I recently posted a blog about Dick Cheney. In that post I was re-living some of the former Vice Presidents speeches that I thought were great. I also mentioned that I would devote a blog later to the topic of the best political speeches I’ve ever heard. I have chosen the speeches I thought were the best, and I have added a few quotes from each speech, quotes that I thought were highlights, or they at least moved me when I heard them.
1. President George W. Bush, September 20, 2001, Address to Congress
“My fellow citizens, for the last nine days, the entire world has seen for itself the state of our Union — and it is strong.
“Tonight we are a country awakened to danger and called to defend freedom. Our grief has turned to anger, and anger to resolution. Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.”
“Fellow citizens, we’ll meet violence with patient justice — assured of the rightness of our cause, and confident of the victories to come. In all that lies before us, may God grant us wisdom, and may He watch over the United States of America. Thank you.”
2. President Ronald Reagan, ‘Evil Empire’ speech, March 8, 1983
So much more than just the “evil empire” line to this speech. More on this speech in a later post.
“The American experiment in democracy rests on this insight. Its discovery was the great triumph of our Founding Fathers, voiced by William Penn when he said: “If we will not be governed by God, we must be governed by tyrants.” Explaining the inalienable rights of men, Jefferson said, “The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time.” And it was George Washington who said that “of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”
“And finally, that shrewdest of all observers of American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, put it eloquently after he had gone on a search for the secret of America’s greatness and genius — and he said: “Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the greatness and the genius of America. America is good. And if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”
“Well, I’m pleased to be here today with you who are keeping America great by keeping her good. Only through your work and prayers and those of millions of others can we hope to survive this perilous century and keep alive this experiment in liberty, this last, best hope of man.”
“I want you to know that this administration is motivated by a political philosophy that sees the greatness of America in you, her people, and in your families, churches, neighborhoods, communities: the institutions that foster and nourish values like concern for others and respect for the rule of law under God.”
“I believe we shall rise to the challenge. I believe that communism is another sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last — last pages even now are being written. I believe this because the source of our strength in the quest for human freedom is not material, but spiritual. And because it knows no limitation, it must terrify and ultimately triumph over those who would enslave their fellow man. For in the words of Isaiah: “He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might He increased strength. But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary.”
“Yes, change your world. One of our Founding Fathers, Thomas Paine, said, “We have it within our power to begin the world over again.” We can do it, doing together what no one church could do by itself.”
3. Dick Cheney, RNC speech August 2, 2000
“We can restore the ideals of honesty and honor that must be a part of our national life, if our children are to thrive. When I look at the administration now in Washington, I am dismayed by opportunities squandered. Saddened by what might have been, but never was. These have been years of prosperity in our land, but little purpose in the White House. Bill Clinton vowed not long ago to hold onto power “until the last hour of the last day.” That is his right. But, my friends, that last hour is coming. That last day is near. The wheel has turned. And it is time. It is time for them to go.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are so privileged to be citizens of this great republic. I was reminded of that time and again when I was in my former job, as secretary of defense. I traveled a lot and when I came home, my plane would land at Andrews Air Force Base, and I’d return to the Pentagon by helicopter.
When you make that trip from Andrews to the Pentagon, and you look down on the city of Washington, one of the first things you see is the Capitol, where all the great debates that have shaped 200 years of American history have taken place. You fly down along the Mall and see the monument to George Washington, a structure as grand as the man himself. To the north is the White House, where John Adams once prayed “that none but honest and wise men may ever rule under this roof.” Next you see the memorial to Thomas Jefferson, the third president and the author of our Declaration of Independence. And then you fly over the memorial to Abraham Lincoln, this greatest of presidents, the man who saved the union. Then you cross the Potomac, on approach to the Pentagon. But just before you settle down on the landing pad, you look upon Arlington National Cemetery its gentle slopes and crosses row on row.
I never once made that trip without being reminded how enormously fortunate we all are to be Americans, and what a terrible price thousands have paid so that all of us and millions more around the world might live in freedom.”
4. President Ronald Reagan, June 6, 1984 speech Pointe Du Hoc, Normandy, France
“And behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust into the top of these cliffs. And before me are the men who put them there. These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. And these are the heroes who helped end a war. Gentlemen, I look at you and I think of the words of Stephen Spender’s poem. You are men who in your “lives fought for life and left the vivid air signed with your honor.”
“Forty summers have passed since the battle that you fought here. You were young the day you took these cliffs; some of you were hardly more than boys, with the deepest joys of life before you. Yet you risked everything here. Why? Why did you do it? What impelled you to put aside the instinct for self-preservation and risk your lives to take these cliffs? What inspired all the men of the armies that met here? We look at you, and somehow we know the answer. It was faith and belief. It was loyalty and love.
The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead, or on the next. It was the deep knowledge — and pray God we have not lost it — that there is a profound moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest. You were here to liberate, not to conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause. And you were right not to doubt.
You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One’s country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it’s the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man. All of you loved liberty. All of you were willing to fight tyranny, and you knew the people of your countries were behind you.”
5. Newt Gingrich, January 4, 1995 Address at the opening of the 1995 Congress.
“Democracy is hard. It is frustrating.”
“We must replace the welfare state with an opportunity society. The balanced budget is the right thing to do. But it does not in my mind have the moral urgency of coming to grips with what is happening to the poorest Americans. I commend to all Marvin Olasky’s “The Tragedy of American Compassion.” Olasky goes back for 300 years and looked at what has worked in America, how we have helped people rise beyond poverty, and how we have reached out to save people. He may not have the answers, but he has the right sense of where we have to go as Americans. I do not believe that there is a single American who can see a news report of a 4-year-old thrown off of a public housing project in Chicago by other children and killed and not feel that a part of your heart went, too.”
“I was very struck this morning with something Bill Emerson used, a very famous quote of Benjamin Franklin, at the point where the Constitutional Convention was deadlocked. People were tired, and there was a real possibility that the Convention was going to break up. Franklin, who was quite old and had been relatively quiet for the entire Convention, suddenly stood up and was angry, and he said: “I have lived, sir, a long time, and the longer I live the more convincing proofs I see of this truth, that God governs in the affairs of men, and if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it possible that an empire can rise without His aid?” At that point the Constitutional Convention stopped. They took a day off for fasting and prayer. Then, having stopped and come together, they went back, and they solved the great question of large and small States. They wrote the Constitution, and the United States was created.
All I can do is pledge to you that, if each of us will reach out prayerfully and try to genuinely understand each other, if we will recognize that in this building we symbolize America, and that we have an obligation to talk with each other, then I think a year from now we can look on the 104th Congress as a truly amazing institution without regard to party, without regard to ideology. We can say, “Here America comes to work, and here we are preparing for those children a better future.” Thank you. Good luck and God bless you.”
6. Vice President Dick Cheney, AEI speech, May 21, 2009
“This might explain why President Obama has reserved unto himself the right to order the use of enhanced interrogation should he deem it appropriate. What value remains to that authority is debatable, given that the enemy now knows exactly what interrogation methods to train against, and which ones not to worry about. Yet having reserved for himself the authority to order enhanced interrogation after an emergency, you would think that President Obama would be less disdainful of what his predecessor authorized after 9/11. It’s almost gone unnoticed that the president has retained the power to order the same methods in the same circumstances. When they talk about interrogations, he and his administration speak as if they have resolved some great moral dilemma in how to extract critical information from terrorists. Instead they have put the decision off, while assigning a presumption of moral superiority to any decision they make in the future.”
“As far as the interrogations are concerned, all that remains an official secret is the information we gained as a result. Some of his defenders say the unseen memos are inconclusive, which only raises the question why they won’t let the American people decide that for themselves. I saw that information as vice president, and I reviewed some of it again at the National Archives last month. I’ve formally asked that it be declassified so the American people can see the intelligence we obtained, the things we learned, and the consequences for national security. And as you may have heard, last week that request was formally rejected. It’s worth recalling that ultimate power of declassification belongs to the President himself. President Obama has used his declassification power to reveal what happened in the interrogation of terrorists. Now let him use that same power to show Americans what did not happen, thanks to the good work of our intelligence officials.”
“For all the partisan anger that still lingers, our administration will stand up well in history – not despite our actions after 9/11, but because of them. And when I think about all that was to come during our administration and afterward – the recriminations, the second-guessing, the charges of “hubris” – my mind always goes back to that moment.”
“To the very end of our administration, we kept al-Qaeda terrorists busy with other problems. We focused on getting their secrets, instead of sharing ours with them. And on our watch, they never hit this country again. After the most lethal and devastating terrorist attack ever, seven and a half years without a repeat is not a record to be rebuked and scorned, much less criminalized. It is a record to be continued until the danger has passed.”
7. Tony Blair, October 2, 2001, speech
“There is no compromise possible with such people, no meeting of minds, no point of understanding with such terror. Just a choice: defeat it or be defeated by it. And defeat it we must.”
8. President George W. Bush, September 2, 2004, RNC speech
“One thing I have learned about the presidency is that whatever shortcomings you have, people are going to notice them and whatever strengths you have, you’re gonna need ’em. These four years have brought moments I could not foresee and will not forget. I’ve tried to comfort Americans who lost the most on September the 11th — people who showed me a picture or told me a story, so I’d — I would know how much was taken from them. I’ve learned first-hand that ordering Americans into battle is the hardest decision, even when it is right. I have returned the salute of wounded soldiers, some with a very tough road ahead, who say they were just doing their job. I’ve held the children of the fallen, who were told their dad or mom is a hero, but would rather just have their mom or dad.
I’ve met with the parents and wives and husbands who have received a folded flag, and said a final goodbye to a soldier they loved. I am awed that so many have used those meetings to say that I’m in their prayers — and to offer encouragement to me. Where does that strength like that come from? How can people so burdened with sorrow also feel such pride? It is because they know their loved one was last seen doing good. Because they know that liberty was precious to the one they lost. And in those military families, I have seen the character of a great nation: decent, idealistic, and strong. (If you view this speech, you will see President Bush tearing up and members of the audience doing the same. For me, this was as genuine as it gets for a President, and a man.)
The world saw that spirit three miles from here, when the people of this city faced peril together, and lifted a flag over the ruins, and defied the enemy with their courage.
My fellow Americans, for as long as our country stands, people will look to the resurrection of New York City and they will say: Here buildings fell; here a nation rose.”
“And all of this has confirmed one belief beyond doubt: Having come this far, our tested and confident Nation can achieve anything.
To everything we know there is a season — a time for sadness, a time for struggle, a time for rebuilding. And now we have reached a time for hope.
This young century will be liberty’s century. By promoting liberty abroad, we will build a safer world. By encouraging liberty at home, we will build a more hopeful America. Like generations before us, we have a calling from beyond the stars to stand for freedom. This is the everlasting dream of America and tonight, in this place, that dream is renewed.
Now we go forward grateful for our freedom, faithful to our cause, and confident in the future of the greatest nation on earth.”
9. President Ronald Reagan, Shuttle Challenger speech, January 28, 1986
Though brief, this was a fitting speech, classic Reagan
“There’s a coincidence today. On this day 390 years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and an historian later said, “He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it.” Well, today we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake’s, complete.
The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”
10. Tom Delay final floor speech, June 8, 2006
As fine a speech as there is in recent years about Conservatism
“In preparing for today, I found that it is customary in speeches such as these to reminisce about the good old days of political harmony and across-the-aisle camaraderie, and to lament the bitter, divisive partisan rancor that supposedly now weakens our — our democracy. Well, I can’t do that because partisanship, Mr. Speaker, properly understood, is not a symptom of democracy’s weakness but of its health and its strength, especially from the perspective of a political conservative.”
“Liberalism, after all, whatever you may think of its merits, is a political philosophy and a proud one with a great tradition in this country, with a voracious appetite for growth. In any place or any time on any issue, what does liberalism ever seek, Mr. Speaker? More. More government, more taxation, more control over people’s lives and decisions and wallets. If conservatives don’t stand up to liberalism, no one will. And for a long time around here, almost no one did. Indeed, the common lament over the recent rise in political partisanship is often nothing more than a veiled complaint instead about the recent rise of political conservatism.”
“You show me a nation without partisanship, and I’ll show you a tyranny. For all its faults, it is partisanship, based on core principles, that clarifies our debates, that prevents one party from straying too far from the mainstream, and that constantly refreshes our politics with new ideas and new leaders. Indeed, whatever role partisanship may have played in my own retirement today or in the unfriendliness heaped upon other leaders in other times, Republican or Democrat, however unjust, all we can say is that partisanship is the worst means of settling fundamental political differences — except for all the others.”
“Now, politics demands compromise. And Mr. Speaker, and — and even the most partisan among us have to understand that. But we must never forget that compromise and bipartisanship are means, not ends, and are properly employed only in the service of higher principles. It is not the principled partisan, however obnoxious he may seem to his opponents, who degrades our public debate, but the preening, self-styled statesman who elevates compromise to a first principle. For the true statesman, Mr. Speaker, we are not defined by what they compromise, but [by] what they don’t. Conservatives, especially less enamored of government’s lust for growth, must remember that our principles must always drive our agenda and not the other way around. For us, conservatives, there are two such principles that can never be honorably compromised: human freedom and human dignity.
Now, our agenda over the last 12 years has been an outgrowth of these first principles. We lowered taxes to increase freedom. We reformed welfare programs that, however well-intentioned, undermined the dignity of work and personal responsibility, and perpetuated poverty. We have opposed abortion, cloning and euthanasia, because such procedures fundamentally deny the unique dignity of the human person. And we have supported the spread of democracy and the ongoing war against terror, because those policies protect and affirm the inalienable human right of all men and women and children to live in freedom.
Conservatism is often unfairly accused of being insensitive and mean-spirited, sometimes unfortunately even by other conservatives. As a result, conservatives often attempt to soften that stereotype by overfunding broken programs or glossing over ruinous policies. But conservatism isn’t about feeling people’s pain, it’s about curing it. And the results since the first great conservative victory in 1980 speak for themselves: millions of new jobs, new homes, and new businesses created thanks to conservative economic reforms; millions of families intact and enriched by the move from welfare to work; hundreds of millions of people around the world liberated by a conservative foreign policy’s victory over Soviet communism; and more than 50 million Iraqis and Afghanis liberated from tyranny since September the 11th, 2001.
To all the critics of the supposedly mean-spirited conservative policies that brought about these results, I say only this: Compassionate is as compassionate does.”
“The great Americans honored here in bronze and marble, the heroes of our history and the ghosts of these halls, were not made great because of what they were, but because of what they did. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln have almost nothing in common with Junipero Serra and Jack Swigert, except the choice they each made: to live, to fight, and even to die in the service of freedom. We honor men with monuments and — and not because of their greatness or even simply because of their service, but because of their refusal even in the face of danger or death to ever compromise the principles they served. Washington‘s obelisk still stands watch because democracy will always need a sentry. Jefferson‘s words will still ring because liberty will always need a voice. And Lincoln‘s left hand still stays clenched because tyranny will always need an enemy. And we are still here, Mr. Speaker, as a House and as a nation because the torch of freedom cannot carry itself.”
11. Billy Graham, September 14, 2001 National Cathedral speech
“The lesson of this event is not only about the mystery of iniquity and evil, but secondly it’s a lesson about our need for each other. What an example New York and Washington have been to the world these past few days. None of us will ever forget the pictures of our courageous firefighters and police, many of whom have lost friends and colleagues; or the hundreds of people attending or standing patiently in line to donate blood. A tragedy like this could have torn our country apart. But instead it has united us, and we’ve become a family. So those perpetrators who took this on to tear us apart, it has worked the other way — it’s back lashed. It’s backfired. We are more united than ever before.”
“Finally, difficult as it may be for us to see right now, this event can give a message of hope — hope for the present, and hope for the future. Yes, there is hope. There’s hope for the present, because I believe the stage has already been set for a new spirit in our nation. One of the things we desperately need is a spiritual renewal in this country. We need a spiritual revival in America. And God has told us in His word, time after time, that we are to repent of our sins and return to Him, and He will bless us in a new way.”
“Yes, our nation has been attacked. Buildings destroyed. Lives lost. But now we have a choice: Whether to implode and disintegrate emotionally and spiritually as a people, and a nation, or, whether we choose to become stronger through all of the struggle to rebuild on a solid foundation. And I believe that we’re in the process of starting to rebuild on that foundation. That foundation is our trust in God. That’s what this service is all about. And in that faith we have the strength to endure something as difficult and horrendous as what we’ve experienced this week.”
12. Clarence Thomas, ‘Be Not Afraid’ speech, February 13, 2001
“In September of 1975, the Wall Street Journal published a book review by Michael Novak of Thomas Sowell’s book Race and Economics. At the time, I lived in Jefferson City, Missouri. The opening paragraph changed my life. It reads:
Honesty on questions of race is rare in the United States. So many and unrecognized have been the injustices committed against blacks that no one wishes to be unkind, or subject himself to intimidating charges. Hence, even simple truths are commonly evaded. This insight applies with equal force to very many conversations of consequence today. Who wants to be denounced as a heartless monster? On important matters, crucial matters, silence is enforced.”
“That is why civility cannot be the governing principle of citizenship or leadership. As Bea Himmelfarb observed in her book One Nation, Two Cultures, “To reduce citizenship to the modern idea of civility, the good-neighbor idea, is to belittle not only the political role of the citizen but also the virtues expected of the citizen – the ‘civic virtues,’ as they were known in antiquity and in early republican thought.”
“These are the virtues that Aristotle thought were necessary to govern oneself like a “free man”; that Montesquieu referred to as the “spring which sets the republican government in motion”; and that the Founding Fathers thought provided the dynamic combination of conviction and self-discipline necessary for self-government.
Bea Himmelfarb refers to two kinds of virtues. The first are the “caring” virtues. They include “respect, trustworthiness, compassion, fairness, decency.” These are the virtues that make daily life pleasant with our families and with those we come in contact.
The second are the vigorous virtues. These heroic virtues “transcend family and community and may even, on occasion, violate the conventions of civility.” “These are the virtues that characterize great leaders, although not necessarily good friends” – courage, ambition, creativity.
She notes that the vigorous virtues have been supplanted by the caring ones. Though they are not mutually exclusive or necessarily incompatible, active citizens and leaders must be governed by the vigorous rather than the caring virtues. We must not allow our desire to be decent and well-mannered people to overwhelm the substance of our principles or our determination to fight for their success. Ultimately, we should seek both caring and vigorous virtues – but above all, we must not allow the former to dominate the latter.
Again, by yielding to a false form of civility, we sometimes allow our critics to intimidate us. As I have said, active citizens are often subjected to truly vile attacks; they are branded as mean-spirited, racist, Uncle Tom, homophobic, sexist, etc. To this we often respond, if not succumb, so as not to be constantly fighting, by trying to be tolerant and nonjudgmental – that is, we censor ourselves. This is not civility. It is cowardice, or well-intentioned self-deception at best.”
“Listen to the truths that lie within your hearts and be not afraid to follow them wherever they may lead. Those three little words hold the power to transform individuals and change the world. They supply the quiet resolve and unvoiced courage necessary to endure the inevitable intimidation.
Today we are not called upon to risk our lives against some monstrous tyranny. America is not a barbarous country. Our people are not oppressed and we face no pressing international threat to our way of life, such as the Soviet Union once posed. Though the war in which we are engaged is cultural, not civil, it tests whether this “nation: conceived in liberty … can long endure.” President Lincoln’s words do endure:
It is for us, the living … to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to the cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
The Founders warned us that freedom requires constant vigilance and repeated action. It is said that when asked what sort of government the Founders had created, Benjamin Franklin replied that they had given us “a Republic, if you can keep it.” Today, as in the past, we will need a brave “civic virtue,” not a timid civility, to keep our republic. So, this evening, I leave you with the simple exhortation: “Be not afraid.” God bless you.”