Politics in the United States has delivered us some of the greatest leaders the world has ever seen. And to my mind, there seems no better way to gauge the quality of a leader than whether his or her words are still studied and celebrated many long years after they leave office.
I had thought to include more examples in this list, but in the end, the three speeches below proved worthy of an article all their own. As we count down the days to the inauguration of our 45th President, it’s just as useful, and perhaps more so, to cast our eyes back through history (even recent history) at some of the visionaries who helped get us to where we are today.
Barack Obama’s Speech on Race Relations (2008)
To say that Barack Obama has been a divisive President would be an understatement, and so too would be the observation that he has been subjected to more public slander by the opposing party than perhaps any other President to date.
Nevertheless, he remains, at least in this writer’s opinion, a man of uncommon optimism and vision. Reading his books and listening to his speeches reveals a man who is as deeply thoughtful as he is committed to ensuring this country’s future is a prosperous one.
In a 2008 speech on matters of race relations, Obama committed himself to creating “a more perfect union” — that tantalizing phrase which appears in the U.S. Constitution. Our country is now embroiled in the most consequential struggle for equality since the days of Martin Luther King, Jr., and in 2008, then-candidate Obama had some strong but loving words for a country that was still dragging the baggage of slavery in its wake:
“…In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world’s great religions demand — that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother’s keeper, Scripture tells us … Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.”
Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s State of the Union Address (1941)
You could pretty much pick any FDR speech at random and come away with something bold, progressive, and prophetic.
But for my money, his 1941 State of the Union Address easily ranks among his finest speeches, not least because it puts forth a startlingly clear vision for the future, paved with progressive ideals that we are still fighting for today. He took this opportunity to describe “four freedoms” that he felt should define the way we conduct our public lives, our politics, and our world affairs:
“In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want — which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants — everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear — which, translated into world terms, means a worldwide reduction of armaments to such a point … that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.”
This is nothing less than a comprehensive utopian vision of the future. In many ways, global consensus has nudged us toward an agreement on some of these points. For example, the United Nations, as though directly answering FDR’s charge that economic freedom is among our most important goals, has already recognized healthcare as an essential human right. The United States remains among the few developed nations that have not signed that particular charter. Clearly, there’s work to do. Nevertheless, many of FDR’s crowning achievements under his New Deal — Social Security, the SEC, the FDIC, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the National Labor Relations Act — all remain vital tenets of American democracy.
Still, FDR and his vision remains a hugely important touchstone in modern politics — as we saw just a few short months ago when Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders expanded on his definition of “democratic socialism” — a sentiment that would have felt right at home in any number of FDR’s public addresses.
George Washington’s Farewell Address (1796)
George Washington was the man who could have been a king. It’s ironic, really, that leadership of the then-nascent United States practically begged Washington to stick around for a third term, considering we were fresh out of a war with a monarchy. Nevertheless, Washington’s restraint created a tradition that would last until FDR’s third term in 1940.
In his farewell address, Washington proved himself as much a prophet as a president. And more than that: an exceedingly humble and charitable man. He took the opportunity of this speech, in addition to congratulating our still-young country on its unlikely birth, to warn of the plentiful dangers to come.
And among the many “internal enemies” described here was the danger of political parties: “I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State … The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge … which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.”
Washington anticipated, with alarming clarity, a situation recently described by Barack Obama as “partisan rancor” — a climate of mistrust so deep and so pervasive that our Congress has effectively argued itself into total impotence. Our two major political parties take alternating turns behind the wheel, bringing citizens under their sway with increasingly extreme rhetoric, while gridlock in the houses of Congress has seen progress of any measurable kind slow to a halt.
I chose this speech to round out this list because it so perfectly describes the situation we now face: uncompromising sectarian mistrust. We see it on a local level, when states like Pennsylvania go without a budget compromise for seven months at a time, and we see it at the Federal level when Congress cannot seem to agree even on matters of public consensus, such as “black lives matter” and “one person, one vote.” Nevertheless, for all of his direness, Washington also professed profound optimism in the future of this great country.
For these reasons and more, let’s remember Washington’s warnings as well as his praise, and strive to prove worthy of his trust.
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