By Paul Lombino
At a recent dinner party, my host asked her guests to reveal some secret lifetime passion. Mine was to write a presidential speech. With our national election two days away, I decided to revisit some memorable presidential speeches. What I found was some beautifully crafted prose designed to inspire, bring clarity to critical moments in history, manipulate, and in one instance draw attention to a bizarre life-threatening situation.
Here are some excerpts and context for each:
“THE NAME OF AMERICAN, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations. With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles. You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together.”
─ George Washington, Farewell, September 19, 1796
Comment: Though Washington’s syntax reflects that of a bygone era, what’s historically remarkable is that even in 1796, our founding father recognized a simmering rift between the states of the North and the South. His warning would go unheeded and 65 years later our very union would be tested.
“THAT FROM THESE HONORED DEAD we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion. That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom. And that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
─ Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg, November 19, 1863
Comment: In less than 300 words, Lincoln produced the most recognizable speech in American history. His dedication at the National Cemetery in Pennsylvania, which took only two minutes, reflects the soul of a poet tortured by the deaths of his fellow countrymen and a profound belief in a more united future.
“FRIENDS, I SHALL ASK YOU TO BE AS QUIET AS POSSIBLE. I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot. But it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose. Fortunately I had my manuscript, so you see I was going to make a long speech, and there is a bullet ─ there is where the bullet went through ─ and it probably saved me from it going into my heart. The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best.”
─ Theodore Roosevelt, A Breath from Death, October, 14, 1912
Comment: Noted as a dramatic speaker, Teddy Roosevelt began a scheduled campaign address in Milwaukee with a bizarre revelation. As he began to speak, the former Rough Rider pulled a bloodstained manuscript from his breast pocket. Earlier that day, the Progressive Party candidate had been shot at close range by a crazed anarchist. Rather than cancelling his speech, TR pushed on for nearly an hour. Later he was rushed to the hospital and, eventually, immortality on Mount Rushmore.
“THE WORLD MUST BE MADE SAFE FOR DEMOCRACY. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them.”
─ Woodrow Wilson, War Footing, February 3, 1917
Comment: Against the backdrop of U.S. merchant ships being attacked and sunk by U-boats, Wilson announced to Congress that diplomatic relations with Germany had just been severed. Four days later, Congress passed a resolution bringing Uncle Sam into the Great War and raising America’s position as standard-bearer of democracy worldwide.
“IT WILL BE RECORDED that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time, the Japanese government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace.”
─ Franklin Roosevelt, Pearl Harbor, December 8, 1941
Comment: Of course, we all recall the phrase “a date which will live in infamy.” But keep in mind that on December 6, most Americans did not want to get involved in another foreign engagement. This paragraph in FDR’s message to Congress lays out an indisputable argument for declaring global war on fascism.
“WE ANNUALLY SPEND ON MILITARY SECURITY more than the net income of all United States corporations. This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence ─ economic, political, even spiritual ─ is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
─ Dwight Eisenhower, Military Industrial Complex, January 17, 1961
Comment: For 20 years, Americans knew Eisenhower as Supreme Allied Commander and Commander-in-Chief. During a time of relative peace, the beloved Ike made this prescient warning to a televised audience about the dangers of the burgeoning “military-industrial complex,” a challenge our country negotiates today.
“WE CHOOSE TO GO TO THE MOON in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills. Because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept ─ one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
─ John Kennedy, Moon Shot, May 25, 1961
Comment: Only a month after the Soviet Union launched the first man into space and three months before communists began erecting the Berlin Wall, an energetic JFK challenged a young, drifting nation to set its collective vision high.
“WHAT HAPPENED IN SELMA is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it’s not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”
─ Lyndon Johnson, Civil Rights, March 15, 1965
Comment: A week after deadly racial violence erupted in Alabama where police clashed with activists preparing to march on Montgomery to protest voting-rights discrimination, LBJ gave this eloquent speech to push for his civil rights agenda. The speech is largely noted for this son-of-the-South’s bold use of the Sixties refrain “we shall overcome.” Today, the use of the term “Negroes” would be unthinkable.
“AS WE LOOK TO THE FUTURE, the first essential is to begin healing the wounds of this Nation, to put the bitterness and divisions of the recent past behind us, and to rediscover those shared ideals that lie at the heart of our strength and unity as a great and as a free people. By taking this action, I hope that I will have hastened the start of that process of healing which is so desperately needed in America.”
─ Richard Nixon, Resignation, August 8, 1974
Comment: Possibly the lowest point of the American presidency, you can sense Nixon pleading for his place in history and to maintain some element of dignity in this otherwise disgraceful end.
“THERE IS ONE SIGN THE SOVIETS CAN MAKE that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev ─ Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
─ Ronald Reagan, Brandenburg Gate, June 12, 1987
Comment: If you are of age, you probably recall Reagan’s demand to the Evil Empire. But, like me, you may have forgotten that the Berlin Wall, erected in 1961, did not actually crumble until November 9, 1989. Still, no president delivered a prepared line better than the Gipper.