Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Stirring Words: Churchill, Kennedy, and King

This is not meant to be about politics. It has nothing to do with political parties, philosophies or affiliation, but rather, I wish to write about stirring words.

People running for office make a lot speeches. In a democracy, it is incumbent upon us to listen to what they have to say. We are tasked with forming a judgment, and whether we like it or not, we are given the duty of hiring that person to do a job. Without getting bogged down with the business of running a government, we expect them to be able to communicate with us, and to let us know what the dickens is going on up there in those high offices.

 As a family, we would sit down on Sunday nights and watch the Prime Minister's question and answer program brought to us from England on PBS. We valued people who could think on their feet, and though we made many jokes and indulged in imitations, our children got to witness skilled debaters in action.

Newspapers in the United States used to publish the full text of the sitting President's speeches. We read them, digested them, and discussed them at the dinner table. We did the same with our Prime Ministers in Canada, and like everywhere else in the world, we expected our leaders to be able to write.

As the broadcasters and pundits tried to make sense of the sad occasion of fifty years passing since the brutal murder of President Kennedy, I chose to spend the day reading and hearing his stirring words. Yes, the leaders of the day have speech writers. The great ones use those as an outline, but impress their own stamp, and their particular literary style in everything they do. Other people come along, fancying they are the next Winston Churchill, or Abraham Lincoln, but they fall so far short of the mark because great writers are a rare commodity.

Time magazine, as journals often do, published a list of the greatest speeches of all time. I will furnish you with a brief glimpse of from all three.

Sir Winston Churchill tops the list. This is from his speech to the House of Commons, as England prepared for war:

" I would say to the house as I have said to those who have joined this government:
"I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat."

We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many, long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, by land and air, with all our might and with all the and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalog of human crime. That is our policy. You  ask what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be; for without victory there is no survival .
Let that be realized; no survival for the British Empire, no survivor for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal.
But I take up my task with bouyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, "come then, let us go forward together with our united strength."

From President Kennedy's Inaugural Address:

"In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I not shrink from this responsibility-- I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it. And the glow from that fire can truly light the world.
And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.

My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

Finally, whether you are citizens of America, or citizens of the world, ask of us here with the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you, with a good conscience, our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing here on earth God's work must truly be our own."

Martin Luther King Jr. ranked as having delivered the third greatest speech of all time. While I do not think one can even make a definitive comparison of such stirring words, I would say they all inhabit the same cloud. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, these are the loftiest speeches of our times.

My father-in-law traveled to Washington to participate to in the march. He had the great privilege of being present at surely one of the most pivotal moments of the last century.
Here is a brief look at the speech that erased centuries of hardship by imploring us to look at the plight of so many with new eyes. You cannot read these words without the immortal, ringing sound of King's voice, a lingering clarion call in the imagination.  It is a speech that will live forever:

"Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every mole hill of Mississippi,
From every mountainside. let freedom ring."


Jennifer Lamont Leo said...

Ah, the power of a good speech, both the writing and the delivery! I also love the idea of listening to speeches and debating the issues as a family, instead of relying on third-hand "analysis" to form opinions. Sounds like an effective way to train young people on how to think clearly, form a cogent argument, and support it with facts. Sadly, this seems to be a dying art, as too often those who disagree simply shout over one other without offering logical, reasoned, persuasive arguments.

Elizabeth S. Brinton said...

I agree wholeheartedly. Thanks for the comments.

Jennifer Rova said...

These three men gave wonderful speeches at times necessary for words to stir people to action. The power of words has been rarely demonstrated so beautifully. Thanks for reminding us that what we write can change lives.

Elizabeth S. Brinton said...

Thank you for reminding all of us of that salient fact.