Voices in Chicago

To put President-elect Obama's best speeches in a historical context, pick up former presidential speechwriter William Safire's collection of great examples, or two like compendiums from the Library of America.

Book Digest I was searching for video of one of my last visits to Chicago’s Grant Park; that trip took place in August 1968, when Sen. Eugene McCarthy walked across the street from the Conrad Hilton Hotel and addressed the gathered crowd as “the United States government-in-exile.” Though I couldn’t find any footage, but I did come across this fine moment, when Gore Vidal calls William F. Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” and Buckley threatens to punch him in the face. But I digress.

I was struck, as I watched President-elect Obama declaim in Grant Park last week, not only by his eloquence…
It’s the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.
…but also by the idea that there are so few great public orators and memorable speeches—and that, arguably, Obama has already made a handful of such speeches, from his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention to, more recently, speeches in Berlin and in Philadelphia.

The New Yorker’s James Wood has already provided an astute commentary on the election campaign speechifying, and now he has published a clear-eyed and succinct exegesis of Obama’s Nov. 4 oration, which, by the way, prompts me to offer that that speech is also impressive on the page, as an inspiring read.

Should you choose to pursue this notion, here are a few worthy compendia of speeches: former presidential speechwriter William Safire’s Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History, which collects over 200 speeches from Ancient Greece to the present (you will, as I was, be surprised to see George W. Bush amongst these worthies) and the Library of America’s American Speeches: Political Oratory From the Revolution to the Civil War and American Speeches: Political Oratory From Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton.
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