I have to confess, I don't like watching political events. I find debates and conventions far too stressful to watch in real time, although I read various news outlets' and individuals' commentary extensively. Because of this, I sometimes miss some very powerful speeches. I'm glad we live in a time where I can go on the internet and watch a speech after the fact, or read a transcript, when I see reactions that make me want to experience the whole thing. I have a feeling I'll be making some exceptions and watching some events on TV this week, but before I did that, I wanted to watch some great speeches of the past. My goal for the list was to watch or listen to five historical speeches from a roundup of them like this one by Online Universities, and I ended up watching more and writing about fewer. Several of the links on that site were dead, so my advice if you'd like to watch some historical speeches is to find them on YouTube, just make sure (if you want to) that you're getting the whole thing and not an excerpt.
I began with Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first inauguration speech in1933, the one that includes the famous line, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." The audio is clear, but watching in 2016 I felt I didn't get much out of the distant, grainy video. I imagine that watching this newsreel in a theater at the time, it would have been truly impressive; compared with only listening on the radio you would have felt like you were in the crowd. I hadn't realized that the "fear itself" is quite early in the speech -- it isn't the climax, it's setting the tone. The speech listed the "dark realities of the moment," as FDR called them, of America during the Great Depression.
I wanted to talk about the zeitgeist rather than the content of these speeches, but this was a situation in which the content and the spirit are closely intertwined. President Roosevelt spent some time expounding on the idea that money alone isn't a worthy goal to live by. I agree, but it made me tense up, knowing he was saying this about a financial crisis in which people hadn't just lost money, but security, in some cases, their whole livelihoods, their ability to feed their families. The tension was part of the point. When he built up to "This nation is asking for action and action now" FDR got cheers and applause. People wanted concrete change, and in the latter part of his inaugural speech, he addressed this, enumerating actual changes, the "lines of attack" he promised during his presidency. This is a great speech, and I see why it made a lasting impression. However, something about the vocal tone that was standard for presentations of all kinds in the 1930s really doesn't resonate with me. It feels as if every single line has to be spoken with both the utmost zeal and gravitas.
Jumping forward three decades, I watched JFK’s inaugural address from 1961 -- the speech which includes the famous line:
“And so, my fellow americans: ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”
The second sentence, less often quoted, is very much a reflection of the times, in an era when America claimed proudly and often to be the leader of the free world, and had a bit more justification in doing so. This is what I found interesting about listening to a handful of important speeches: they are primary resources not just for their content, but for their tone and their rhetoric. If you let it, a well done speech can transport you in time, by immersing you in the zeitgeist of the era and the audience it was written for.
JFK’s inaugural speech feels like a good sermon. I don’t mean the actual religious language, although there is (for better or worse) a fair amount of that. It starts out strong and fiery, then becomes more reflective and prayerful, then rises to a fever pitch. Kennedy used the rhetoric of an era of hope, especially when talking about science and international affairs. It’s the kind of speech that makes you want to get out of your chair and do something. I don’t agree with him, although many people do, that "only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger"; I believe that every generation has a responsibility to fight for freedom as passionately as the others, and that sustained effort is how the work of justice gets done. Overall, though, the speech made me wistful. I wished I could feel that pure optimism and awe at the possibilities of the future that characterize public memory of the 1960s, even though I know the optimism wasn’t actually pure or always warranted. As a member of a generation too young to remember JFK, watching this speech was like watching good movies about the early space program (my favorite is the 1999 film October Sky). As a museum person, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that a visit to the JFK Museum and Presidential Library has made me feel this way, too, not because of which parts of of Kennedy's political legacy I like or dislike, but because of how it captured the era.
I didn't intend to write only about inaugural speeches, but it's November 7, 2016, and I guess I have American presidents on my mind. I don't know what the inaugural speech in January will hold, but I think we can all agree it will be worth returning to in some years' time.