I’ve always thought it would be cool…
…to be a political speechwriter. To tug on people’s heartstrings, push their buttons, and, sometimes, play fast and loose with the facts. And to have the power of history in my hands.
I was reminded of this aspiration while watching a ceremony this week at the White House to honor the 5,000th Daily Point of Light Award recipients. The award’s name, of course, comes from the description of Americans serving each other as “a thousand points of light,” from President George H.W. Bush’s 1988 Republican nomination acceptance speech.
A kinder, gentler soundbite…
Bush is often remembered, as well, for the expression “a kinder, gentler nation,” another memorable catchphrase coined by presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan. Noonan calls speechwriting an odd profession, part policy-explainer, part hack, part innocent. A speech, says Noonan, is a combination of theater and political declaration, a paradox of both great power and great delicacy.
I find Noonan’s presidential words worthy of the history books because, well, they are in the history books. And because Noonan reminds us that speeches are not significant simply because we have the technology to broadcast them to the world, but because they are one of the “great constants” of politics, the ocean on which politicians sail…or in which they sink.
These words matter…
Consider, for example, “Give me liberty or give me death!” or “Ask not what your country can do for you.” The iconic 10-sentence Gettysburg Address—in which President Abraham Lincoln reiterated the principles of human equality espoused by the Declaration of Independence, in just over two minutes—survives through hand-written transcripts. Regarded as one of the finest speeches in American history, it was penned by Lincoln himself.
I believe that President Obama won the 2008 presidential election right here in Denver. On a beautiful Colorado evening in August, then-senator Obama, with his characteristic charisma, delivered his Democratic presidential nomination speech at Mile High Stadium, telling Americans that “this is one of those moments,” a defining moment upon which he built his campaign. The phrase still resonates.
A brilliant diversity…
Last week (without partisan bias, in my opinion), President Obama welcomed President Bush and Barbara Bush to the White House to recognize a retired couple from Iowa, who have created a nonprofit organization to feed hungry children, as the recipients of the 5,000th Daily Point of Light Award. That’s a lot of light.
Noonan doesn’t claim that the phrase “a thousand points of light” has never been uttered before—variations appear in works such as a C.S. Lewis sci-fi novel and a speech by a turn-of-the-century engineer in Venice. Instead, Noonan describes its impact in Bush’s speech as its context: “a brilliant diversity spread like stars…in a broad and peaceful sky.”
The power of such words is indeed in their contexts, in their memorability, in their places in history. When President Obama recognized President Bush for the Point of Light volunteerism effort that he spearheaded more than two decades ago, Obama said: “We are surely a kinder, gentler nation because of you.”
I don’t know about you, but my heart is singing: “America, this is one of those moments.”
- Obama toasts Bush: ‘We are surely a kinder and gentler nation because of you’ (nbcpolitics.nbcnews.com)
- Obama honors George H.W. Bush for promoting volunteerism (reuters.com)
- Obama to Bush 41: We are a ‘gentler nation’ because of you (politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com)
- We Are Kinder and Gentler Nation Because of You: Obama To Bush (spyghana.com)
This column was originally published in the “Arvada Press” and affiliated Denver-area newspapers, and is reprinted here with permission.
Please leave party politics at the door.
This column is about power and politics, but not about political power…this column is about the power of public address.
For example, earlier this year we were reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, speech at the Lincoln Memorial, August 24, 1963. Through video or audio recordings, we recalled (or learned about) his most famous public address, “I have a dream.” This speech—which changed the course of civil rights legislation in the U.S.—was only 17 minutes long.
At his inauguration three years earlier in 1961, John F. Kennedy offered this historic line to his “fellow Americans” (borrowing from the early Roman satirist Juvenal), saying: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
Thirty years earlier…
Thirty years before that, during his first inaugural address, Franklin D. Roosevelt—facing what was then the greatest crisis in American history since the southern states seceded—delivered a rallying cry for the Great Depression: “This great Nation will endure…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” I was not sitting by the radio when FDR spoke, but from recordings I can hear his confident voice ringing out over the decades.
The unexpected horrors of World War II, so soon after The Great War, were the genesis to some of the greatest words of a generation. Winston Churchill unforgettably addressed the House of Commons throughout 1940, saying, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat” and “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
On December 8, 1941, FDR described the preceding day to Americans as “a date that will live in infamy,” transforming his speech into a collective statement on behalf of a shocked nation.
More recently, in his inaugural address of 1989, George H. W. Bush memorably told us that we are “a thousand points of light” (coined by speechwriter Peggy Noonan from a 1955 publication of C.S. Lewis).
Ten of our most powerful sentences.
Even when the spoken word took days to print and months to distribute, the power of public address prevailed. On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered the ten sentences of the Gettysburg Address, saying: “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here…”
Little did Lincoln realize the power of his words.
Social media—Twitter, Facebook, YouTube…and blogs like mine—are dominant in today’s communication. I can tweet, post, and blog with the best, and there’s no doubting the impact of going “viral” on the Internet; current president Barak Obama credits much grassroots success to social media.
However, some people believe Obama actually secured his presidency in June 2008 in Colorado during his address—“the American promise”—at the Democratic National Convention. What do you think?
As the campaigns of 2012 continue to play out…
…you make the call—tweets or speeches?
I’ll be watching myself.P.S. You can find these historic addresses on the Internet! A little more about the author:
Andrea W. Doray is a writer, blogger, and public speaking trainer based in Denver, Colorado. Her own public speaking has ranged from “Moolah for Munchies” to “Save What’s Left for the Goats: Lessons Learned from Turkmenistan about Building Community.”