Words are important. Any good leader knows this. That is why one of the true marks of a good leader is the ability to communicate ideas and intentions to the people, to motivate them and guide them toward a common goal.
In American history, our presidents have used the power of words to guide the people and the nation. Of the millions of words that have been spoken by these 44 men over the past 200-plus years, there are only a handful of times that those words have been used to their maximum effect. These speeches are prime examples of just how words can set a course for the nation and make an indelible mark on history.
George Washington’s Farewell Address, September 19, 1796. This address was really a letter published and reprinted in newspapers across the country. Washington used this letter to announce his decision not to seek a third term, an awesome gesture by a national leader seldom witnessed in history before or since. It was a precedent that held until 1940. Washington also warned against the rise of factions (political parties), getting involved in foreign entanglements, and a host of other nefarious practices that his successors went ahead and did anyway. Just the same, the address proved why GW still stands as our greatest president.
Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865. Lincoln was a great speaker, and he often kept his speeches short and to the point. This address, delivered just a few weeks before his assassination, was typical in that regard, but it also demonstrated the power of his leadership in the way he attempted to lay out a course for a post-Civil War America. By the time Lincoln gave this speech, the outcome of the war was pretty much a foregone conclusion, and he was already looking toward the long, hard course it would take to heal the nation’s wounds. It is worth wondering just how things might have turned out had he lived.
Dwight Eisenhower’s Farewell Address, January 17, 1961. Eisenhower came into office as one of America’s great military leaders, the man who won World War II in Europe. As president, he presided over an epic economic expansion that made America the richest and most powerful country the world had ever seen. But he also was in office during a runaway military buildup that threatened to push the country into a devastating war. His warnings about the negative effects the military-industrial complex would have on our country were spot on, even if they did go largely unheeded.
John Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961. The passage of power from America’s oldest president to its youngest was the purest demonstration of change that the 1960 election could possibly muster. Kennedy came into office as the voice of a new generation and a new mindset for the nation, and he communicated the energy and possibility of the coming era with great skill. His address contains one of the most quoted, but least appreciated pieces of advice in modern American history. And we’ll never know if he or the words he spoke would have lived up to the sentiments that were shared that cold day in ’61.
Ronald Reagan’s Address at the Brandenburg Gate, June 12, 1987. Reagan’s reputation as a fierce cold warrior was quite evident by the time he traveled to West Berlin near the end of his second term to address East-West relations. At the start of his presidency, his tough stance with the Soviets was appreciated by some, but considered unnecessarily provocative by others who thought that the freedom of people was a small price to pay for the uneasy peace that existed between the two superpowers. Reagan’s challenge to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall captured the essence of the Cold War and threw down the gauntlet at the feet of leaders in Moscow who were holding on to a bankrupt ideology by their fingernails.
There are many lists of the greatest presidential speeches, and this one is mine. What do you think about it and what you would add or subtract? I’d love to hear.