I’m certain that Erick and others will have nice things to say about Ted Kennedy come the morning, but being a west coaster (time zone anyway), I’ll throw out a late night open thread in his honor.
First, I offer my condolences to the entire Kennedy family. Cancer is a brutal killer, and having lost my father-in-law in the last year the same way, I feel for what they have all gone through. Although I disagreed with Senator Kennedy (and unlike Barbara Boxer, he REALLY DID earn that title) on virtually every issue, I had great respect for his commitment to his principles. While I considered him an adversary, he was one who fought hard and fair, and who truly believed in what he stood for. And while he had numerous and legendary personal foibles, he seemed to have straightened that aspect of his life out in recent years. I do believe that he had personal faith and is likely in Heaven now, hopefully unbearing his long burden by finally apologizing to Mary Jo Kopechne.
In Sen. Kennedy’s honor, here is my personal list of the 5 most effective political speeches I have ever seen. This list is not based on ideology, but on sheer power of the text, the delivery, and its effect on America’s political discourse. Feel free to agree or disagree or offer your own candidates. They are presented in chronological order, as it is difficult to rank them against each other. (I am limiting this list to speeches given in my lifetime, though a couple of them I did not see live.)
- Martin Luther King, Jr. – “I Have a Dream” speech – 1963 – While not a political speech, per se, its impact was clearly political. In retrospect, while the Civil Rights battle continues to some extent today, this speech began the end of the bulk of racial prejudice in this country. Without this one particular speech, I truly believe we would still be waiting for our first President of color.
- Ronald Reagan – 1964 televised address in support of Barry Goldwater – “A Time For Choosing” – Incredibly effective speech that launched the career of a political superstar, the bookend to FDR as giants of 20th century American politics.
- Ted Kennedy – 1980 Democratic National Convention – “The Dream Will Never Die” – The first speech on my list that I witnessed live. While I disagreed with virtually every topical aspect of this speech, I was markedly moved by the delivery and the sincere commitment to its central theme exhibited by the Senator. There is no doubt that, if they could have suspended the delegate rules at that moment, Kennedy would have ousted Carter by a landslide for the nomination.
- Ronald Reagan – 1987 Brandenburg Gate, Berlin – “Tear Down This Wall” – If I expanded this list to my Top 10, Reagan would probably occupy at least 5 of the spots, if not more. I saw his 1981 Inaugural Address live and in person and am inclined to include it in the Top 5. But in all honesty, a speech which presaged the end of the Cold War is more worthy of that spot. My mind may be a little slow this late at night, but I am hard pressed to think of any speech in human history which had this much impact on the security of the world.
- Sarah Palin – 2008 Republican National Convention – Barack Obama had just had his coronation in Denver. John McCain shocked the nation with his selection of a VP candidate, but over 5 days, her opponents and the media (not that there is a difference between the two) had savaged her. And her daughter’s condition added fuel to that fire. McCain’s candidacy teetered on the abyss to what could easily have become a McGovern-type loss. Enter Sarah Palin onto that Minnesota stage. She delivered an address that not only electrified the audience there, but exuded such poise and effectiveness that it single-handedly revived the McCain campaign. Without the subsequent mishandling of her by the McCain campaign staff and the financial meltdown, this speech may well have launched one of the greatest political upsets in American history. As of this date, Sarah Palin’s future political achievements are unknown, but whatever future she has is owed to this speech.
You may have noticed a conspicuous absence on my list of a particular U.S. President who is touted as a great orator. I have seen a number of Obama’s speeches, including his coronation speech in Denver. While he has a smooth voice and apparently reads very well, I have not found any speech of his to be particularly memorable or effective. Other than the words “hope”, “change”, and “yes we can”, I have never heard even any of his fans able to recall any particular portion of his speeches by even the next day. I am convinced that his reputation as a great orator is largely a modern mythology. This reputation was very effectively astroturfed by David Axelrod and a willing media into a political movement based on a person, not principles or even words. At least that’s my opinion.
Again, my prayers and thoughts to the Kennedy family on their loss.