David Forsmark: Review of Wynton C. Hall's The Right Words: Great Republican Speeches that Shaped History (Wiley)
Wynton Hall’s last book, Home of the Brave: Honoring the Unsung Heroes in the War on Terror, written with the late Caspar Weinburger, was among the most inspiring books I read last year. His latest, however, left me a little blue.
It’s not that The Right Words: Great Republican Speeches that Shaped History doesn’t have more than its share of inspiring words. But as someone who deals with political rhetoric on a daily basis, to read these highlights of what American statesmen can be capable of invites comparisons to the current level of debate that are darn near depressing.
The fact that the last two speeches in the book are by current elected officials is also faint comfort. Reading George W. Bush’s transcendent address to Congress after the 9/11 attack can still evoke tears; but too many of his more recent public utterances have bored me to tears.
Likewise, John McCain had a shining moment at the Republican National Convention in 2004, but since has spent far too much of his time spit-shining the shoes of media blatherers like Chris Matthews.
Still, if The Right Words were merely a collection of speeches throughout American history that helped to shape the modern conservative mind, it would still be a valuable little book to keep around. But Hall has bigger fish to fry:
"This is a book about those words—the right words—that shaped history. More specifically, this is a book about Republican speeches that mattered. Why Republican speeches? Because they more than their Democratic counterparts are given short shrift by the gatekeepers of the national consciousness: academia. Leftist professors work vigorously to ignore, undermine and dismiss Republican words and deeds."
This is a fair point. If you pick up a school history text, it’s possible that Theodore Roosevelt’s Republican-ness is absent from the discussion until he leaves to form the Bull Moose Party. If you can find a quote by Dwight Eisenhower, the odds are it will be the warning against the “military industrial complex,” rather than his UN address justifying the use of atomic arsenals to protect against totalitarianism, or his charge that the mobs opposing school desegregation in Little Rock were aiding the cause of communism.
Despite the King family’s crass grasp for royalties and copyright restrictions, no one is in danger of forgetting Martin Luther King Junior’s famous “I have a dream” speech. However, Hall writes, many of the speeches that shaped the progress of civil rights in America were delivered by Republicans—and that notion would be a shock to many public school students. What are the odds that a student has been taught that it was a speech by Republican Senator Everett Dirksen that made the 1964 Civil Rights Act possible?
Hall opens the book, of course, with the quintessential American speech, one made by the first Republican president, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. This one is unlikely to ever be forgotten or passed over in a discussion of American history—though the notion that the Democrats were the party of slavery and even Northern Democrats sought to hinder the war effort is generally glossed over.
Hall follows with Lincoln’s second inaugural, probably the second most famous and quoted presidential speech in U.S. history. Ironically, both simple speeches, which helped to usher in a more plain-spoken school of rhetoric, were preceded by long-winded (and forgotten) orations. (In Gettysburg it was a three-hour classic elocution which some newspapers considered superior; at the inaugural, it was Vice President Andrew Johnson’s drunken ramble.)
Next up are two speeches by Theodore Roosevelt. “The Vigorous Life,” and “The Man with the Muck Rake.” What is most noticeable about both Lincoln and TR’s speeches are the lack of a political laundry list so common in today’s Big Speeches. Lincoln’s speeches are remarkable for their religious imagery and notions of a Providential hand in America’s destiny, while Roosevelt equated a strong military and an honest press with his dynamic notions of what a rugged individual manly man should be.
Perhaps the quirkiest choice is Hall’s inclusion of William F. Buckley’s 1950 Yale Alumni speech that was not delivered. The 25-year old Buckley had planned a broadside against educational relativism and collectivism at Yale, but he withdrew from the event when Yale’s president objected to the content. This motivated Buckley to write his classic God and Man at Yale, and launched the career of conservative journalism’s founder. Then, as now, even with the Cold War in full swing, one of the major frontlines of conservatism was the academy.
Almost as interesting as what Hall includes in The Right Words, are its chronological gaps. It’s a telling point that between TR’s “Muck Rake” speech in 1906, and Buckley’s not-delivered speech in 1950, that Hall can’t find any Republican words worth repeating. The same goes with the Reconstruction period between Lincoln and TR. There was certainly interesting rhetoric from Radical Republicans or the Isolationist Right, but their relevance today—except by negative example—is negligible.
Nixon’s “Checkers” speech is, Hall writes, “the model for political apologias.” Its passive-aggressive mix of defense and backhanded attacks are even more entertaining with Hall’s commentary. Hall follows this with a speech everyone has seen video clips of recently, Gerald Ford’s “long national nightmare is over” address.
Ronald Reagan is the only figure with three speeches included in the book, and one might argue for more—or at least quibble with the choices. While the Challenger speech might have been Reagan’s prettiest, his speech to the 1964 Republican Convention on behalf of Barry Goldwater (whose “Extremism in the Defense of Liberty” speech is one of the book’s meatier sections) or his concession at the 1976 Convention which left the delegates realizing they had nominated the wrong candidate, probably “shaped history” more.
Wynton Hall makes good use of both his speechwriter and presidential scholar hats to offer trenchant analysis along with each speech, but never gets in the way of the real attraction—the words, themselves. He places each text in historical context, of course, but it is the glimpses he gives us into the speechwriting process and the craft behind the words that is his real contribution.
Near my desk I keep a copy handy of De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and Bastiat’s The Law. A random look at virtually any page is good for quick inspiration. By assembling these great American words in one convenient space, Wynton Hall has rendered an invaluable service, and one that I will add to that easy to reach shelf.
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