In Our Time: The Speeches that Shaped the Modern World Edited by Hywel Williams Quercus, 216pp, $ 34.95
SOMETIMES a good speech is elevated to a truly memorable oration by an intervention. This can certainly be said of Martin Luther King’s magnificent address before the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, on August 28, 1963. The early part of King’s speech was a comprehensive account of the plight of African-Americans. It was effective but it rose to greatness when Mahalia Jackson, standing behind King, who had heard the civil rights leader speak passionately from the pulpit, called out: ‘‘ Tell them about your dream, Martin.’’ King responded:
I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
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 selfevident: that all men are created equal.
I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. The rest is now American scripture and part of our global political understanding of justice.
Alternatively, sometimes a great speech can be the subject of a cynical intervention that adds such a note of hard-headed realism that the speaker actually gains credibility.
Legend has it in Moscow that as Nikita Khrushchev addressed the 20th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on February 25, 1956, denouncing Josef Stalin, one of the delegates boldly asked such a question. As Khrushchev moved through Stalin’s crimes from creating a cult of personality to violating socialist legality, the delegate inquired: ‘‘ And what were you doing at the time?’’
It was a pointed question: Khrushchev had been a loyal Stalinist, even during the purges. Khrushchev looked up from his speech at the lectern and asked: ‘‘ Who said that?’’ There was utter silence in the hall.
‘‘ That’s what I was doing,’’ said Khrushchev deadpan and returned to his text. The speech transformed the arid Soviet political culture and ultimately sowed the seeds for Mikhail Gorbachev and perestroika.
These two speeches are among the better contributions in Hywel Williams’s new book, In Our Time: The Speeches that Shaped the Modern World , which focuses on some of the seminal contributions to politics and culture, government and international relations since 1945.
An appendix provides the speech made by then president-elect Barack Obama to his audience at Grant Park, Chicago, and ultimately to the world, on the night of his election as the 44th President of the US on November 4, 2008. It’s perhaps a pity that John McCain’s earlier concession speech, at the Biltmore in Phoenix, Arizona, was not also included, for McCain’s generous speech cleared the way for Obama’s eloquent assumption of power.
The rolling cadences of African-American churches inspired a global audience as the president-elect spoke:
And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world — our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand. To those who would tear this world down — we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security — we support you. And to those who have wondered if America’s beacon still burns as bright — tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth but the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.
For that is the true genius of America — that America can change. Our union can be perfected. Williams is a historian who has an established record as a writer, having written books as diverse as Britain’s Power Elites and Days that Changed the World . Compilations of speeches are churned out, but this is a useful compendium, albeit with some disappointments.
For example, who on earth wants to remember Harold Wilson’s ‘‘ White Heat of Technology’’ speech to the Labour Party conference of October 1, 1963? The Labour leader was stretching a point even when he made the address and in politics the address is now regarded as something of an insider’s joke.
The same can be said of Pierre Trudeau’s speech celebrating Canada’s new constitution of 1982. Thoughtful yes, but not to be compared with Trudeau’s brilliant rejection of domestic terrorism in another address to the nation.
But for every disappointment there is a gem, not always acknowledged as such. New York governor Mario Cuomo addressing the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco of 1984 or novelist Orhan Pamuk speaking in New York in 2006 on the universality of human rights, sustain interest well beyond the years.
There are better compilations of this kind. Perhaps William Safire, former speechwriter to president Richard Nixon, in Lend Me Your Ears has set the benchmark. Former Liberal senator Rod Kemp, in Speaking up for Australia , performed a valuable service in grouping together some outstanding Australian contributions, including the forgotten jewel of John Curtin’s speech to the House of Representatives in 1942 while the Battle of the Coral Sea was being fought.
In an era when the sound bite and the visual image have tended to dominate our culture, In Our Time underlines the obvious value of a prepared speech, well and thoughtfully delivered, to uplift and to inspire. Obama is merely the latest in a long list of leaders who understand the significance of speaking persuasively and from the heart.
Australia’s Prime Minister is acknowledged in Williams’s book. Kevin Rudd’s apology to Australia’s indigenous people, in Canberra on February 13, 2008, is recognised.
Great speeches afford clarity and furnish meaning to human endeavours. From Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech at Fulton, Missouri, of March 5, 1946, to Nelson Mandela’s Rainbow Nation address of May 10, 1994, Williams has largely chosen well. The great speakers, from Aneurin Bevan to Jack Kennedy, from Eleanor Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan, grace this book’s pages. Their speeches show the power of the written word as it is expressed by those who have mastered the spoken. Stephen Loosley is a former senator and ALP national president.