As the Trump tide turns into a sinkhole for his party, the demand grows for The Speech that will somehow turn everything around. If not now,four years from now. Or even later as it sinks in.
You know -- like Richard Nixon's famous Checkers speech in 1952, when the whole Republican establishment seemed intent on throwing him off the ticket, but couldn't after he'd appealed to the public above its heads when he announced that his two young daughters "like all kids, love the dog and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we're gonna keep it."
Not since Franklin Roosevelt referred to Fala had a speech been so well received:
"These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons. No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala. Well, of course, I don't resent attacks, and my family doesn't resent attacks, but Fala does resent them. You know, Fala is Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers in Congress and out had concocted a story that I had left him behind on the Aleutian Islands and had sent a destroyer back to find him -- at a cost to the taxpayers of two or three, or eight or twenty million dollars -- his Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since. I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself -- such as that old, worm-eaten chestnut that I have represented myself as indispensable. But I think I have a right to resent, to object to libelous statements about my dog."
Unfortunately, a great speech cannot simply be ordered up. It requires a great speaker -- someone whose character or record will serve as a warrant for his words. Failing all that, it requires a great ghostwriter. Even if the words may come as a complete surprise to the speaker himself.
Consider how astonished Warren Harding was in the middle of one of his presidential addresses when he came across language he didn't believe for a minute. At least he was honest about it. "I never saw this before," he told his audience, "and I don't believe what I just read."
Then there's the speaker who's pleasantly surprised by what he finds himself reading. Dwight Eisenhower was gracious enough to write a letter to Life magazine thanking the writer for the rave reviews "his" speech had been drawing. "On every side," he wrote, "I have had compliments concerning the content of the talk. I am sorry you could not take over also its delivery."
Douglas McKay, who was running for the U.S. Senate in Oregon back in 1956, finished up a speech by adding: "And now I'd like to say a few words of my own." It was a memorable postscript, but there's no need to fear that the Democratic front-runner, our Lady of Benghazi herself, Hillary Rodham Clinton, will ever say anything memorable except bloopers. For she's allergic to eloquence, hers or bought-and-paid-for.
Of course, there are risks to hiding behind others' words. To quote one critic, Harold Ickes, Franklin Roosevelt's secretary of the interior, "inadvertently did himself an injustice as far as his later life was concerned. For he built up, with the help of ghosts, a reputation for cleverness in repartee and pungency in writing that he failed notably to maintain upon leaving office."
Franklin Roosevelt was no slouch at speechmaking himself. Indeed, it's been said that he was to radio what Ronald Reagan was to television: a master of the medium. Each era requires its own style of rhetoric, for our language does not stand still. It waxes and wanes in quality along with the times.
Washington's almost royal proclamations, as in his farewell address, would not do for a more democratic, even demagogic, period of American history.
Lincoln's thoughtful rhetoric, which has never been equaled in American history and may never be, may seem archaic now, the way the Greek classics tower over their Roman imitations. He could address the nation not as some amorphous mass but directly, personally, intimately, one by one, appealing to the best that in us:
"In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to 'preserve, protect and defend it.' "
Like any other old friend, Mr. Lincoln hard a hard time saying goodbye:
"I am loath to close. We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."
If only we in the South had listened to him. Instead we followed the lead of our charlatans and fanatics, agitators and showboats, Great Pretenders and minor troublemakers, which brings us back full circle to ... Donald Trump.
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