Words matter. It was said that Lyndon Johnson had little regard for “the integrity of words.” Sadly, that is how it is with many politicians. But at the end of the day, though we have many ways to examine a particular candidate, it comes back much of the time to words.
The spoken word, as in “speech-making,” is still relevant. Would, for example, Barack Obama be running for the presidency if he had not been tapped to give that keynote address at the Democratic convention in 2004?
We really have not changed that much in our history. For all of our technology, and the gadgetry of the Internet age – we are still moved by a good speech. Like the one Sarah Palin gave at the Republican National Convention in September.
So, here we are in late October – going through our quadrennial ritual. We are tracking polls. We are listening to talking heads. And we are bracing ourselves for the final verbal assault.
Speeches rarely snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. History tells us that great political oratory happens, for the most part, away from the partisan environment that tends to characterize a fiercely fought campaign’s final days.
The most memorable phrases – those that have become part of our history – have been uttered either very early in a career (“a star is born”), or to mark a celebratory or somber occasion.
“Fourscore and seven years ago…”
“The only thing we have to fear...”
“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall…”
“Ask not what your country can do for you…”
“The greatest honor that history can bestow is the title of peacemaker…”
There have just been a few times when a speech launched a career. I have already noted one - in the case of Mr. Obama. Abraham Lincoln at Cooper Union comes to mind as another example of such a speech.
The 1896 Democratic National Convention, held that year in the Chicago Coliseum, was the scene for one such great and transformational speech. A thirty-six year old man from Nebraska, William Jennings Bryan, won the heart of his party and its presidential nomination. He would lose the election that November, and two more (1900 & 1908), but he was a significant political leader in America for a generation. When he shouted: “You shall not crucify mankind on a Cross of Gold” - he became a national figure.
But only once has a speech in the final week of a campaign made much of a difference, and it was by a man not even running for office. Yet.