Anne Applebaum: Words That Matter

On Christmas morning, my husband found a CD of "The Greatest Speeches of All Time" in his stocking. It was, if I may say so, an inspired gift. The title did prove somewhat misleading: Richard Nixon's "I am not a crook" speech really didn't belong in this august collection, and I might not have chosen Winston Churchill's 1940 radio address as the sole example of his wartime rhetoric ("I have invincible confidence in the French army and its leaders"). There is also a fundamental problem with any such audio collection, which is by definition limited to the 20th century and can't include Abraham Lincoln, let alone Cicero. Any recorded collection purporting to be "the greatest speeches of all time" thus has to be taken with a grain of salt.

Still, after a presidential campaign marked by an unusually high standard of political rhetoric, it was weirdly revealing to listen to Martin Luther King Jr., Ronald Reagan, JFK and RFK, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and even Nixon, one after the other, out of chronological order. For one, their themes were surprisingly consistent, over the years, across parties, at different events and occasions. To some degree, this is to be expected: It's clear, when you listen to them together, that the authors of Ronald Reagan's 1987 Berlin wall speech ("We come to Berlin, we American presidents, because it's our duty to speak, in this place, of freedom") had carefully reread JFK's 1963 "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech ("Lift your eyes beyond the dangers of today, to the hopes of tomorrow beyond the freedom merely of this city of Berlin . . . to the advance of freedom everywhere").

But some of the other echoes were less obvious. Who remembers now that a 1983 speech by Reagan, forever famous because he used it to call the Soviet Union "an evil empire," also contained the following:

"Our nation, too, has a legacy of evil with which it must deal. The glory of this land has been its capacity for transcending the moral evils of our past. For example, the long struggle of minority citizens for equal rights, once a source of disunity and civil war, is now a point of pride for all Americans. We must never go back."

In that one paragraph, there are echoes of John F. Kennedy ("Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect") as well as of King, who so brilliantly appropriated the language of America's founding documents and made them into an irrefutable argument for civil rights:

"I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.' "...

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