Words That Matter

On Christmas morning, my husband found a CD of “The Greatest Speeches of All Time” in his stocking. It was, if I may say so, an inspired gift. The title did prove somewhat misleading: Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook” speech really didn’t belong in this august collection, and I might not have chosen Winston Churchill’s 1940 radio address as the sole example of his wartime rhetoric (“I have invincible confidence in the French army and its leaders”). There is also a fundamental problem with any such audio collection, which is by definition limited to the 20th century and can’t include Abraham Lincoln, let alone Cicero. Any recorded collection purporting to be “the greatest speeches of all time” thus has to be taken with a grain of salt.

Still, after a presidential campaign marked by an unusually high standard of political rhetoric, it was weirdly revealing to listen to Martin Luther King Jr., Ronald Reagan, JFK and RFK, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and even Nixon, one after the other, out of chronological order. For one, their themes were surprisingly consistent, over the years, across parties, at different events and occasions. To some degree, this is to be expected: It’s clear, when you listen to them together, that the authors of Ronald Reagan’s 1987 Berlin Wall speech (“We come to Berlin, we American presidents, because it’s our duty to speak, in this place, of freedom”) had carefully reread JFK’s 1963 ich bin ein Berliner speech (“Lift your eyes beyond the dangers of today, to the hopes of tomorrow beyond the freedom merely of this city of Berlin . . . to the advance of freedom everywhere”).

But some of the other echoes were less obvious. Who remembers now that a 1983 speech by Reagan, forever famous because he used it to call the Soviet Union “an evil empire,” also contained the following:

“Our nation, too, has a legacy of evil with which it must deal. The glory of this land has been its capacity for transcending the moral evils of our past. For example, the long struggle of minority citizens for equal rights, once a source of disunity and civil war, is now a point of pride for all Americans. We must never go back.”

In that one paragraph, there are echoes of John F. Kennedy (“Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect”) as well as of King, who brilliantly appropriated the language of America’s founding documents and made them into an irrefutable argument for civil rights:

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’ ”

Once he’d said that, there was, indeed, no going back. From then on, American democracy was established as an evolving phenomenon, not a set of ideas frozen in stone. The notion of an America “with a capacity for transcending . . . moral evils,” an America that can and will evolve, became a rhetorical staple, appearing in many subsequent “greatest speeches of all time,” including those of our president-elect.

These are not remotely original thoughts, I recognize. But they strike me as worth repeating this week, and not only because of next month’s inauguration. On Sunday, a Russian television station announced the results of an opinion poll conducted to determine the “greatest Russian of all time”. First place went to Alexander Nevsky, a medieval prince who defeated German and Swedish invaders and thus symbolizes Russian defiance of the West. Second place went to Piotr Stolypin, a czarist minister and economic reformer-with-an-iron-fist, famous not only for agricultural reform but for repressing peasant rebellions. Third place, I’m afraid, went to Joseph Stalin.

There are other political traditions in Russia, the country whose dissidents almost single-handedly invented the modern human rights movement in the 1960s and ’70s. But in this particular popularity contest, Russia’s repressive, anti-Western, dictatorial traditions prevailed, though perhaps not by accident. The TV station that conducted the poll is Kremlin-owned, after all, and there have been complaints about manipulation.

Still, the results of the poll made me think: Aren’t we lucky that our founding fathers were so eloquent, so quotable, and that their language belonged to the 18th-century Enlightenment tradition, which valued clarity, and not the 19th-century Hegelian tradition, which did not. More to the point, aren’t we lucky that the political rhetoric of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, as modified by Lincoln and King, has persisted; that the language of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution — and not, say, the language of Jefferson Davis or the Ku Klux Klan — has remained mainstream; that it still sets the standard by which modern political speeches are judged.

Aren’t we lucky. Happy 2009.

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