Few speeches pass the test of time. Today's landmark address lingers as moldering rhetoric, the esoteric purview of specialized scholars, or fades from memory entirely. The speech that resonates decades later is rare—more so when two such addresses occurred within days of each other.
Yet this month we mark the 50th anniversary of two such addresses. The first, Dwight D. Eisenhower's farewell address, on Jan. 17, 1961, drew relatively little attention at the time but gathered prophetic force over the years. Three days later, John F. Kennedy's inaugural address hit the nation like an energy bolt, galvanizing a generation.
A half century later, the speeches remain relevant.
Interestingly, Ike's first idea for a farewell address appears only in passing in the famous speech, but it's still worth recalling. His earliest concept for the address was outlined in a May 1959 memorandum summarizing a meeting of some of the president's top advisers, including his brother Milton: "Speech stresses the need for common sense to accommodate the broad range of belief in the political spectrum of America, particularly in an era when the nation may have an Executive of one Party and a Congress of another." The next day, Ike wrote Milton, then president of Johns Hopkins University, "The purpose would be to emphasize a few homely truths that apply to the responsibilities and duties of a government that must be responsive to the will of majorities, even when the decisions of those majorities create apparent paradoxes."
The phrase "common sense" is today so overused as to be commonly nonsensical, and that broad range encompassing the American political spectrum has become Balkanized, with too many factions—from the Tea Party movement to the so-called professional left—convinced that they alone represent its breadth. But both extremes neglect that, as Ike observed, the people's will is often contradictory. Recall the recent protests that the government better keep its hands off Medicare.
Of course, a speech warning against the gathering dangers of partisanship would not have carried the force of a decorated general speaking out against the "acquisition of unwarranted influence . . . by the military -industrial complex." Talk about an admonition that still rings as we inexorably approach a 10th year of global conflict. The Boston Globe reported last month that 80 percent of retiring three- and four-star officers in recent years have taken jobs as defense industry consultants or executives, up from less than 50 percent in the mid-1990s. This trend is startling and dangerous. As the Atlantic's James Fallows (a former U.S. News editor) observes, it represents a form of "structural corruption" infecting the system.
Another less-noted passage from Eisenhower's speech is also worth remembering. Warning about the dangers of scientific research becoming too dominated by government, Ike inveighed against "the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite." In 50 years, not only have Eisenhower's fears not been borne out in this regard, but the pendulum has swung dangerously in the other direction. We now endure an age of "truthiness" where the notion of esoteric knowledge is held in disdain: WebMD has made us doctors, blogs have made us pundits, and anyone who has read the Constitution fancies herself or himself a scholar. No need to pay attention to those eggheads going on about global warming; the Internet has made us all climatologists debating the relative merits of the science.
But Eisenhower's farewell was delivered in the shadow cast by the generational torch that was about to be passed. The glow from that fire truly did "light the world" for that generation and others succeeding it.
There's a certain irony in the fact that the inaugural address, with its summoning trumpets and mellifluous "ask-nots," remains JFK's best-known speech. The truth is that he didn't like flowery imagery or rhetorical excess. "The inaugural was a special occasion and there was a special tone in that speech," Kennedy's speechwriter, the late Ted Sorensen, told me when I was writing White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters. "It was more elevated language."
Kennedy had a rare sense of the bully pulpit, neither undervaluing it nor overestimating its power. On one hand, JFK was "deeply—excessively—skeptical about the value of speeches per se," my father, aide Arthur Schlesinger Jr., wrote in his diary at the time. Kennedy understood that talk alone cannot itself bend history. But he also understood that given the proper context, a speech can catalyze a moment and help shape events, as with his three great addresses from June 1963: the American University speech on world peace, his civil rights address to the nation the following day, and his stirring talk at the Berlin Wall.
It's a lesson that Barack Obama needs to absorb as his presidency shifts to a more exhortative stage, with an obstinate GOP controlling the House. He seems to have taken too much to heart Mario Cuomo's aphorism that we campaign in poetry but govern in prose (which Hillary Clinton used against Obama during the 2008 primaries). In fact, governing sometimes requires poetry, speaking not simply to the head as Obama does with such professorial skill, but to the heart or the gut. As the president is unhappily having to demonstrate today, the bully pulpit must sometimes be used to express national outrage and national grief—drama, in other words, from a chief executive who prides himself on being "no drama."