No More Great Speeches...Cause: Lack of Domestic and Foreign Policy Consensus; Consequence: Possible Foreign Policy Catastrophe
--Richard E. Vatz
It is often said in my field that there are no American “Great Speeches” any more. This is true for discernible reasons. For a speech to be great it has to attract a consensus of Americans, and the country is so seriously divided that there may not be a position any longer on which powerful, eloquent speaking can move masses of people.
When top professors of rhetoric (O.K. – I was one of those consulted) produced the “Top 100 Speeches” some years ago, the results were heavy on years-ago domestic speeches deploring racism, sexism and economic deprivation and foreign policy speeches deploring the totalitarian enemies of America, particularly the Soviet Union and the arms race against communism.
The only cited speech by President Bill Clinton was his speech against the “terrible sin” of domestic terrorism in his “Oklahoma Bombing Memorial Address.”
There may be a lack of issues today that can generate a consensus.
Racial matters may not be entirely settled, but there is no constituency of any note that opposes equality.
When then-Sen. Barack Obama gave a speech in March 2008, "A More Perfect Union," on the state of racial relations in America, many were predicting that it would be viewed by America’s universal audience as the next “Great Speech,” but many of us doubted it. There was nothing in the speech opposing positions that were held by great masses of Americans. In addition the speech was what we in the field of rhetoric call an “apologia,” a defense of the speaker’s own questionable position, in this case his friendship with a man infamous for incendiary anti-white and anti-American views, Reverend Jeremiah Wright.
President Obama tried to argue that it was unfair to see Rev. Wright as a personification of evil views because for a long time, the President claimed, he (Wright) had been a far different person.
Does this sound like the grist for a historically “Great Speech?”
As indicated above, foreign policy has long been the source for “Great Speeches,” but the speaker needs consensus, an agreed-upon enemy and a crucial issue. Charles Krauthammer has a column today that would seem to qualify in his “The Fruits of Weakness” article which cites inveterate enemies of America and the consequentiality of President Obama’s irresponsible current foreign policy, which may lead to catastrophe. Krauthammer warns that the Administration’s policy of “appeasement” (twice) is leading to an “America in decline” producing other ascendant powers and a game-changing “Iran’s nuclear program” success.
This could have been a "Great Speech:" think President Ronald Reagan’s “Remarks at the Brandenburg Gate,” President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Pearl Harbor Address,” or President John F. Kennedy’s “Cuban Missile Crisis Address,” speeches which aptly define our enemies in all of their premeditated evil. But Krauthammer, who also may lack sufficient public standing to provide a “Great Speech,” will have to wait until the consequences of President Obama’s appeasement reach irrevocable fruition before these warnings will be seen as prescient. More and more it seems President Obama's weakness in foreign policy is born of a lack of anger at truly anti-American, anti-Western premises and provocations.
No, there are no longer many “Great Speeches” in America. Many of the great domestic questions have either an overwhelming consensus or a distinct lack of one when adulterated, but the truly momentous foreign policy issues have lost theirs.
On those great questions the “Great Speeches” will likely be recognized only after it is too late to follow their advice.
Professor Vatz teaches an advanced Persuasion course at Towson University