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Tuesday, April 06, 2004

I've been experimenting with setting aside irony, and it's been an interesting experiment thus far. Strange. Sensitive and dangerous, like sex without a condom.

I was thinking about that experiment this morning as I drove to work. I've been listening to Rhino's 4-CD set, "Great Speeches of the 20th Century," which has been a mixed experience. For instance, William Jennings Bryan was a great speechwriter, but an amazingly mediocre speechgiver. Casey Stengel was every bit as hysterical as I've heard.

And I understand why JFK's inauguration speech changed the lives of an entire generation. I've heard sound bites over the years, of course. The speech is now known simply as the epigram that serves as its climax: "Ask not what your country can do for you..." But I was frankly surprised that there's a lot more to the speech than that. It's a masterpiece of oration, effectively constructed, energetically delivered, and astonishingly effective. Because I had let down my irony barrier, chills ran down my spine. You should definitely have a listen; don't merely read the transcript.

Of course, the speech serves better as a "do what I say" than as a "do what I do." Consider this passage:

To those old allies whose cultural and spiritual origins we share, we pledge the loyalty of faithful friends. United there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided there is little we can do--for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.

To those new states whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny. We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view. But we shall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedom--and to remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.

To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required--not because the communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.


His words were prophetic, even within his own short lifetime -- by the end of his presidency, Kennedy was already "riding the back of the tiger" in Vietnam. And today, we have alienated "those old allies" and divided our efforts from theirs, and we ride a new tiger that grows hungrier by the day.

It's an amazing speech, much greater than the sound bite that had been previously spoon fed to me. Powerfully inspiring. A damn fine argument for setting aside your irony and caring about something. Sex without a condom. You should try it.

I get to hear MLK on the drive home today. Who knew that "I have a dream" is seventeen minutes long?

 12:51 PM

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