10 Best Modern Political Speeches
We'll be hearing a lot of great speeches this election season, but let's take a second to remember the true giants of political rhetoric.
10. Martin Luther King: I've Been to the Mountaintop
King delivered this speech in Memphis, Tennessee, the day before he was assassinated. After talking for a while about the Memphis Sanitation Strike, he builds to a climax about the possibility that he'll die before his time: "I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will."
Meanwhile, James Earl Ray, his future killer, was only a few miles away attending a rally for racist presidential candidate George Wallace, whose speech that day allegedly inspired Ray to go through with the deadly plot. Full text here
9. Margaret Thatcher: The Lady's Not for Turning
The Conservative Party wanted Thatcher to reverse her position on economic issues, but she told them what's up. At the time she thought "You turn if you want to" was the big moment in the speech, but the following line, "The lady's not for turning," got way more attention and became an unofficial motto for her career.
Unbeknownst to her, it was actually a pun off a play called The Lady's Not for Burning, about an accused witch trying to avoid burning at the stake. Full text here
8. Malcolm X: Ballot or Bullet
In this hourlong speech, Malcolm X talks about voting rights and the need for force with his unique combination of searing anger and witty intelligence. A lot of great one-liners in here: "As long as you are South of the Canadian border you are South." As you can probably guess, this speech freaked out white America and fed their fear of black nationalism. Here's the link for the whole thing
7. John F Kennedy: Inaugural Address
JFK spent over two months crafting this iconic 13-minute speech, widely considered the greatest presidential inaugural address. But some people speculate that JFK wasn't the principal author. In fact, it's possible the famous line "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country" came from speechwriter Ted Sorensen or JFK's prep-school headmaster. Nevertheless, journalists swooned over the masterpiece, which set in motion a long Kennedy honeymoon, at least until Bay of Pigs.
6. Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Pearl Harbor Address to the Nation
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, FDR gave this speech declaring war. Everyone remembers the line "a date which will live in infamy," especially because of the way FDR says it, but an early draft of the speech has the line down as "a date which will live in world history." He later edited everything to emphasize the lowness of the unprovoked attack and stir up public anger at Japan.
6. Lyndon B Johnson: Voting Rights
On the night LBJ delivered this speech, Civil Rights protesters gathered outside the White House to sing "We Shall Overcome," meaning they'd overcome Johnson and get equal rights for blacks. To their surprise, LBJ used the opportunity to back the Civil Rights Movement. When he borrowed the phrase "we shall overcome" from black leaders, MLK broke down while watching at home with friends.
5. Robert F. Kennedy: Remarks on the Assassination of MLK
On what was supposed to be a routine campaign stop, Robert F. Kennedy broke the news of MLK's death to a mostly black Indianapolis crowd, saying MLK wouldn't want people to respond with violence or bitterness. "For those of you who are tempted to...be filled with hatred and mistrust...I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling; I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man." That night riots hit many American cities, but not Indianapolis, where people heard Kennedy's words. Two months later, he was gunned down in California.
4. Ronald Reagan: Tribute to the Challenger Astronauts
After the Challenger disaster, Reagan postponed The State of the Union to give this thoughtful tribute to the astronauts who lost their lives. The famous line "slip the surly bonds of Earth" was actually lifted from aviator poet John Magee, who died in a mid-air collision during World War II: "Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings."
3. John F. Kennedy: I Am a Berliner
When the Soviet Union blocked trade with West Berlin, the Allies started airlifting supplies into the isolated city. The airlift had been going on for about two years when JFK came to Berlin to show his support for the city and issue a challenge to dissenters at home: "Anyone who claims we can work with the Communists, let them come to Berlin."
The gaffe that never was: There's a misconception that JFK accidentally said, "I am a jelly donut" in German because of the way he phrased or pronounced the phrase "ich bin ein Berliner." It's true that a Berliner is a kind of donut in Europe, but German speakers agree that Kennedy's German made sense because he was speaking metaphorically: "I am one with the people of Berlin." Besides, if someone told you they're a New Yorker, you wouldn't think they're talking about the magazine.
2. Martin Luther King: I Have a Dream
Widely considered the greatest speech of all time. Surprisingly, King was so busy around this time he didn't have anything written 12 hours before he took the podium. He also winged some sections, including the legendary "I have a dream" part. Musicians say there's a certain magic to first takes, so maybe that's what happened onstage.
1. FDR's Inaugural Address
FDR was usually a charming, gregarious guy, but in this speech he takes on a solemn tone to give the nation hope in the middle of the Great Depression. As with JFK, the famous "fear itself" line might have been the work of a teenage FDR's schoolmaster. Since it broke onto the scene in 1933, the catchy "fear itself" line has wormed its way into pop culture, inspiring the titles for a Batman graphic novel and a horror TV series that NBC canceled in 2008. Fitting tributes.
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