Thursday, April 08, 2004

Ranking the Speeches

I'm continuing to listen to the Great Speeches of the Twentieth Century, and they continually amaze me.

Disappointing Speeches

1. MLK's "I Have a Dream" Speech. This was an excellent speech, but it wasn't The Greatest Speech Of The Twentieth Century, as it is often portrayed. MLK was a fine speaker, but the seventeen-minute-long speech is about five minutes too long. As it is, MLK had trouble sustaining the build, and it lost momentum in the "Let Freedom Ring" portion. A really fine speech -- better than most of the other so-called "great speeches" -- but a real disappointment to me.

2. FDR. Everything by FDR sounds shrill and unappealing; he was well-trained in the old style of public speaking, but added an energy and force that simply cannot be sustained by that style. As it is, he sounds rushed and unorganized, like a sausage bursting out of its casing.

3. LBJ. The man was a terrible public speaker. No tempo, no build, just a stentorian drawl that sounded utterly ridiculous. I now understand why Lenny Bruce commented that people couldn't take the content of his policies seriously. "No one wants to hear about The Great Society from a man that says 'Heah -- lemme show ya my scar...'"

4. Neil Armstrong on the surface of the moon. In preparing the documentary "For All Mankind," NASA claimed that Armstrong really said "one small step for a man," but that the "a" was blocked by transmission static. It has become de rigeur to give Armstrong the benefit of the doubt. Maybe NASA has access to a different tape than I do. But given the pacing and tempo of his speech, it seems highly unlikely that Armstrong intended to insert an "a" before "man." Cronkite heard it correctly, as did the rest of the planet. And humankind's first words on the surface of the moon are nonsense.

Jaw-Droppingly Awful Speeches

1. Nixon's "Checkers" Speech. Simpering, whining little p*ssy Nixon begs the nation not to send him packing. Often choking on his words -- not out of emotion, but out of incompetence -- he recites his net worth, refers to his wife and kids, and omits all the salient points of his career (like his obsession with Alger Hiss). It was somewhere between Paul Schaeffer's masochistic record promoter in "Spinal Tap" ("Kick me in the ass! Kick this man in the ass!") and John Turturro begging Gabriel Byrne for his life in Miller's Crossing. Nixon lost the 1960 election on that day in 1952. By his 1968 inaugural address, Nixon had gained a gravitas that served him well.

2. Reagan's "Why Reykjavik Failed" Speech. He's the "Great Communicator," but this was well into his decline, and he mutters about a bullfighter and essentially asks America to trust him.

3. Goldwater. The man was awful. Just awful. LBJ's horrendous "daisy" commercial makes complete sense when you hear Goldwater's bombastic, snarling tone.

Good Speeches

1. RFK's Campaign Speech. RFK wasn't the public speaker that his brother was, but that worked well on the day that he had to walk out and tell his audience -- the Democratic faithful who had turned out to support his 1968 campaign -- that Martin Luther King, Jr. had just been killed by a white man. His halting words, in which he tied King's goal for America to his own plans, were effective.

2. Reagan's First Inaugural Address. Those of us who remember the addled, post-Hinckley Reagan would do well to listen to the Reagan of 1980, a sharp orator who had earned every bit of prominence he had developed in the Republican party. His first inaugural address was amazing: forceful, eloquent, and persuasive. The centerpiece was his repeated passionate opposition to deficits and debt, based on the simple argument that just as people cannot live beyond their means, neither can a nation. It was true then, and it's true today. The sad part is that Reagan ultimately quadrupled the national debt while in office, as part of a deliberate scheme to get the economy moving.

The Greatest Speech of the Twentieth Century
(But I'm Only Halfway Through The 4 CD Set)

1. Mario Cuomo's speech to the Democratic National Convention, 1984.

"There is despair in the faces you don't see, in the places you don't visit in your shining city."

Just listen to it.

 9:54 AM

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