I'm about to commit speechwriter sacrilege and reveal the secret formula to all of Ronald Reagan’s most powerful speeches.
But first, let’s address the elephant in the room: conservatives’ lugubrious mood heading into the 2008 presidential election. Ask yourself this question: which Republican delivered the last speech you watched or read that surged with spine tingling, foot-stomping excitement while crackling with core conservative values?
No, I mean other than Ronald Reagan.
Was it John McCain, Mitt Romney, or Rudy Giuliani? Probably not. And that’s the point.
Conservatives’ current gloom is, in part, a symptom of a perceived “eloquence gap” among the top Republican presidential contenders. Moreover, it is a sign that somewhere amid the Donkey Party’s 2006 congressional stampede, Republican rhetoric got knocked off-key and is in desperate need of tuning.
Looking across history’s arc of great Republican speeches, one finds that they all contain three key themes—three communicative “pillars”—that when combined create powerful and enduring messages that transcend time.
The first pillar is an unyielding espousal of individualism and self-sufficiency. While trying to capture the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, Teddy Roosevelt delivered his sterling ode to individualism in his April 10, 1899, stellar speech, "The Strenuous Life." Imagine if a GOP candidate spoke like this:
I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph. A life of slothful ease, a life of that peace which springs merely from lack either of desire or of power to strive after great things, is as little worthy of a nation as of an individual. It is hard to fail, but is worse never to have tried to succeed. In this life we get nothing save by effort.
These are words elephants can march to. Individualism ignites conservatives.
The second communicative pillar upon which powerful Republican oratory rests is unflinching support for a strong military and national defense. Let’s face it, civil liberties are hard to exercise if one is dead; Republicans believe that security is the wellspring from which liberty flows. And that’s why great GOP speeches have often bulged with a military muscularity. Not arrogance, mind you. But a cool confidence so supreme in tone and definitive in delivery that it lands a clenched fist wrapped in a velvet glove across the chin of the former Soviet Union. I’m speaking, of course, of words like those found in General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s famous “Atoms for Peace” speech delivered on December 8, 1953, to that bastion of inaction, the United Nations General Assembly.
Should such an atomic attack be launched against the United States, our reactions would be swift and resolute. But for me to say that the defense capabilities of the United States are such that they could inflict terrible losses upon an aggressor, for me to say that the retaliation capabilities of the United States are so great that such an aggressor’s land would be laid waste, all this, while fact, is not the true expression of the purpose and the hope of the United States.
To pause there would be to confirm the hopeless finality of a belief that two atomic colossi are doomed malevolently to eye each other indefinitely across a trembling world…Surely no sane member of the human race could discover victory in such desolation.
Granted, when you’re the former supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, you come to the lectern with a hardwired gravitas on national security. But Senator McCain, for obvious if painful reasons, possesses a similar ethos on pillar number two. What’s more, Rudy remains the human “icon of 9-11.” The battle between them to capture the national security pillar will be a battle worth watching.
And finally, the third communicative pillar that typifies soul-shaking Republican rhetoric is unapologetic support for Judeo-Christian morals and values. This pillar, more than any other, explains the current conservative dissatisfaction. From Lincoln to Reagan, a winning Republican message has almost always included a genuine and sincere connection to the Divine.
Indeed, one could argue that Lincoln was the charter member of the Christian Right. In his second inaugural, the most famous of all presidential inaugural addresses, Lincoln delivers the second shortest inaugural in presidential history (just 703 words), and yet still manages to include 14 references to God and four direct quotes from the Bible.
Fast forward to Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech, delivered March 8, 1983. Short of perhaps Governor Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher, who among the current field can you imagine speaking like this as president of the United States?
There is sin and evil in the world, and we're enjoined by Scripture and the Lord Jesus to oppose it with all our might… They [Soviet Union] must be made to understand we will never compromise our principles and standards. We will never give away our freedom. We will never abandon our belief in God…. The real crisis we face today is a spiritual one; at root, it is a test of moral will and faith… I believe that communism is another sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last -- last pages even now are being written…. For in the words of Isaiah: ‘He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might He increased strength. But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary.’ God bless you and thank you very much.
The secret formula to Ronald Reagan’s most powerful speeches is that he showcased the three pillars found in the greatest Republican speeches in history. As Ronald Reagan’s chief political strategist and my former co-author, Dick Wirthlin, likes to say, “President Reagan knew how to persuade through reason and motivate through emotion.”
The Republican candidate who best communicates the three pillars of epic Republican speeches can close the eloquence gap and shape history.