Great Speeches…

This is intended to be the first in a short series of remarks to President Bush’s 2007 State of the Union address. Political speeches tend to arouse a bit of passion in me, both negatively and positively. It has always been something of a dream of mine to be an orator. I would love to write essays and speeches, and deliver them in such a way as rouse and feed off the energy of my audience. To become a speaker who could incite a riot if I so chose, but instead would rally people to be better or to defend themselves and each other.

Winston Churchill has always been an idol of mine. A far-seeing man of great ability as a writer and as a leader of a nation, listening to his speeches still bristles my hair and stokes the fire in my chest. I have a lapel pin of his silhouette, hat on and cigar in mouth. I have only worn it once so far. It is a good luck symbol for when I need to speak publicly. Visions enter into my mind when thinking of speaking like Churchill. I see myself, as I see him, wearing a trench coat, walking through a wind storm, holding a hat to keep it from flying away. Head down, a long swift stride, walking across a street to a house of governance. Moving through the forces against human action, to this venue, to tell the world the terrible things it does not wish to hear. Telling them the worst has yet to come, but still reinforcing everyone’s will to stand firm, because they can and shall emerge from hell. (This is also how I feel when I listen to the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto.)

So many speeches also bother me, not because of the speaker, but because of the writing itself. It all too often feels like trite wording, using basic techniques, to pull at emotions. Great moments in time require great thought and great writing to wield them. One cannot use Nickelback when Beethoven is needed. The people cannot suffice on cake when bread is needed. And the world cannot be understood via Hollywood when the word of God is needed.

Here is President Bush’s address to the nation following the September 11th attacks. To me, the whole speech feels too simple-minded and lacking actual feeling and contemplation. “These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat. But they have failed; our country is strong.” It almost seems caveman-ish. They hurt us. They bad. We strong. We good. This is not a critique on the speaker, as this is just the transcript, so I am thinking only in terms of the writing.

I’m sure it is a good enough speech for the people whose information comes solely from television and for people who have never once paid attention to a single day in history class. But for those of us who fully grasp the gravity of events but lack the abilities to use words worthy of them, we need those great speakers of the world to give a voice to the common minds of men.

Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, 4 March 1865:
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Woodrow Wilson, War Message before Congress, 2 April 1917:
Even in a request to declare war against Germany, “We have no quarrel with the German people. We have no feeling towards them but one of sympathy and friendship. It was not upon their impulse that their Government acted in entering this war. It was not with their previous knowledge or approval. It was a war determined upon as wars used to be determined upon in the old, unhappy days when peoples were nowhere consulted by their rulers and wars were provoked and waged in the interest of dynasties or of little groups of ambitious men who were accustomed to use their fellow men as pawns and tools.”

Winston Churchill, Speech before Commons (Excerpts), 4 June 1940:
“I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our Island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone.” This whole speech is positively amazing, I highly recommend downloading it and listening to it with no other distractions, as one would have been glued to their radio, their only source of information.

Franklin D Roosevelt, Pearl Harbor Address, 8 December 1941:
“But always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us. No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory. I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us.”

Dwight D Eisenhower, Farewell Address, 17 January 1961:
“We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

It almost seems as though the greatest speakers disappeared with the end of the World Wars. But such is not the case at all. I was even hoping to stake the blame on President Reagan and his ‘folksy’ style of speaking, but he still did not dull the language, and went through what I consider a great gesture and spoke some in the tongue of the land he was in. Still, credit has to be given to the greatest English speaker since the Wars…

Dr Martin Luther King, Beyond Vietnam, 4 April 1967:
“So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.”

Ronald Reagan, Remarks at the Brandenburg Gate, 12 June 1987:
“Our gathering today is being broadcast throughout Western Europe and North America. I understand that it is being seen and heard as well in the East. To those listening throughout Eastern Europe, a special word: Although I cannot be with you, I address my remarks to you just as surely as to those standing here before me. For I join you, as I join your fellow countrymen in the West, in this firm, this unalterable belief: Es gibt nur ein Berlin. [There is only one Berlin.]”

Mikhail Gorbachev, Speech to the United Nations, 7 December 1988:
“We have arrived at a frontier at which controlled spontaneity leads to a dead end. The world community must learn to shape and direct the process in such a way as to preserve civilization, to make it safe for all and more pleasant for normal life.”

At almost regular intervals in the affairs of mankind, great trials will need to be faced. Brilliant minds and deft wisdom will be needed, and thoughtful words to go with them. I’m sure I don’t have what it takes, but I do believe that I would be up for challenge were it placed before me. Either way, whomever is writing speeches for those currently in seats of power is severely lacking.

“This will be another moment of time where we, representing mankind, will not succumb to fear. We will weep, and we will mourn, and we will save all we can. And through our sorrow and rage, we will remain stalwart and united.

“Our allies, so many of whom were former enemies, stand with us as friends. They will support us and defend us as we have and forever shall do for them. When you attack a brother, you have the family to reckon with. So it is with the blessings of our allies that we invoke Article V of the NATO charter.

“Together, American Citizens and all other free peoples of the world hereby declare: The perpetrators of this attack shall be found and brought before the light of justice in the World’s Court. The reasons behind this desperate act of inhumanity will be revealed. And we shall lift the burden of those horrible manifestations and spare all others from the tragedy which has befallen us.”

-Part of what would have been said had I been a mere seventeen years older in 2001.