We have all read some of these eloquent and inspiring words of past American leaders. Some captured the moment exactly, offering reassurances that the times might be troubled, but with American courage, ingenuity and perseverance, there were no troubles we could not be faced head-on.
Some were by Democrats and some by Republicans, but all inspired us as a nation. All were filled with passion, reason, and challenge. They were not designed to appeal to our most base instincts.
They were eloquent, painting a clear picture for us all, not of what existed, but what was possible.
I remember back to sixth grade where I had a gifted teacher who allowed me the time each day to read in the school library. I was only 11 but I had developed an interest in American history so I read the history and biography sections book by book.
I was mesmerized by the strength of American leadership, fascinated by how language could be used to inspire.
When the world was at war, we had President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He deftly gave Americans listening to their radios a glimmer of news about battles unseen. Roosevelt knew the fears of the American public and he chose not to stoke the fears and anger. Instead he chose to offer words of calm and inspiration:
“Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights and keep them. Our strength is our unity of purpose. To that high concept there can be no end save victory.”
During the Civil War, citizens could read Abraham Lincoln’s words so musically spoken. They were healing words of faith and promise, offering balm for the saddened and the afflicted and challenging the citizens of a divided nation to look to the future:
“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
When Lincoln spoke of Gettysburg, he lamented that “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.”
How wrong he was. Eloquence carries across time and settles upon us like a warm blanket on a cold night. Yet today we are showered relentlessly with noise.
Sarah Palin’s speech endorsing Donald Trump is a good example.
“Are you ready to make America great again? We all have a part in this. We all have a responsibility. Looking around at all of you, you hardworking Iowa families. You farm families, and teachers, and teamsters, and cops, and cooks. You rockin’ rollers. And holy rollers! All of you who work so hard. You full-time moms. You with the hands that rock the cradle. You all make the world go round, and now our cause is one”
Are you moved to build greatness, or are you just as confused as I am about what was said? Surely sixth graders of the future won’t be charged with memorizing that text!
Palin was offering her endorsement based on her view of where we are and who is best to take us to her better place.
Trump shares Palin’s oratorical approach by calling for us to “Make American Great Again!” But he offers only word clouds and thought-stew passages:
“Some of the candidates, they went in and didn’t know the air conditioner didn’t work and sweated like dogs, and they didn’t know the room was too big because they didn’t have anybody there. How are they going to beat ISIS?”
Or, “I watch the speeches of these people, and they say the sun will rise, the moon will set, all sorts of wonderful things will happen, and people are saying, ‘What is going on?”’
Or, “Well, you need somebody, because politicians are all talk and no action. They will not bring us — believe me — to the Promised Land.”
Words matter and they are great tools to paint a picture of what might be. So, we better be careful about how we select our next artist. Our leaders should appeal to the best within us, not the worst.
Dr. Ed H. Moore resides in Tallahassee, where he is perpetually awaiting a rebirth of wonder. Column courtesy of Context Florida.