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.

Eloquence That Struck a Kid Like a Thunderbolt Part #1

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