History's Greatest Speeches

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 26, 2004 | Go to article overview

History's Greatest Speeches


Byline: Ambassador Robert M. Smalley (Ret.), SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

In a political community such as Washington, with its heavy traffic in speechwriters, speech givers and speech listeners, the publication of a new edition of William Safire's magnificent "Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History" should call for a genuine celebration of his brilliance. That Mr. Safire needs no introduction goes without saying: Presidential speechwriter, the most influential of political columnists, novelist, historian, educator, and "the most eloquent explicator of our language" all have placed him high in the public eye.

For this new edition (his third) Mr. Safire has taken two great steps forward. First, 17 new Great Speeches have been added to the more than 200 survivors of the last volume - not merely by slotting them into convenient vacancies but by carefully weighing an array of qualities involving each newcomer. Second, Mr. Safire has added three draft speeches that were never delivered - one each for Presidents Kennedy, Nixon and Clinton.

First is Kennedy's undelivered speech prepared for delivery in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. Second is a short but moving address (written by Bill Safire) prepared for President Nixon in the event that catastrophic failure occurred in the 1969 moon landing. Third, President Clinton was offered a draft speech to be delivered after he appeared before a Federal grand jury impaneled by Ken Starr. The draft had an apologetic tone: "What I did was wrong - and there is no excuse for it." The speech Mr. Clinton gave, however, was defiant: "It's nobody's business but ours. Even Presidents have private lives."

But as interesting as the new editions are, equally compelling are Mr. Safire's wonderfully elucidating eight-page Preface and his Introductory Address to everyone interested in lending him an ear. The Preface addresses his own question, where does a speech become a speech, when it was drafted or when it was given? His answer: words on a page do not a speech make, nor is a script a play nor a screenplay a movie. "What makes a draft speech a real speech," he said, "is the speaking of it."

With that definition at hand, Mr. Safire then states, "A great speech is created by the drama of the occasion, the persuasive style of the orator or the elegance of the words themselves." Great speeches, he adds, are made on occasions of emotional turmoil - of which he cites numerous possibilities. To anyone seriously interested in the art of speechwriting or speechmaking, the Safire Preface, from its start to finish, is an absolute must.

In the subsequent Introductory Address, "All I seek," he declares, "is your attention to speeches by historic figures. The sound bites and zingers, aphorisms and epigrams (he continues) are for quotation anthologists. The study of one-liners is engaging, if you like the smorgasbord or quick review, but here we offer the meat and potatoes of oratory - oral communication in context, human persuasion in action. …

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