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Jewish World Review
Dec. 30, 2008
/ 3 Teves 5769
The magnificent rhetorical legacy of the Founding Fathers
On Christmas morning, my husband found a CD of
The Greatest Speeches of All Time in his stocking. It was, if I may say so, an inspired gift. The title did prove somewhat misleading: Richard Nixon's "I am not a crook" speech really didn't belong, and I might not have chosen Winston Churchill's 1940 radio address as the sole example of his wartime rhetoric ("I have invincible confidence in the French army and its leaders"). There is also a fundamental problem with any such audio collection, which is by definition limited to the 20th century and can't include Lincoln, let alone Cicero. Anything called "the greatest speeches of all time," thus, has to be taken with a grain of salt.
Still, in the wake of a presidential campaign marked by an unusually high standard of political rhetoric, it was weirdly revealing to listen to Martin Luther King Jr., Ronald Reagan, JFK and RFK, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and even Nixon, one after the other, out of chronological order. For one thing, their themes were surprisingly consistent over the years, across parties, at different events and occasions. To some degree, this is to be expected: It's clear, when you listen to them together, that the authors of Ronald Reagan's 1987 Berlin Wall speech ("We come to Berlin, we American presidents, because it's our duty to speak, in this place, of freedom") had carefully re-read JFK's 1963 "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech ("lift your eyes beyond the dangers of today, to the hopes of tomorrow, beyond the freedom merely of this city of Berlin … to the advance of freedom everywhere").
But some of the other cross-echoes were less obvious. Who remembers now that Ronald Reagan's 1983 speech, forever famous because he used it to call the Soviet Union "an evil empire," also contained the following statement:
Our nation, too, has a legacy of evil with which it must deal. The glory of this land has been its capacity for transcending the moral evils of our past. For example, the long struggle of minority citizens for equal rights, once a source of disunity and civil war, is now a point of pride for all Americans. We must never go back.
In that one paragraph, there are echoes of JFK ("freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect"), as well as, of course, of King, who so brilliantly appropriated the language of the American founding documents and made them into an irrefutable argument for civil rights:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."
Once he'd said that, there was indeed no going back. From then on, American democracy was established as an evolving phenomenon, not a set of ideas frozen in stone. The notion of an America "with a capacity for transcending … moral evils," an America that can and will evolve, became a rhetorical staple, appearing in many subsequent "greatest speeches of all time," including those of our president-elect.
These are not remotely original thoughts, I realize. But they strike me as worth repeating this week, and not only because of next month's inaugural. On Sunday, a Russian TV station announced the results of an opinion poll conducted to determine the "greatest Russian of all time." First place went to Alexander Nevsky, a medieval prince who defeated German and Swedish invaders and thus symbolizes Russian defiance of the West. Second place went to Piotr Stolypin, a czarist minister and economic reformer-with-an-iron-fist, famous not only for agricultural reform but also for repressing peasant rebellions. Third place, I'm afraid, went to Josef Stalin.
There are other political traditions in Russia, the country whose dissidents almost single-handedly invented the modern human rights movement in the 1960s and '70s. But in this particular popularity contest, Russia's repressive, anti-Western, dictatorial traditions prevailed, though perhaps not by accident. The TV station that conducted the poll is Kremlin-owned, after all, and there have been complaints about manipulation.
Still, it made me think: Aren't we lucky that our Founding Fathers were so eloquent, so quotable, that their language belonged to the 18th-century Enlightenment tradition, which valued clarity, and not the 19th-century Hegelian tradition, which did not. More to the point, aren't we lucky that the political rhetoric of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, as modified by Lincoln and King, has persisted into the present; that the language of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution-and not, say, the language of Jefferson Davis or the Ku Klux Klan-has remained mainstream; that it still sets the standard by which modern political speeches are judged.
Aren't we lucky. Happy 2009.
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Gulag: A History
Nearly 30 million prisoners passed through the Soviet Union's labor camps in their more than 60 years of operation. This remarkable volume, the first fully documented history of the gulag, describes how, largely under Stalin's watch, a regulated, centralized system of prison labor-unprecedented in scope-gradually arose out of the chaos of the Russian Revolution. Fueled by waves of capricious arrests, this prison labor came to underpin the Soviet economy. JWR's Applebaum, a former Warsaw correspondent for the Economist and a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, draws on newly accessible Soviet archives as well as scores of camp memoirs and interviews with survivors to trace the gulag's origins and expansion Sales help fund JWR.
Comment on JWR contributor Anne Applebaum's column by clicking here.
12/23/08: Do riots in Athens portend demonstrations in Paris and Cincinnati?
12/16/08: Breach of Trust: Bernard Madoff's massive fraud will cripple American capitalism
12/09/08: In praise of charismatic politicians
12/03/08: Moscow's Empire of Dust
11/20/08: Getting Past Mythmaking In Georgia
11/12/08: In Praise of Political Rock Stars
10/03/08: Election Day myths you must resist
09/30/08: Not just a metaphor: Lehman Brothers was economic's 9/11
09/04/08: Class of '64
08/28/08: Did Hillary really help the Barack cause?
08/27/08: Show of Power, Indeed
08/19/08: What Is Russia Afraid Of?
08/13/08: When China Starved
08/11/08: Two of the world's rising powers are strutting their stuff
08/05/08: How Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago changed the world
07/29/08:The Hour of Europe Tolls Again … But are European politicians up to the task?
07/15/08: Why Does Obama Want To Campaign in Berlin?
07/01/08: Citizen Athletes: How did a guy who can't speak Polish end up scoring Poland's only goal of Euro 2008?
06/24/08: Why do we expect presidential candidates to be kind?
06/17/08: Pity the Poor Eurocrats
06/12/08: Is the World Ready for a Black American President?
05/28/08: The Busiest Generation: America seems to value its children's status and achievements over their happiness
05/20/08: Leave Hitler Out of It: The craze for injecting the Nazis into political debate must end
05/13/08: A Drastic Remedy: The case for intervention in Burma
05/07/08: A Warning Shot From Moscow?
04/23/08: Radio to stay tuned to
04/17/08: China learns the price of a few weeks of global attention
04/01/08: Head scarves are potent political symbols
03/26/08: The Olympics are the perfect place for a protest
03/19/08: Could Tibet bring down modern China?
03/12/08: Have political autobiographies made us more susceptible to fake memoirs?
03/05/08: Why does Russia bother to hold elections?
02/20/08: Kosovo is a textbook example of the law of unintended consequences
02/06/08: A Craven Canterbury Tale
02/06/08: French prez' whirlwind romance reminds voters of his political recklessness
© 2008, Anne Applebaum