What progress will we have made?”
Speaking for the “34th time…from the Oval Office, and the last,” President Reagan reflected on his time in office, which spanned nearly the entire decade of the 1980’s. Following in the footsteps of other presidents who issued warnings in their final remarks to the nation they served, Reagan warned of the erosion of patriotism as, “Younger parents aren’t sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children.” Reagan reflects on moments in American history most worthy of the attention of young people:
“We’ve got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion but what’s important: Why the pilgrims came here, who Jimmy Doolittle was, and what those 30 seconds over Tokyo meant. You know, four years ago, on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, I read a letter from a young woman writing to her late father, who’d fought on Omaha Beach. Her name is Lisa Zanatta Henn, and she said, we will always remember, we will never forget what the boys of Normandy did. Well, let’s help her keep her word.”
Standing in the rubble of the World Trade Center, President George W. Bush, less than a year into his first term and amid the loud chants of New York City first responders, vowed revenge, in only a few short words, for the September 11th terrorist attacks:
“I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people—and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!”
Crafted by Peggy Noonan, President Reagan’s four-and-a-half minute address took the place of the President’s State of the Union, which had originally been planned to be delivered that evening: January 28, 1986. Instead, he sought to sooth a shocked nation and vowed that “Nothing ends here.” The most striking part of the speech is when President Reagan speaks directly to the children who gathered around television screens across the country to watch what was supposed to be a triumph of science and progress:
“And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave.”
In a speech that I have written about frequently, then-Senator Joe Biden delivered a remarkable eulogy for his late colleague James “Strom” Thurmond on July 1, 2003. It was a lesson of friendship that transcended party or worldview—but more than anything the eulogy was a rumination on the idea of change and redemption. Biden acknowledged how Thurmond did “what few do once they pass the age of 50,” which was to grow, change, and reconsider some of his previous beliefs:
“Strom knew America was changing, and that there was a lot he didn’t understand about that change. Much of that change challenged many of his long-held views. But he also saw his beloved South Carolina and the people of South Carolina changing as well, and he knew the time had come to change himself. But I believe the change came to him easily. I believe he welcomed it, because I watched others of his era fight that change and never ultimately change.
It would be humbling to think that I was among those who had some influence on his decision, but I know better. The place in which I work is a majestic place. If you’re there long enough, it has an impact on you. You cannot, if you respect those with whom you serve, fail to understand how deeply they feel about things differently than you. And over time, I believe it has an effect on you.”
So, when it comes to speeches, these are a few favorites. Perhaps the years ahead will bring more.