In an age of such infectious cynicism …(Democritus of Athens)
… one has to marvel at how we Americans still expect so much from our leaders’ speeches. As Homo politicus, we listen to dozens of them … maybe hundreds … in an adult lifetime, nodding politely when the speaker says what we think is true in the first place. At the same time, we’re always wondering if the figure at the lectern is speaking from the true spot in his heart, or simply saying what he thinks we want to hear.
Only occasionally does a speaker move us beyond our personal boundaries, beyond our sense of cultural identity, beyond our understanding of ourselves within our place and time. And when it does happen, we’re sometimes not entirely sure what happened. It is said that the immense gravitas of the speech Lincoln gave at the Gettysburg battle-site took days to sink in to the people there and the people reading it later. I suspect they were prepared for something understandingly sentimental, understandingly maudlin, understandingly jingoistic in the midst of an on-going tragedy.
Instead, what they got was a psalm of sacrifice. Mr. Linclon’s 272 words were a validation of the American experiment that transcended the conflict of the day, spanning the birth of the world’s first complete democracy into the mists of the future. The Address was a testament on the solemn dignity of dedication.
When FDR declared “The greatest fear we have to fear is fear itself” in his first Inaugural speech, or when eight years later he re-affirmed the Four Freedoms, he offered a continuation and strengthening of that American template—the outline of Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration, the framers of the Constitution and George Washington in his resignation speech laid out so convincingly—on which we might continue to shape the nation and protect its most cherished values.
This is the nature of truly great political speeches—the sort of speech we all hope to hear when initial applause subsides. They may speak to the moment in the details, but the greater message is for an audience somewhere over the horizon. The great ones—those historians save so conscientiously for posterity—are broadcasting ahead. They speak to not just our children, but their children and beyond. They speak to the ages, and they speak to the world. Martin Luther King wasn’t telling his magnificent dream only to his fellow African-Americans; he was preaching to the human race.
There is a reason that most of the speeches we think of as truly great were made by Americans, in America, for Americans. It’s because we have the most to lose if those cherished values, those American ideals so often at the core of a powerful speech, drift away on a tide of apathy and complacency. We might not always behave like we live in that “shining city upon a hill,” but if we allow the shine to tarnish and dull, so will we. We cannot continue to think of ourselves as unique if what is most unique about us withers and dies.
But they are rare, the truly great ones, and that’s probably for the best. Were we to hear an “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech, or an “Ask not what your country can do for you …” speech every time, their power to lift our souls would dissipate from over-exposure. This is what I feared might have happened to Barack Obama’s extraordinary gift of eloquence when, time after time, he was called upon to inspire the nation, motivate the nation, or console the nation. It was never his fault that over the last eight years, there has been such a high demand for inspiration, motivation, and consolation. Yet even with great eloquence and powerful words, there is a limit to how much people can absorb before it all starts to sound banal and formulaic, even meaningless.
So perhaps it is fitting that what I feel was, arguably, the President’s greatest speech of all was most probably the last one he will deliver to the whole of the American people. Upon reading it in print two days after he delivered it, I realized the shape and ordering of those words could have been assembled by any number of sincere and talented orators. The power of them came at least as much from Obama’s unique style—his inner poetic rhythms and evangelical zeal, the sense that they came from his essential convictions and not from a team of speechwriters—as the words themselves.
Even in print, though, those words convey the same significance as came from the President’s lips Wednesday night. I have gone through the speech and trimmed away the political references particular to the present campaign. What is left, in a different vernacular and different historical context, can be found in every great affirmation of the beating spiritual heart within the ideal of democracy, from Jefferson on.
… as I’ve traveled this country, through all 50 states, as I’ve rejoiced with you and mourned with you, what I have also seen, more than anything, is what is right with America. I see people working hard and starting businesses. I see people teaching kids and serving our country. I see engineers inventing stuff, doctors coming up with new cures. I see a younger generation full of energy and new ideas, not constrained by what is, ready to seize what ought to be.
” … I see Americans of every party, every background, every faith who believe that we are stronger together — black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American; young, old; gay, straight; men, women, folks with disabilities, all pledging allegiance, under the same proud flag, to this big, bold country that we love. That’s what I see. That’s the America I know! …
” … We’re not a fragile people. We’re not a frightful people. Our power doesn’t come from some self-declared savior promising that he alone can restore order as long as we do things his way. We don’t look to be ruled. Our power comes from those immortal declarations first put to paper right here in Philadelphia all those years ago: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that We the People, can form a more perfect union. That’s who we are. That’s our birthright — the capacity to shape our own destiny …
” … America has never been about what one person says he’ll do for us. It’s about what can be achieved by us, together, through the hard and slow, and sometimes frustrating, but ultimately enduring work of self-government …
” … America has changed over the years. But these values that my grandparents taught me. They haven’t gone anywhere. They’re as strong as ever, still cherished by people of every party, every race, every faith. They live on in each of us. What makes us American, what makes us patriots is what’s in here. That’s what matters …
” … That is America. That is America. Those bonds of affection; that common creed. We don’t fear the future; we shape it. We embrace it, as one people, stronger together than we are on our own …
” … you’re who I was talking about 12 years ago when I talked about hope. It’s been you who fueled my dogged faith in our future, even when the odds were great; even when the road is long. Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope.
America, you’ve vindicated that hope these past eight years. And now I’m ready to pass the baton and do my part as a private citizen. So this year, in this election, I’m asking you to join me — to reject cynicism and reject fear, and to summon what is best in us … “
No other speaker in my lifetime has ever made me feel so blessed to be an American as Barack Obama. I can only hope I’ll be around long enough hear such a man, or woman, again.