U.S. Representative Barbara Jordan’s Keynote Address to 1976 Democratic Convention, July 12, 1976
Senator Obama – with his willingness to speak so openly about our nation’s shameful racial history — almost certainly stands on the shoulders of this extraordinary woman. I am not sure I have ever heard any human being speak with such moral authority and so openly about race. She was a singular leader for people of color, for women, for the disabled and for all Americans. I would have followed Barbara Jordan to the gates of heaven or hell, although if you happen to be looking for her, I have no doubt at which of those two locations she can be found.
Senator Robert Kennedy’s Tribute to His Brother John. Democratic National Convention. August 27, 1964, Atlantic City, New Jersey
Within a year of his brother’s assassination, Kennedy stood before the convention and through his tears, in my favorite use ever of a Shakespeare line in a political setting, used these lines from Romeo and Juliet to speak of his brother.
… when he shall die, Take him and cut him out in little stars, And he will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night. And pay no worship to the garish sun.
“We Are Virginia Tech:” Poet Nikki Giovanni, Virginia Tech Memorial Service, April 17, 2007
To speak to those who are hurt and grieving right after a tragic act, and give voice to pain that seems to defy expression, is one of the highest callings of a speech. At just the moment when so many of us find ourselves paralyzed by grief, we ask someone of wisdom and eloquence to find the right words and to do it as they struggle to surmount their own grief. Few have ever done it more profoundly than Nikki Giovanni did in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech tragedy.
A Mystery Speech
Actually, I’m not being cute. I have kept it a mystery because I am ashamed of who delivered it. That’s right, some of my favorite lines from a political speech were uttered by someone who was given the public trust and proceeded to destroy himself and the country with almost nightmarish scorn for the rule of law. I am pretty sure I know the identity of the speechwriter who actually wrote these words (it wasn’t the man who delivered them), and they still move me.
It does, though, raise the fair question of whether the words of a public figure can or should ever be considered separately from their subsequent actions. Because, for me, appreciating these words requires an almost complete suspension of the knowledge of who spoke them. But they still moved me, and I have put my favorite lines are in bold.
To a crisis of the spirit, we need an answer of the spirit. To find that answer, we need only look within ourselves. When we listen to “the better angels of our nature,” we find that they celebrate the simple things, the basic things—such as goodness, decency, love, kindness. Greatness comes in simple trappings. The simple things are the ones most needed today if we are to surmount what divides us, and cement what unites us. To lower our voices would be a simple thing…..We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another—until we speak quietly enough so that our words can be heard as well as our voices.
The last political speech that I found inspiring was Mario Cuomo’s Keynote Address at the 1984 Democratic Convention. It was an amazing piece of oratory that carefully and logically deconstructed President Reagan’s tiresome “Shining City on the hill” speech.
What a great team Mario Cuomo and Ann Richards would have been in the White House.