Early Wednesday morning, Barack Obama appeared before thousands of cheering supporters in Chicago and for the first time in a long time sounded like a president. The victory speech lingered on a little too long, but hey—after an all-but-miraculous reelection, I’ll cut him a little slack. Overall, the tone was gracious, elevated, inclusive, and deeply patriotic. One hopes it is a positive omen for his next four years.
Take it from a retired presidential speechwriter: political speeches, as a general rule, are vastly overrated. This is mostly because politicians give too many of them. They’ve become dull and formulaic and have lost most of their impact. There were, however, a few moments in the 2012 campaign where the politicians did manage to tell us something—even if it wasn’t always what they intended.
Below and in no particular order are the top 10 most consequential speeches of this election cycle:
Herman Cain - Withdrawal Announcement
Poorly organized, mysterious, and just plain bizarre, Candidate Cain’s remarks as he ended his presidential bid echoed his entire candidacy. It also demonstrated just how unhappy Republican voters were with their choice of candidates this year: for a while, a man who quoted a song from the movie Pokémon was a frontrunner for his party’s nomination. We hadn’t seen anything quite like this since presidential candidate Ross Perot ended a speech by dancing with his wife to the song “Crazy.” Yes, that actually happened.
Bill Clinton - Democratic National Convention
Daring to educate his audience, Bill Clinton offered a forceful, fact-filled, and persuasive case for Barack Obama’s reelection with a presentation that no one else on the Obama campaign ever managed to equal, including the president himself. Forget the Marc Rich pardon, Monica, Obama as a “fairy tale”—Bill Clinton’s performance in Charlotte, N.C., signaled his total political rehabilitation in the Democratic Party. The former president’s above-and-beyond-the-call assistance to his wife’s onetime bitter rival also conclusively proved that the Clintons are preparing for another shot at the top job.
Newt Gingrich - South Carolina Debate
Never underestimate the Republican rank and file’s contempt for the “lamestream press.” Newt Gingrich’s finger-wagging takedown of CNN’s John King for daring to ask about past marital infidelities singlehandedly won him the South Carolina presidential primary and, for a few days at least, shook up the cool and overconfident Romney campaign. It was a tour de force for the former speaker, showing his incomparable ability to rally his party while also underscoring the character issues that haunted his campaign. (Full disclosure: I worked for Gingrich’s campaign for a time.)
Jeb Bush - Republican National Convention
Remember this speech? Of course not. Who would have thought that of all the members of the Bush family, the brainy Jeb would be the worst speaker of them all? The former Florida governor’s ponderous, wonky, largely charisma-free lecture on education was one of the great mysteries of an otherwise suspenseless convention. How could anyone have let this happen? Maybe Bush was angling to be Education secretary in a Romney administration. In any event, the speech sharply undermined the idea that he was an odds-on favorite for the GOP nomination the next time the race is open.
Clint Eastwood and Chair - Republican National Convention
You knew this one was coming. Believe it or not, some Republicans defended this weird, off-the-cuff rambling between an aging actor and a foulmouthed imaginary Obama. A few even claimed the speech helped the Romney campaign, which only demonstrated the depth of the party’s cluelessness and/or shamelessness this year. We’ll never see a speech like that again. Too bad. As my grandma would say, it was a hoot.
Paul Ryan - Acceptance of Vice-Presidential Nomination
Ryan’s debut on the national stage was generally well received. Coming across as conservative, competent, knowledgeable, and attractive, the speech set the tone for the rest of the campaign and positioned Ryan well for the future.
Mitt Romney - Acceptance of Presidential Nomination
Romney started his speech with a lame joke to his running mate, “Paul, I still like the playlist on my iPod better than yours.” It didn’t get any better. While devising these remarks, someone on the Romney campaign decided to write the words “freedom” and “America” on a piece of paper and see how many different sentences they could come up with. Though competently delivered, the speech was one of the most ineffective convention addresses in recent memory and the least popular ever recorded in opinion polls. It was also a fitting summary of the Republican campaign: vapid and vain, convinced that it need do nothing but stand upright in order to defeat what it believed to be the universally loathed Obama administration.
Donald Trump - ‘October Surprise’ Announcement
Trump was once an entertaining fixture in the Republican Party—funny, clever, willing to talk about issues that no one else understood. He was among the first to speak at any length about China and the challenges it poses to America’s economy. But by the end of this year, he was making allegations so wild and loony-tune that they would have embarrassed Ron Paul. Trump’s election-eve challenge to Obama to present his college transcripts demonstrated how much damage irrational Obama hatred can do to the GOP. It made a savvy self-promoter and capable businessman a total punching bag.
Vice President Joe Biden ‘Chains’ Speech
Biden’s infamous speech highlighted the perils of a Joe Biden nomination should he decide to run in 2016, as he seems to be indicating. In small doses, Biden can be charming and effective. When he gets overconfident, there’s trouble. In the last few days, he thought he was in a different state and accused Bill Clinton of bankrupting Chrysler. Hillary isn’t spending many sleepless nights worrying about this guy.
Rick Perry - Remarks to the Gridiron Club
The Texas governor’s widely praised, self-deprecating speech to Washington’s press elite (sadly, not captured on video) won praise even from liberals. Perry poked fun at himself: “Here’s the hardest part for me. The weakest Republican field in history—and they kicked my butt!” At Romney: “Y’know, I keep waiting for him to say, ‘Pardon me, would you have any Grey Poupon?’” And at other Republicans in the race: “If you can’t make fun of yourself, there’s always Herman Cain.” The rhetorical triumph told us two things about Perry. One, the governor does have the capacity to recover from a disaster. Two, he could be a formidable contender in 2016.