I have been thinking a lot about political speeches this week. Because, while many of you at the age of nine were doing cool kid stuff, I was often hidden away following politics and watching or listening to speeches. I ate them up. I loved the high drama, the displays of courage, the revelations of cowardice, and the occasional moments of eloquence. Yes, I was a little weird.
(Don’t feel too bad for me. I also loved skateboarding, tree-climbing, Leave it to Beaver, Mighty Mouse, Chef Boyardee, and had a crush on a girl in my 6th grade class that was a killer!)
Seriously, Senator Obama’s speech on race is what got me thinking. I almost choked when I heard him opening up the darkest places where our society’s secret and hidden and subtle racism still festers. He opened a discussion that — if we join in, regardless of the candidate we support — will mean going toward the ugliness rather than away from it. It will mean examining what James Ellroy, referring not to race but to family trauma, has called “My Dark Places.” We may or may not be ready. But out of the hurt just might come healing.
So I thought I would share with you some of the other speeches or examples of improvised public rhetoric that have moved me over the years. They are seared in my memory. And for this go-round, I am limiting myself to speeches by Americans. More to come soon from many places around the world.
Attorney Joseph Welch Confronts Senator Joseph McCarthy at the Senate “Army-McCarthy Hearings. June 9, 1954
At the height of Senator McCarthy’s reign of terror, he launched a particularly vicious attack on a young lawyer named Fred Fisher unfairly accused of communist sympathies. Rising to Fisher’s defense with barely contained rage — surrounded by hundreds or reporters and legislators with in a crowded Senate room — Fisher’s law partner Joseph Welch of the Boston law firm of Hale and Dorr essentially destroyed Senator McCarthy with a thundering statement that included the famous “Have you no sense of decency?”
“I Have a Dream” Martin Luther King, March on Washington, August 28, 1963
I include this not as a formality, but because it shook me to my core for a very special and still embarrassing reason: I lived in a completely white community and had never had any personal contact with an African American. None. I was 12 years old. Never even a shake of the hand or a nod in the street. No contact. I didn’t know the world King was describing. In some ways, northern suburbs were as segregated as the deep south. And then the floodgates, then this speech.
Stump speech by President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Summer, 1964. Downey, California.
When my Dad took me to see an LBJ campaign rally, I only knew the deadly boring television speeches LBJ gave and the mounting Viet Nam war dead. No one I recall was more awkward and less eloquent on television. What I didn’t know then was that, when the topic was the humiliation of poverty that had marked his youth and haunted him his whole life, and when he was speaking without a script, he was one of the greatest and most inspiring stump speakers ever.
RFK Announcement of MLK Assassination, April 4, 1968 This is the greatest speech I have ever heard. Period. RFK had nothing less than the task of announcing MLK’s assassination to a largely African American crowd in Indianapolis. My eyes moisten just typing these words. All I can say is: Please listen to it. In fact, file it away after you have listened to it and have it ready to play any time you have to deal with some grief or loss.
Part #2 coming soon