History-makers speak in these pages

Special to The Times

THE Library of America’s new collection of the greatest American political speeches is illuminating for many reasons -- and yet it may leave something of a bitter aftertaste. In the current media noise-scape, our political leaders’ urge to be heard often leads to a free-fall into the muck of crude invective and insinuation, high-concept negative punch lines (“Where’s the beef?”) and “gotcha” insults. And so this two-volume anthology, published this week, is among other things a measure of just how far political discourse has fallen in this country.

“American Speeches” collects 128 significant speeches from 80 historical figures stretching from the Revolutionary War to the Clinton administration, and it’s nice to be reminded that American politics has arguably the richest oratorical tradition in the history of Western civilization. A scan of your own memory bank will turn up many of the speeches in these two volumes, which together run to 1,685 pages: Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, JFK’s inaugural address (“Ask not what your country can do for you ... "), President Nixon’s resignation speech from 1974. Many of the speeches from the 18th and 19th centuries might be half-remembered from an old college textbook citation.

But it’s one thing to hear a stentorian swatch of oratory in a Ken Burns documentary, quite another to read the speeches in their entirety. What “American Speeches” makes clear is that the national identity was forged in the words that were spoken by the greatest speakers. In these public addresses, we find a nation reveling in open debate and the free exchange of ideas: All of the epic conflicts that lurched the country forward were hotly contested in town squares, war zones and convention halls by fiery rhetoricians and shrewd populists alike.


“We were good at speeches before we became good at other things, like poetry or writing novels,” said “American Speeches” editor Ted Widmer. “People loved to listen to orations, and that’s why they often went on for so long.” Widmer, the director and librarian of the John Carter Brown library at Brown University, spent three years rifling through thousands of pages of speeches, winnowing his choices to accommodate the two volumes. “I wanted all aspects of oratory,” he said. “Not only presidents and politicians but labor leaders, writers. I wanted the books to be historically broad-ranging.”

“American Speeches” reveals, among other things, the clash of ideas as they were played out during the Revolutionary era, when giants of oratory like Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton argued the organizing tenets of American democracy. During the Civil War, abolitionists Fredrick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln used public speech to challenge slavery, while politicians such as John C. Calhoun, a Democratic congressman, argued for slavery as a God-given right. “A lot of these speeches are fighting each other,” said Widmer. “There are a lot of incorrect points of view in the book, but that back and forth is what makes these speeches so fascinating.”

In the early years of the republic, speeches were a form of grand entertainment; brevity and concision were the enemies of showmanship. “Some speeches might take two days to complete,” Widmer said. “I debated whether to include a John Calhoun speech that is over 100 pages in length.” (Mercifully, he left it out.)

The transitional oration, according to Widmer, was Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The 272-word speech was delivered at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pa., on Nov. 19, 1863, two years before the end of the Civil War. Lincoln used a terse and eloquently plain-spoken language to foreground the principles of freedom and equality that the president hoped would be shared by a unified citizenry come war’s end: that a “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

“In those few paragraphs, Lincoln says everything that needed to be said about American history to that point,” said Widmer. “Where so many speakers of the era might take 30 minutes just to clear their throats, Lincoln’s words are short and simple. He was such a radical experimenter with language. It was just light years ahead of everyone else.”

Much of the best oratory from the 20th century springs from Lincoln’s first principles as laid out in the Gettysburg Address. The most powerful speakers of the era were those leaders who appealed to the noblest instincts of their countrymen and who understood that America rose or fell on the strength of its collective character.

As Franklin D. Roosevelt led the nation into World War II, he appealed to the nation’s unbending fortitude in the face of war. The day after Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese on Dec. 7, 1941, Roosevelt’s declaration of war guaranteed that “with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph -- so help us God.”

Conversely, the volumes also document what happens when the covenant between the government and its citizens is ruptured. Two of the finest examples of beautifully articulated dissent are Malcolm X’s March 3, 1964, speech in Cleveland, in which the civil rights leader, addressing a group of supporters, argues that “if we don’t do something real soon, I think you’ll have to agree that we’re going to be forced either to use the ballot or the bullet.” And the high-water mark of impassioned rhetoric might well be Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I have a dream” speech from 1963.


Expressing the unexpected

AMONG Widmer’s favorite speeches in the collection are those that tend to stray from the predictable party line. “I love it when politicians move out of their expected roles to say something thought-provoking,” he said. “For example, Eisenhower’s second inaugural speech, in which he expresses a desire to reach out and talk to our enemies. In that instance, a speech becomes something more than a pro forma thing. It’s an intellectual exercise.”

Much of the early oratory in “American Speeches” was self-penned, but many of the speeches from the 20th century were crafted by speechwriters. The first official presidential speechwriter was Judson Welliver, appointed by Warren Harding in 1921, although Widmer points out that all presidents have had help. “Washington leaned on Hamilton a fair amount, as did Madison.”

Widmer, a graduate of Harvard, was himself an advisor and speechwriter for President Clinton from 1997 to 2001, though he’s careful to defer credit to his former boss. “With Clinton, we would give him a draft and he would make it significantly better,” Widmer said. “He always knew what he wanted to say in a speech, and he was really brilliant at extemporizing. He would improvise like a jazz musician. I would definitely say that he, not me or anyone else, wrote those speeches.”

“American Speeches” concludes with two Clinton entries, the only two speeches from the ‘90s to be included. The decline of public speaking is a symptom of a sound-bite culture, according to Widmer.

“Many of the greatest political speeches contained long, complex arguments,” he said. “But with shorter attention spans, no one has the patience anymore for something like that. TV certainly hasn’t helped.” There’s hope yet for political oratory in the words of young politicians like Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who Widmer thinks is a “very impressive” speaker. Presidential conventions also tend to bring out the best in politicians.

And although the golden era of American oratory is probably over, preserved for posterity in these volumes, Widmer is cautiously optimistic that political speaking will be restored to some more highly regarded place in the American conversation. “It’s not just words,” he said. “It’s a living art form.”