hen a presidential speechwriter is given an assignment—to write, say, a eulogy, or a commencement address, or remarks for the signing of an important bill—the first thing he or she will do is look up the speeches that past presidents gave on similar occasions. In the Clinton White House, we spent quite a bit of time studying the great orations of our favorite Democrats: Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and especially John F. Kennedy.
But the dirty little secret is how much we cribbed from Ronald Reagan. We did so not out of love for the Gipper but because he and his speechwriters were the modern masters of the form. Once, while working on remarks for a certain annual education event, I dug up the words Reagan had offered at the same event years before. I quickly realized the structure of Reagan’s remarks was so elegant, and the sentiments he expressed so charming, that there was no way I could improve upon them or—far worse—get them out of my mind. The speech I eventually wrote for Clinton was quite well received, but let’s just say that it deserved no prize for originality.
The speeches of George W. Bush are at least as well crafted as Reagan’s. This is especially true of those written with the assistance of the talented Michael Gerson. Future White House scribes will be dissecting, and pilfering from, Bush’s speeches for decades to come. I doubt, however, that future high school valedictorians will be quoting from them, for the simple reason that history tends to render the same harsh judgment on presidential rhetoric that it does on the presidencies themselves.
Consider the fine presidential speeches of the past that no one remembers today. Warren G. Harding, a former newspaper publisher and editorialist, was thought by many in his day to be quite eloquent. His speech at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922 remains worth reading for its passionate evocation of our feelings for the sixteenth president (“In every moment of peril, in every hour of discouragement, whenever the clouds gather, there is the image of Lincoln to rivet our hopes and to renew our faith”) and for hints of Harding’s own rather progressive views on racial equality. And yet because in office he did nothing to actually advance those views, or much of anything else, his speeches are forgotten. Harding is remembered today chiefly for the neologism in his campaign slogan (“return to normalcy”) and the corruption of his cabinet.
Or ponder this passage from Richard Nixon’s first inaugural address:
Standing in this same place a third of a century ago, Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed a nation ravaged by depression and gripped in fear. He could say in surveying the nation’s troubles: “They concern, thank God, only material things.” Our crisis today is the reverse. We have found ourselves rich in goods, but ragged in spirit; reaching with magnificent precision for the moon, but falling into raucous discord on earth. We are caught in war, wanting peace. We are torn by division, wanting unity. We see around us empty lives, wanting fulfillment. We see tasks that need doing, wanting for hands to do them. To a crisis of the spirit, we need an answer of the spirit.
That’s good stuff. It captures the zeitgeist of America circa 1969 perfectly. And yet this speech, certainly one of the best inaugural addresses of the twentieth century, is almost never quoted. Why? One reason is that the sentiments expressed do not comport with the actions that followed. Nixon spoke of unity, but behaved as a world-class divider. He dreamed of peace, but expanded the war into Laos and Cambodia. The other reason, of course, is Watergate: the scandal so damaged Nixon’s reputation that any public speaker who would quote him today risks looking out at an audience of furrowed brows.
The words of a president are important. But it is the consequence of a president’s policies that most determines whether his words become chiseled in marble. It was audacious of Reagan to say, in his 1987 speech in Berlin, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” But we remember and admire those words because, in fact, the wall was torn down, by East Germans who in many cases were inspired by the president’s exhortation. And they were allowed to wield their sledgehammers by Gorbachev, whom Reagan wisely encouraged and trusted. Had Reagan not been willing to negotiate with Gorbachev—had he instead, say, invaded East Germany, and gotten our troops stuck in a bloody conflict that strengthened the hand of hard-liners in the Kremlin and extended the life of the Soviet Union—we would not remember his Berlin speech so fondly.
Immortal words are most often uttered in times of crisis, the graveness of the situation giving gravity to the language. Woodrow Wilson, FDR, JFK—all served when the stakes were highest, during times of economic emergency, all-out war, or threatened nuclear annihilation. Teddy Roosevelt, on whose watch there were no great wars or depressions, might be considered an exception, but his speeches live on because his presidency coincided with—and indeed did much to precipitate—the great clash between the Gilded Age and Progressive Era worldviews.
Bill Clinton will surely be remembered as one the greatest speech givers ever to occupy the Oval Office. But on the printed page, few of his actual speeches are all that memorable. This is partly due to the failings of his speechwriters, partly to his own aversion to airy rhetoric. (“WORDS, WORDS, WORDS,” he once scrawled next to a paragraph of lofty language prepared by his speechwriters.) But the main reason, I think, is that he did not govern at a time of great and immediate crisis. The work of his presidency, the work history called on him to do, was to rebuild public faith in progressive government by reforming broken agencies and programs against the headwinds of a powerful conservative backlash. This was a tough, hard, noble endeavor, and he largely succeeded at it. But it did not naturally invite dramatic rhetoric.
9/11 did. And it is no accident that the one George W. Bush speech most likely to be remembered and admired a century from now is his address to Congress on September 20, 2001. (“Our grief has turned to anger, and anger to resolution. Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.”) For the most part, however, Bush has blown the opportunity history handed him for greatness and immortal rhetoric with his actions in Iraq and inaction in New Orleans. It is impossible now to read his speeches and not be struck by the obscene gap between the abstract rhetoric about freedom and the dignity of human life and the chaos and carnage that are the real-world consequences of his policies.
Absent some dramatic turn for the better, Bush will leave office with Iraq still a disaster and American power and prestige in tatters. Yet in his failure he will be handing his successor an opportunity to achieve true greatness, in word and deed.
That moment of handoff cannot come too soon for us. But in the interim, we have time to prepare, to set the bar of oration as high as possible. And so, given that the odds now favor a Democrat, this magazine asked the greatest living Democratic speechwriter, Theodore C. Sorensen, to pen his dream speech, the one he would want the Democratic nominee to deliver at the party convention a year from now. We also offer long excerpts from the speeches of all the current Democratic contenders. We hope these help readers get a sense of which candidate is articulating the most compelling vision for America. But in truth, we found plenty to like in nearly all the speeches, and so we hope that the candidate who wins will be smart enough to steal from the others.