I love soaring, poetic speeches, and I particularly appreciate beautifully written short speeches that inspire. I blogged on inspiring short speeches in November 2004
I’m thinking today of great speeches I’ve witnessed in person.
First, a speech by Charles Colson on September 2, 1993 after he was awarded the $1 million Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, which he donated to the ministry of Prison Fellowship. Now defunct Moody magazine described (Nov. 8, 1993) the setting:
“Prison Fellowship chairman Charles Colson faced a situation that mirrors what the church as a whole faces. People of several faiths, many of whom were attending the Parliament of the World’s Religions, gathered at Rockefeller Chapel on the campus of the University of Chicago to hear an address on religious liberty. What do evangelicals have to say in a pluralistic setting? How do we talk about the cultural role of religion with those who worship other gods? As the winner of the 1993 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, Mr. Colson had earned the right to stand on the platform. The speech, titled The Enduring Revolution, is what he said when he got there.”
We stand at a pivotal moment in history, when nations around the world are looking westward. In the past five years, the balance of world power shifted dramatically. Suddenly, remarkably, almost inexplicably, one of history’s most sustained assaults on freedom
collapsed before our eyes.
The world was changed, not through the militant dialectic of communism, but through the power of unarmed truth. It found revolution in the highest hopes of common men. Love of liberty steeled under the weight of tyranny; the path of the future was charted in prison cells.
This revolution’s symbolic moment was May Day 1990. Protesters followed the tanks, missiles, and troops rumbling across Red Square. One, a bearded Orthodox monk, darted under the reviewing stand where Gorbachev and other Soviet leaders stood. He thrust a huge crucifix into the air, shouting above the crowd, “Mikhail Sergeyevich! Christ is risen!”
Gorbachev turned and walked off the platform.
Across a continent the signal went. In defiant hope a spell was broken. The lies of decades were exposed. Fear and terror fled. And millions awoke as from a long nightmare.
Their waking dream is a world revolution. Almost overnight the western model of economic, political, and social liberty has captured the imagination of reformers and given hope to the oppressed. We saw it at Tiananmen Square, where a replica of the Statue of Liberty, an icon of western freedom, became a symbol of Chinese hope. We saw it in Czechoslovakia when a worker stood before a desolate factory and read to a crowd, with tears in his eyes, the American Declaration of Independence.
This is one of history’s defining moments. The faults of the West are evident — but equally evident are the extraordinary gifts it has to offer the world. The gift of markets that increase living standards and choices. The gift of political institutions where power flows from the consent of the governed, not the barrel of a gun. The gift of social beliefs that encourage tolerance and individual autonomy.
Free markets. Free governments. Free minds.
Read the full speech, especially the masterful description of the Four Horsemen of the Modern Apocalypse.
A personal note: Jonathan Aitken related in his biography Charles Colson: A Life Redeemed, how I—as Colson’s executive assistant—employed some harmless yet somewhat Colsonian means to fill the Rockefeller Chapel for Chuck’s speech.
The Second Inaugural
The second speech on today’s list is George W. Bush’s 2nd Inaugural Address. My wife and I were on the Capitol lawn, close enough to be part of the event and see the participants, but honestly not close enough to see facial expressions, except on the big screen.
It was, I believe, every bit as masterful and soaring as Kennedy’s famous inaugural. Once people are done hating Bush, his second inaugural will be listed as one of the greatest presidential inaugurals in American history:
We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom. Not because history runs on the wheels of inevitability; it is human choices that move events. Not because we consider ourselves a chosen nation; God moves and chooses as He wills. We have confidence because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul. When our Founders declared a new order of the ages; when soldiers died in wave upon wave for a union based on liberty; when citizens marched in peaceful outrage under the banner “Freedom Now” – they were acting on an ancient hope that is meant to be fulfilled. History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty.
Notice how Bush tapped Lincoln’s second inaugural for some language.
(Other than the fact that I heard both of these speeches in person, what do these two speeches have in common? This answer to this question is at the end of the post.)
There’s been a lot of talk about the strength of John Edwards’ Two Americas speech (regardless of what you think of encouraging class warfare) But notice how he tapped what many see as one of the finest political speeches of our era, Mario Cuomo’s Two Cities speech at the 1984 Democratic convention.
Ten days ago, President Reagan admitted that although some people in this country seemed to be doing well nowadays, others were unhappy, even worried, about themselves, their families, and their futures. The President said that he didn’t understand that fear. He said, “Why, this country is a shining city on a hill.” And the President is right. In many ways we are a shining city on a hill.
But the hard truth is that not everyone is sharing in this city’s splendor and glory. A shining city is perhaps all the President sees from the portico of the White House and the veranda of his ranch, where everyone seems to be doing well. But there’s another city; there’s another part to the shining the city; the part where some people can’t pay their mortgages, and most young people can’t afford one; where students can’t afford the education they need, and middle-class parents watch the dreams they hold for their children evaporate.
In this part of the city there are more poor than ever, more families in trouble, more and more people who need help but can’t find it. Even worse: There are elderly people who tremble in the basements of the houses there. And there are people who sleep in the city streets, in the gutter, where the glitter doesn’t show. There are ghettos where thousands of young people, without a job or an education, give their lives away to drug dealers every day. There is despair, Mr. President, in the faces that you don’t see, in the places that you don’t visit in your shining city.
In fact, Mr. President, this is a nation — Mr. President you ought to know that this nation is more a “Tale of Two Cities” than it is just a “Shining City on a Hill.”
The Most Important Forgotten Words of George Washington
The first George W. saved a young nation with the power of his words and his presence prior to the signing of the peace treaty of 1783. Restless American troops, unhappy with Congress, were scheming a military coup. Washington heard the rumors and surprised a room full of gathered officers, striding to the front of the room and speaking to them. The speech was evidently unremarkable, but what happened next was not:
Following his address Washington studied the faces of his audience. He could see that they were still confused, uncertain, not quite appreciating or comprehending what he had tried to impart in his speech. With a sigh, he removed from his pocket a letter and announced it was from a member of Congress, and that he now wished to read it to them. He produced the letter, gazed upon it, manipulated it without speaking. What was wrong, some of the men wondered. Why did he delay? Washington now reached into a pocket and brought out a pair of new reading glasses. Only those nearest to him knew he lately required them, and he had never worn them in public. Then he spoke: “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.” This simple act and statement by their venerated commander, coupled with remembrances of battles and privations shared together with him, and their sense of shame at their present approach to the threshold of treason, was more effective than the most eloquent oratory. As he read the letter to their unlistening ears, many were in tears from the recollections and emotions which flooded their memories. As Maj. Samuel Shaw, who was present, put it in his journal, ” There was something so natural, so unaffected in this appeal as rendered it superior to the most studied oratory. It forced its way to the heart, and you might see sensibility moisten every eye.”
Finishing, Washington carefully and deliberately folded the letter, took off his glasses, and exited briskly from the hall. Immediately, Knox and others faithful to Washington offered resolutions affirming their appreciation for their commander in chief, and pledging their patriotism and loyalty to the Congress, deploring and regretting those threats and actions which had been uttered and suggested. What support Gates and his group may have enjoyed at the outset of the meeting now completely disintegrated, and the Newburgh conspiracy collapsed.
American Rhetoric has its ranking of the Top 100 American speeches
Answer to the earlier question about Colson’s Templeton Address and Bush’s Second Inaugural: Both speeches were drafted by speechwriter Michael Gerson, who began his career as a writer for Colson immediately following his graduation from Wheaton College, and went on to write for the president. Any question about who wrote much of the tremendous, spiritually rich prose for Bush will be put to rest if you read The Enduring Revolution.