During the 2008 Presidential primaries, we published an article asking whether traditional political rhetoric is a declining art. We analyzed several view points, and provided historical context by harkening back to a few of the finer political speeches in recent American history.
In a separate blog post, I recalled the sad spectacle of our political leaders reading the Gettysburg address at the first anniversary observance of 9/11. A Newsday columnist wrote that the"appropriation of a distant generation's tragedy strikes me as lame and uninspired"and asked why George Pataki wouldn't "offer a new Gettysburg address instead, one that he crafts himself from the heart and not from a hired speechwriter?"
I then concluded that the problem with political oratory today is that it is always so calculating, so negotiated, so cowardly. I recalled that when Ronald Reagan first met with Mikhail Gorbachev at a Geneva chateau, Reagan's team carefully planned every move. Gorbachev's limousine would pull up and Reagan would stand regally at the top of the steps, forcing Gorbachev to ascend while looking up at Reagan. When Gorbachev's car stopped and no one exited it for a minute, Reagan bounded down the stairs, helped Gorbachev from the car, and slipped his hand under Gorbachev's arm to support him up the steps. A Soviet aide later said "I left like we lost the game during the first movement...We started with the wrong move."
I realized that is what I really miss - politicians who are willing to suddenly bound down the stairs.
Today's On This Day covers the "I Have a Dream" speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the National Mall in 1963. We developed the On This Day series because, no matter how well I think I know about an event in history, I learn something profound from nearly every article we publish in this series. And today I learned that nowhere in the manuscript King carried with him to the podium that day did it say "I Have a Dream."
King dutifully recited the first part of the prepared speech, but then "all of a sudden this thing came to me that. … I’d used many times before. … ‘I have a dream.’ And I just felt that I wanted to use it here. … I used it, and at that point I just turned aside from the manuscript altogether. I didn’t come back to it.”
Clarence B. Jones, who drafted the original script of the speech, asked in a recent Washington Post op-ed piece, "What could possibly motivate a man standing before a crowd of hundreds of thousands, with television cameras beaming his every move and a cluster of microphones tracing his every word, to abandon the prepared text of his speech and begin riffing on a theme that he had used previously without generating much enthusiasm from listeners?"
We'll never know how the public may have reacted to the original draft of the speech. But I'm willing to bet that, had King continued to recite it, our On This Day today would be about an event other than a speech he gave 47 years ago today. And the civil rights movement itself may not have accomplished nearly as much as it did.
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