Quora Question: In Our Partisan Politics, Will There Ever Be Another 'Great Speech'?

Former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren (C) administers the oath of office to former President John F. Kennedy. Cecil Stoughton/The White House/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library/Reuters

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Answer from Jim Moore, speechwriter, editor, journalist, news and book narrator, federal employed for 34 years.

Let me begin by establishing my credentials to address the question: I was a speechwriter in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate for 14 years; a speechwriter in the Reagan, Bush (41), Bush (43) and Obama administrations for 20 years; a writer for six cabinet secretaries; and a private sector speechwriter for numerous corporate CEOs or business leaders when not working for the government.

By my (conservative) estimate, I've written in excess of 3,000 speeches, not counting the short ones. That's an average of 100 speeches per year. Given that most of the speeches I wrote were 2,000 words (about 20 minutes) or longer, at the very least I typed six million words just in speeches over the course of my 34 years as a writer in government service. I consider myself reasonably well-read on the subject of presidential speeches and high-profile political speeches by leaders of both parties.

The question at hand is, in my opinion, a bit of a red herring, insofar as it assumes that the American populace has, at any time since the nation's founding, judged any president's remarks "great" by the benchmark of partisanship or lack thereof. That doesn't mean the public won't judge a speech to be partisan—either blatantly or casually—it just means that once a speech rises toward the summit of greatness, it tends to slough off the partisan labels attached to it by parties, factions or special interests.

Despite the media Cassandras of the far-left or far-right, I still give the public at large credit for having well-tuned B.S. meters when presented with certain genres of presidential speeches; certainly a Colorado rancher knows when his or her ears are being verbally peed on by a politician who tries to milk a bull at a press conference or political rally. Some manipulation needs no more evidence than the mouth of the speaker.

There is no question that the speeches cited—the Gettysburg Address, the Challenger speech, the 9/11 "Bullhorn" speech; the Tucson Memorial speech—or Kennedy's Berlin speech—deserve the appellation "great." But these were not speeches offered up on the podium of partisanship, nor would a reasonable person—American or not—consider them as such.

There are few opportunities for a president to deliver a speech that can be filtered favorably through the rough mesh of partisan politics; State of the Union speeches come to mind as the most obvious declamations of focused partisan rhetoric, bombast or challenge. These are, at best, thinly veiled moments of oratory, finely designed to cast the sitting president as a chief executive ostensibly capable of applying a guiding hand of bipartisan-desired leadership to the federal government. Such speeches rarely achieve those ends, as a 2011 Gallup poll taken after President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech would indicate.

President Obama's quote first:

New laws will only pass with support from Democrats and Republicans. We will move forward together, or not at all -- for the challenges we face are bigger than party, and bigger than politics.

Then the polling analysis:

Americans support the general idea of bipartisanship and cooperation across party lines. They are more likely to align themselves with a "compromise to get things done" position than a "stick to principle" position when asked where they stand on a 5-point scale anchored by these two options.

Americans strongly desire that their political leaders work together. They want President Obama to work to get things done with Republicans even if it's not exactly what Democrats want. They also want Republican leaders in Congress to work with Obama and Democratic leaders to pass new legislation that both parties can agree on.

Americans are not optimistic that things will get better, however. Half say the government will be about the same now that the Republicans are in control of the House. Americans are also not convinced that the intermingling of Democrats and Republicans sitting in the House during the State of the Union address signaled a new era of cooperation."

Let me emphasize: Americans are also not convinced that the intermingling of Democrats and Republicans sitting in the House during the State of the Union address signaled a new era of cooperation.

The speech itself was well-crafted, well-delivered, thoughtful and catered to almost every American interest. But it was not great, nor could it have ever been. A president's joint session remarks are too formalized, too rigidly vetted across the broad spectrum of government agencies, to be more than eloquently spoken laundry lists of executive desires.

Similarly, President Obama's Tucson speech, while filled with good intentions and encouraging the nation to take action, ultimately fell short of its goal:

We should be civil because we want to live up to the example of public servants like John Roll and Gabby Giffords, who knew first and foremost that we are all Americans, and that we can question each other's ideas without questioning each other's love of country, and that our task, working together, is to constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American dream to future generations.

They believe—they believe and I believe that we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved lives here, they help me believe. We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another, that's entirely up to us."

The president was so close to a call for action, yet his speech skirted the words so many wanted to hear, words that would call for tougher actions on guns, words that would energize a saddened and frustrated public to press even harder against the special interests who deflect gun control laws in the name of the Constitution. It was not enough to hear him say:

If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let's make sure it's worthy of those we have lost. Let's make sure it's not on the usual plane of politics and point-scoring and pettiness that drifts away in the next news cycle.

Had Obama risked uttering stronger words, aspirational words, commanding words, his speech might have sailed to greatness.

There are some "great" exceptions to joint session speeches. One that comes to mind, one that reached the high plateau of "the greats," was the speech delivered in the House chamber by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on December 8, 1941, in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack.

What made FDR's speech great was not that it floated on the still-warm blood of American servicemen; it was that it was a catalyst for action, a clarion call so long suppressed by partisan fears of global engagement. With one speech, Americans got it; they heard the evidence of Japanese aggression and perfidy; they felt the same anger, sorrow, loss and fury their president felt, and those emotions resonated within each and every household. This is not a forum response in which I would delve deeper into the genesis of America's entry into World War II; those fields have been plowed until they are nearly bereft of intellectual nutrients. My point here is to label FDR's remarks "great" for their motivational value, righteous exhortations and public acceptance as nonpartisan.

And that's the key to a great presidential speech—the ability to ring the bell of social conscience to such an extent that the decibels of that clang thunder louder than any partisan clamor. With the exception of two speeches I will discuss shortly, I don't believe that any speech before or since FDR's has demonstrated such power to transform and re-direct the nation's priorities.

The post- 9/11 speeches, as simple or as profound as they might have been, did not mobilize the nation to take up arms in defense of high values. Mobilization to me means sacrifice by the public in order to support a national cause. After 9/11, sacrifice was limited to the military and the families of the fallen and wounded. It could be argued that for a few shining moments, America was of one mind to find and prosecute the perpetrators, but in reality, it did not take long for Congress to divide itself against the effort, or for the White House to dissemble and lower itself to a less-than-honest path—at the cost of thousands of U.S. lives, and multipliers more of Afghani and Iraqi civilian lives.

Reagan's Challenger speech, moving and heartfelt to the nth degree, was a great speech inasmuch as it expressed the nation's struggle to comprehend such a loss. I remember exactly where I was when the news broke (in a Senate hearing room), and how quickly and quietly the room emptied as senators, witnesses, visitors and journalists left to find their own televisions and cope alone or in the company of staff, colleagues, or loved ones with the terrible images coming in from Florida. Through President Reagan's remarks, we all were allowed to weep and mourn. In that permission was the speech's greatness.

The Gettysburg Address, so eloquent in both its humanity and its paucity of verbosity, came too late to affect the course of the Civil War, or to motivate large portions of the populace to actions it had not already taken and paid for in blood and treasure. It was clearly a nonpartisan speech, but as presidential remarks go, its greatness at the time was nascent, its glory was still years away. One also has to bear in mind that the state of news transmission in the mid-19th century was nowhere close to what it would be just a few decades later.

I have a personal affection for Lincoln's second inaugural address, and I believe it alone should be elevated to the zenith of presidential speeches. It was, on the one hand, a peacemaker's speech, one designed to bind the nation's wounds and seek the political, moral and spiritual guidance necessary to heal a heartbroken land. On the other hand, it was a deeply human speech, written by a man affected—stricken—to his core by every action he had taken, every death he had to acknowledge, every resident—black or white—of his bifurcated country to whom he had to answer. And, like the Gettysburg Address, it was incredibly short; just 701 words. It was heavily freighted with religious references: God was cited 14 times, biblical passages were quoted four times and the Bible itself mentioned once. And it had everything to do with the people (as at Gettysburg) of the nation, weary of war, eager for peace, unsure of the future. Therein lies its greatness. It was a speech for a people, not a party.

John F. Kennedy's inaugural addressstands a close second to Lincoln's in terms of oratorical power, spiritual reflection, charge for action, and apolitical thrust. Only at the beginning does Kennedy mention party:

We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom—symbolizing an end as well as a beginning—signifying renewal as well as change.

From that point on, the speech seeks to loft American and international aspirations to a high philosophical plane, drawing unashamedly on the Christian deity:

The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe—the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.

The speech defined national and global issues—"human rights…tyranny, disease, poverty, and war itself…"— issues that are no less pressing on us today as they were 54 years ago.

Kennedy also sought to assure Americans and the world, that the fragility of peace and the residence of freedom, in the new age of nuclear weapons wielded by (then) two superpowers, would be championed by the United States:

In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility—I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it—and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.

Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.

The question at hand asks if the nation today is too partisan to consider a presidential speech great by the vast majority of the populace. I submit that if Kennedy's inaugural speech—well received in 1961—were delivered today, it would be dissected into 140-character morsels in the Twitterverse, shorn of its beauty in Facebook comments, derided as socialist by conservatives, lauded as progressive but feared as saber-rattling by the liberals, labeled too Christian by non-Christians, blown off by atheists and booed by the rest of the world as far too Jingoistic, predatory and condescending. If one could find an American completely shielded from the outside clamor, I do think he or she, left to their own thoughts, would still give Kennedy's speech a stamp of greatness. As a Baby Boomer, I can say with no reservation that Kennedy's words still ring with undiminished clarity 54 years later.

The social and economic elements that made Kennedy's speech work in 1961—a small cohort of television networks, many large newspapers, many more small-town daily and weekly newspapers, respected news magazines, a flourishing radio universe, land-line-based telephone systems, snail mail, a strong majority white population, positive industrial growth based on a made-in-America ethos, to name a few—are not in play in 2015.

Those 1961 elements defined a cohesive, white-majority, middle-class, still-somewhat-agrarian, community-sheltered populace (admittedly skewing away from multi-ethnic large cities to preserve the center of the bell curve). In that year, only 20 years distant from Pearl Harbor, most of the nation's 16 million men who had taken up arms between 1941 and 1945 were still alive, many with college degrees, many living in new suburban communities.

Out of a population of 180 million, military veterans represented one-in-ten, one tenth, of Americans in 1961 (today, that number is barely one-half of one percent). Veterans and their neighbors were no strangers to challenges, hard work and strong ethics. They had survived the Depression, the Dust Bowl, a World War, and the Korean War. They were involved in their churches and local politics. The morning and evening newspapers were the staples of information, bolstered by a small cadre of nationally known television journalists.

Politics in 1961 favored centrists, whether slightly left or right of center. The far left and the far right were not nearly as much in play then as they are today; they certainly were not as polarizing at the national level (of course I recognize the extreme outliers like Joseph McCarthy who did much damage to the national psyche), and the news media of the time did not fawn over, or skewer with prejudice, candidates and office-holders with the same glee or glower as cable news does today. Celebrities were not as vocal on matters of politics, race, religion, human rights, but if they did offer opinions, their words did not light up the front pages of the national news, or dominate the evening television news cycles.

I don't mean to paint a rosy picture of 1961 America as a bastion of justice-for-all, civil colloquy and political fair play. We were a xenophobic nation, a civil-rights-disabled nation, a sexist nation and a North-South split nation (the Civil War was less than a century in the past). We had many flaws and fractures, some of which still have not been mended or healed. We were imperfect then, and we are imperfect now.

But we were not so partisan as to dismiss a great speech from a leader simply because his (almost always male) politics did not mesh with ours. Kennedy's speech succeeded and was judged great because it touched a common chord, it directed us toward common causes, it gave us permission to believe we could achieve a higher state of national grace. It played to our strengths while acknowledging our weaknesses and our reliance on a power greater than ourselves.

Kennedy's speech, like Lincoln's and Roosevelt's, was not subject to the tsunamis of myriad opinions, howls and vituperation slamming into us on our iPhones, televisions and laptops. We made up our own minds, in our own good time. We made land-line phone calls to family and friends, we walked over to a neighbor's house to chat. We drove or took the train to visit relatives, where we would talk about the news of the day and come to our own conclusions about our leaders and our place in the world. We didn't have to be told how or what to think, or that our thinking—exposed to all by the Internet—was beneath contempt.

No, the nation is not too partisan for a speech to be considered great; the nation is too broken by its collective reluctance to think as individuals, to judge by the inner light of personal conscience and courage what is or is not a great speech. That reluctance has been nurtured by what a former vice president called "the nattering nabobs of negativism," information hijackers and truth-bending alchemists who have no use for intelligent decisions arrived at through personal perspectives.

Absent permission and encouragement to think for ourselves on matters of national import and then speak our conclusions without fear of humiliation or intellectual slander from anonymous ne'er do wells, we will have a hard time publicly, as a majority, acknowledging any speech as great.

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