January 25, 2007


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American Speeches: Political Oratory from the Revolution to the Civil War, edited by Ted Widmer (The Library of America, 2006, 810 pages)
American Speeches: Political Oratory from Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton edited by Ted Widmer (The Library of America, 2006, 872 pages)
By Amy Diaz adiaz@hippopress.com.

It takes a special kind of nerd to have a favorite presidential speech.

I mean, sure, “ask not,” “thousand points of light” and all that — it’s possible for the average non-history-geek to have a line or two from some inaugural address that they always liked. And you have your Gettysburgs, your “date that will live in infamy”s. But, recently, I’ve found myself particularly interested in Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address, printed in its entirety on page 529 of the second volume of American Speeches. This address recently got my attention when it appeared in the documentary Why We Fight, mainly as a launching point for a discussion for the U.S. military industrial complex. The speech, though, also goes into areas such as research, international relations and one generation’s fiscal responsibility to the next. It’s a corker of a speech, the kind that makes some stern warnings and lays out some harsh realities. It uses big words and big concepts and doesn’t suggest any solutions.


A few years ago during a documentary on the Cold War, I caught a snippet of an address George H. W. Bush gave to the nation where he quietly mentioned, by the way, the Cold War is over. That address is a bit harder to find online and doesn’t appear here, nor does any speech from either George Bush. Nor a word from the recently deceased Gerald Ford. Bill Clinton gets two speeches and Jimmy Carter gets one. And, woven through the Ronald Reagan years are speeches from Jesse Jackson and Edward Kennedy.

More interesting than what is missing or which of the presidents made the book are the political speeches by those never in charge of the country. Martin Luther King Jr. makes quite a few appearances (as you’d expect) but also Barbara Jordan, Malcolm X, William Faulkner (on the occasion of winning the Nobel prize), Robert Oppenheimer, Booker T. Washington and Carrie Chapman Catt (on women’s suffrage). In the first volume, Jefferson Davis, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Patrick Henry and a Native American named Red Jacket all get a voice. Varying degrees of famous, these figures and their speeches help add dimension to history. A period is not solely defined by the voice of its president (as we will no doubt be explaining to future grandchildren and historians looking back at our age). This handy set offers a slim window on the political opinions of those not in the chosen 43.

Freeing you from the pressure of being tested on all of them, these non-text books give you the opportunity to focus on any one of the speeches, dissect its meanings and look for the spin and political theater. What a perfect way to develop a new favorite. B+ —Amy Diaz