My favorite speeches

Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the Unite...

I’ve always liked a good speech.  If you asked me to make a list of favorite speeches I’d be hard pressed.  In fact, what I’d worry about most was leaving out some real gems simply because of memory lapse or not having been exposed to them.  It’s complicated, too, because there are countless good speeches to be had across the years, even centuries, like Socrates’ defense before the Athenean court.

Probably the best way to go about it would be to catalogue speeches by genre; for example, political, social, and historical, though the categories might occasionally overlap.  I think of “Washington’s Farewell Address,”  despite it’s now quaint formalism, one of the standout American speeches in our history with its warning of the dangers of political parties turning into self-centered warring factions.  A historical classic, it surely falls under the political canopy as well like Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.”

By the way, commencement addresses offer a rich source of substantive speeches before limited audiences.  I think of Steve Job’s address to the Stanford student body (2006) as the finest of its kind with its counsel on living in the context of mortality.

But what makes for a great speech?  I’d offer things like appropriateness, wisdom, counsel, candor, caring, inspiration and eloquence.  The best speeches not only inform and persuade, they move us to take action.  I think of Martin Luther’s King’s “I Have a Dream” speech (1963) as such a speech, perhaps rivaling Lincoln’s”Gettysburg Address” in its moving majesty.

As Americans, I think many of us would include Patrick Henry’s “Give me Liberty or Give me Death” (1775) and John F. Kennedy’s “Inaugural Address” as among the foremost of American speeches as well.

If you pinned me down, however, to a list of five personal favorites, I’d complain about how unfair you are.  Still, with apologies to the likes of Socrates, Cicero, Frederick Douglas, Susan B. Anthony, and even Patrick Henry and Kennedy, I’d offer the following personal favorites:

  1.  Lincoln:  “Gettysburg Address”
  2.  King:  “I Have a Dream”
  3.  Churchill:  “We Will Fight on the Beaches” (1940)
  4.  Washington:   “Farewell Address”
  5.  MacArthur:  “West Point Address”

I think of Winston Churchill, a Renaissance man living in the Twentieth Century, as the finest orator I’ve come upon with his ebullient, yet disciplined pathos as in “We Will Fight On the Beaches” (1940).  I think, too, of “Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat” and “This was their Finest Hour” as speeches transcending any I’ve encountered.

I included General Douglas MacArthur here as a supreme orator.  The rhythmic cadence and rich metaphor of his farewell West Point Address to the Corps”(1962), delivered while in his eighties and without notes,  still moves me:

The shadows are lengthening for me. The twilight is here. My days of old have vanished. They have gone glimmering through the dreams of things that were. Their memory is one of wondrous beauty, watered by tears and coaxed and caressed by the smiles of yesterday. I listen then, but with thirsty ear, for the witching melody of faint bugles blowing reveille, of far drums beating the long roll. In my dreams I hear again the crash of guns, the rattle of musketry, the strange, mournful mutter of the battlefield. But in the evening of my memory always I come back to West Point. Always there echoes and re-echoes: Duty, Honor, Country.

I should mention as a kind of postscript, my liking for the compassion and eloquence typifying President Obama’s speeches.  It hasn’t anything to do with politics.  Not since Ronald Reagan “the great communicator,” has any President done it so well.

Before I leave off, there’s one speech, this by Eisenhower, that didn’t make my list, since  you squeezed me down to five picks.  It’s the speech in which he warned of “the military-industrial complex.”  Often quoted, Eisenhower had originally drafted “the military-industrial-congressional complex,” but then blinked.  No longer idealists, we now know the dismal reality of vested Congressional pecuniary self-interests in shaping today’s Realpolitik.   Had he kept it in, wow!


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