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Sunday, January 16, 2005

Political speech

What have been the best historical examples of political rhetorical? Sure, it's tempting to credit our current "misunderestimated" President. You know his applause lines, like "Is our children learning?" or "There's an old saying in Tennessee -- I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee -- that says, fool me once, shame on -- shame on you. Fool me -- you can't get fooled again."

However, even Ruby Red Republicans (I've apparently coined that term) realize that there have been many, many, many political communicators superior to the current occupant of the White House, who gives his second inaugural address this week.

This Friday, I'm going to be live on public radio in Louisville (WFPL) on the program "State of Affairs" discussing "Political Speeches." Previously, I was on the show in March 2003 to discuss North Korea's bomb. Because it's radio, I can be on via telephone; my colleague Jasmine Farrier will be in the studio.

The topic of the upcoming program is summarized on the station's webpage:
The day after President George W. Bush is sworn in for a second term, we’ll talk about Presidential speeches. Some of the most memorable remarks by politicians came during Inaugural addresses – like this quote from John F. Kennedy: “And so my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” Other speeches invoke memories of historic times, like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Let us know your favorite political speech on Friday, as we talk about dialogues from politicians.
The past few days, I've been thinking about presidential inaugural addresses. I had to read quite of number of them in various college and grad school classes (I earned a MA in Communication Studies while serving as a debate team coach for a year; who knew?).

Helpfully, the Avalon Project at Yale Law School has an on-line archive of Presidential inaugural addresses. JFK's 1961 address had a number of famous passages. In addition to the one WFPL cited, the young President said:
Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans--born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage--and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
My favorite inaugural line, however, is from Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1933 address. It could resonate powerfully today, but George W. Bush would need to embrace the idea before he could borrow the quote:
So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself--nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
I'll have to do some thinking between now and Friday about other famous political speeches. Everyone knows about Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address, "Richard Nixon's "Checkers" speech, Ronald Reagan's classic stump speech, Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" address, even Bush's September 20, 2001, call to arms, as well as the inaugurals I just quoted.

What other great political speeches should I discuss Friday? Readers (both of you): in comments, point me to some great political addresses that I have not mentioned, or are not as well known -- but should be appreciated.

Before you click the comments button, however, note that Professors Stephen E. Lucas and Martin J. Medhurst have compiled a list (based on a survey of 137 leading scholars) of the "100 most significant American political speeches of the 20th century." Obviously, that leaves out a lot of political history...and the rest of the world. Tony Blair's "Doctrine of the International Community" (one of my faves), isn't on that list.

The survey ranks the top 3: MLK, JFK, and FDR. Nixon's 1952 self-defense is #6. If you peruse the list (I'm surprised at how many I've read over the years), a lot are known primarily for one famous line. Lou Gehrig's farewell to baseball ("luckiest man on the face of the earth") checks in at #73!

Incidentally, listeners Friday can call-in with questions during the second half hour of the show. On the web (or in Louisville), you can listen live from 1 until 2 pm. Soon, it will be available at their on-line archive.

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