Rhetoric Review: Top Political Speeches

A politician giving a speech before a crowdWho better to analyze political speeches than speechwriters themselves? From the trusty standards, such as the Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, to some more unlikelier picks, our contributors Hal Gordon, Carol Whitney, Paul Liben and Dave Helfert take a closer look at a sampling of some of the top political speeches in history.

Hal GordonFirst up, Hal Gordon reminds us all what makes Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address so quintessential. Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Reagan White House and Gen. Colin Powell, is currently a freelance speechwriter in Houston.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is a more radical speech than most of us realize.

In content, it amounts to nothing less than a second founding of America. This country may have been “conceived in liberty” but it had not been dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal.” The Declaration of Independence was written by a slaveholder, and the Constitution upheld slavery as an institution. Lincoln’s rhetoric cleanses our founding documents of the shame of slavery.

In structure, the Gettysburg Address flouts the rules for writing a good speech.

Lincoln’s first word, “fourscore,” was an obvious anachronism, even in 1863. But which sounds better? Fourscore and seven” or “Eighty-seven”?

Lincoln chose the polysyllabic Latinate over the single-syllable Anglo-Saxon word: “conceived in liberty,” not “born in freedom.”

Lincoln was dispassionate – astonishingly so, since the Civil War was still raging. Gettysburg was “a great battlefield” consecrated by all “the brave men, living and dead who struggled here.” Already, he was looking forward to the day when we would be one nation again.

Lincoln was deliberately abstract and mystical. He didn’t say, “United States.” He called us “a new nation.” He was offering an alternative vision of America.

When he ends with, “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth,” he’s close to proclaiming a universal declaration of human rights. All that in 272 words!

Paul Liben, who served as a speechwriter for New York Governor George Pataki and then as director of speechwriting for U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, shares why Robert F. Kennedy’s April 1968 remarks in Indianapolis immediately following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. deserve top billing in our list.

Robert F. Kennedy’s speech in Indianapolis following the news of Martin Luther’s King’s death contained a heartfelt appeal for Americans on both sides of the color divide to reject violence and embrace love, compassion, and reconciliation. Read on paper, these words today could be dismissed as empty rhetoric, but context is everything. For that place and moment, they were right and fitting. They were delivered by the right person, a man whose brother had been assassinated, in the right way, with head and heart invested in them, and to the right audience, mostly African Americans who were being told the awful news.

It was hard to choose this speech over King’s “I Have A Dream” address, which stylistically exceeded it. But given how well RFK handled the nearly impossible task before him, of being the bearer of terrible tidings at a time already convulsing with social and racial unrest, his eulogizing of King must get the edge.

One more point needs to be made about RFK’s remarks that night: He was somehow able to decry the hatred and violence that was engulfing parts of the nation, while still communicating an unmistakable love for America, and an acknowledgement of its greatness. Like the messages of Dr. King, RFK was calling not for a rejection of America as an inherently evil or racist country, but for America’s embrace of its own true meaning and purpose. King did the same thing with his appeal to American’s founding creed — that found in the Declaration of Independence. Much like JFK and Reagan, King believed the Declaration’s assertion that human rights come from God and hence cannot be abridged by any human entity.

Listen to the speech:

Carol WhitneyIn Carol Whitney’s top picks, she included Theodore Roosevelt’s 1912 campaign speech, which he delivered after being shot. Whitney is one of the few strategists who specialized in women’s campaigns and was strategist for the 1986 winning campaign of Kay Orr, the first Republican woman governor in this country’s history.

Theodore Roosevelt: The Speech That Saved His Life

This is not a great speech. But it deserves a spot on our list because it presents so perfectly the attitudes of an era. Roosevelt, denied his party’s nomination for a third term in 1912, ran instead on the Progressive (Bull Moose Party) ticket. In Milwaukee for a campaign speech, he was shot in the chest by an anarchist, saved only because the thick manuscript of his speech along with the glasses case in his pocket slowed the bullet. Although seriously injured, he insisted on giving the speech, telling the audience that “it takes more than that to kill a bull moose” and proudly displaying his bloodstained shirt.

This extreme devotion to duty exemplified the “manly man” so admired by his generation and class. Strong in body and moral fibre, a daring outdoorsman, explorer, military officer, conservationist and prolific writer, TR was the perfect leader for a brash young country ready to show its strength. Not everyone supported the imperialist movement or the annexation of the Philippines and Cuba, but the country was quick to respond when provoked by the supposed Spanish attack on the battleship Maine. Roosevelt had found the “good little war” in which to demonstrate his leadership skills.

Roosevelt’s 1912 loss did not deter him from further adventures. He set off almost immediately to explore an uncharted tributary of the Amazon River, where he came close to death from fever in the jungle. He persisted in his writing and his efforts on behalf of conservation. We may not admire his love of battle or agree with his outmoded definitions of manliness, but he was a remarkable man who achieved beyond expectations and left a legacy of conservation and preservation of our natural resources that has rarely been surpassed.

Dave HelfertDave Helfert chose Barack Obama’s speech on racial relations in 2008 for one of his top picks. Helfert has been a political and governmental communicator for more than 30 years and worked for six years as Communications Director in the Clinton Administration.

As the first credible African-American candidate for president, Barack Obama’s candidacy itself raised the always-volatile race issue implicitly, and then a video of an explosive sermon on race by his former minister brought the issue into open and heated  discussion.  Obama needed to respond to the minister’s words and define his own views.

His More Perfect Union speech is frequently compared to John Kennedy in 1960: “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic.”  However, Obama went far beyond, walking us through America’s history of race relations.  He used his own biracial identity to put his experiences and feelings into unique perspective.

Obama’s words were simple, direct and unmistakable.  He didn’t attempt to minimize racial divisions in any way, or suggest that he had the solution.

“It’s a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy – particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.”

Rather, he issued a call for sustained and unified effort: “that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact, we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.”

Watch the full speech:

And of course this list could go on and on. What are some of your top picks for political speeches? PunditWire Initials

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  • Sean Blinn

    One more way to understand the truly radical nature of the Gettysburg Address is to compare it with the speech given immediately before it. Edward Everett was considered the leading orator of the day, and gave a two-hour speech fully consistent with the rhetorical style of the 1860s. Think about that: two hours. Find the speech on the web and compare it to Lincoln's. The Gettysburg Address not only remade the country, but in about two minutes that speech changed the nature of speechmaking.

    Even Everett knew it. After hearing Lincoln, Everett said Lincoln had accomplished more in two minutes than he (Everett) had in two hours.

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