A Thunderbolt from William Faulkner

My friend and colleague Mick Hurbis-Cherrier sent me this extraordinary and completely unexpected example of a speech of transcendent eloquence.  It was a timely and embarrassing reminder of how instinctively I still sometimes think of speeches as something that politicians do.  Thanks, Mick. 

Steve, I can’t thank you enough for the compendium of moving speeches you’ve posted here.  It reminds us that there was, and still is, nobility among our political leaders, and therefore in the voters and supporters who gave them these platforms to begin with.  These speeches also remind us of how much work there is to be done in confronting  racism and sexism (which has also reared its ugly head in this primary) despair and cynicism. 

In any case, I too was moved by Obama’s speech like I have never been moved by a political speech since before I was able to vote: honest, personal, complex, important and dead on.  I’ve heard writers, professors, friends, community leaders, colleagues, etc. talk like this, but never someone who was seeking a critical mass of votes to win national office.  You see, my political consciousness began with Watergate and late Vietnam (the American embassy in Saigon was evacuated on my 11th birthday, which made it a solemn occasion).  I cast my first presidential vote for Jimmy Carter when he lost to Ronald Reagan.  B. Clinton’s presidency was the only bright spot in an otherwise depressing experience for me as a voter in presidential elections (Reagan x2, Bush x3) and even that ended in a severe disappointment. 

And along with everyone else, I’ve witnessed the near total erosion of eloquence, substance and inspiration in political speech making.  So much have presidential hopefuls learned over these years to be more careful and less substantive with their speeches, that I was beginning to feel that anyone who held profound or complex ideas, and a desire to speak truthfully, was essentially ill equipped to be elected president in this country after so much Reagan and Bush can you blame me for thinking this?  (BTW, I never understood why Regan was dubbed “the great communicator” and I never understood people who said that George W. Bush is a guy they’d like to have a beer with, talk about dull company!)  

Anyway, I wanted to share a speech which “struck this kid like a thunderbolt” when I discovered it browsing the public library shelves as a 13 year-old, which I did a lot (like you, I was a weird kid in some ways).  This speech, which addresses being a writer (artist in general) in a cold war era on the brink of nuclear apocalypse, continues to be inspirational and influential for me, as only something which tags your consciousness at a tender age can be.  It’s not a speech made in my lifetime and it’s not a speech by a political figure, but it shares, with all the speeches you’ve posted, a fervent appeal to our collective humanity which, one hopes, remains a greater force on one’s actions than the specific crises of the day.  It is through our humanity (the recognition of ourselves in others and the recognition of the best we can be in ourselves) that we can move toward progress rather than slide back into bitterness, hatred and revenge (as RFK says in his MLK speech).  

In his speech on race, Obama quoted William Faulkner’s famous line from Requiem for a Nun, “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past,”  (btw. Faulkner’s actual line is: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”). This reference reminded me of William Faulkner’s speech upon receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950, the text of which I am submitting here.  Nikki Giovanni’s fiercely healing poem to Virginia Tech, which you posted, stands as a perfect example of what Faulkner is talking about.


Acceptance Speech by William Faulkner, Nobel Prize in Literature, December 10, 1950

Eloquence That Struck a Kid Like a Thunderbolt Part#2

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.