Speeches do Matter

By Norm Winick

The Zephyr, Galesburg


It’s almost becoming a cliché .

Commentators and two of the remaining candidates for President like to tell us over and over again that “speeches don’t matter.” Instead, they try to claim that actions… or solutions… or your friends… or your minister… or your attendance… or your experience are all more important.

They could not be more wrong.

It’s speeches that chart the course of a nation. It’s the speeches that set the goals and the agenda. It’s the speeches that motivate people and it’s the speeches that determine which leaders are revered in posterity. The great leaders determine the course of the world with their speeches.

When John F. Kennedy promised that we would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, even though we were embarrassingly behind the Soviets in the “space race,” we did it. When he asked Americans to ask what they could do for their country, it sparked a new era of volunteerism and activism that even spread throughout the world through the Peace Corps. When Ronald Reagan exhorted Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down that wall,” it eventually came down. When Martin Luther King, Jr. said he had a dream, millions of other Americans were inspired to fight for that dream.

Decades later, the speeches of our leaders still inspire us. When Franklin Roosevelt told us “we have nothing to fear but fear itself,” we took on challenges well beyond our reasonable ability. Abraham Lincoln’s short dedication speech at the battlefield of Gettysburg is still remembered and still serves to remind us of why we fight to defend America.

Sometimes Presidents use speeches to warn us about potential impediments to American prosperity and freedom. George Washington counseled future leaders to avoid foreign entanglements. Dwight Eisenhower similarly warned against the growing unchecked power of the military/industrial complex. Both were prescient — but their advice was not heeded.

Speeches serve other purposes, too. Richard Nixon is not generally remembered for his eloquence — but his emotional “Checkers” speech saved his career from extinction. John Kennedy’s political career was also in jeopardy until he gave a speech in 1960 clarifying that despite his Catholicism, his allegiance was to the American people, not the Pope, and that he believed wholeheartedly in the separation of church and state.

Political careers can be ended by an ill-chosen line in a speech. I can remember three Presidential candidates whose aspirations were torpedoed by words they spoke in accepting their party’s nomination: Barry Goldwater never got his 1964 campaign rolling after he declared that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Walter Mondale’s campaign stalled when he told the truth at the 1984 Democratic Convention in San Francisco, “Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.” And 20 years ago, George H. W. Bush shot himself in the foot by declaring in 1988, “Read my lips; no new taxes” and then he promptly raised taxes and lost his reĎlection bid.

This brings us to the candidate running today who makes great speeches. Barack Obama gave one about race on Tuesday. He gave a great one on unifying America at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. He gave a great one after winning the Iowa caucuses in January. Barack Obama has a level of grandiloquence that very few politicians alive today possess.

That ability can make you a leader.

That ability can make you a motivator.

That ability can make you a uniter.

That ability can make you a negotiator and a problem-solver.

Do not underestimate the significance of a candidate for President who can give an exceptional address. The Presidents who gave great speeches are the Presidents we remember; they are the ones who shaped history.

I expect Barack Obama will be one of them.