The Newtown Speech in Historical Context

President Obama’s speech tonight in Newtown, CT was the best of his political career. Every word was heartfelt and courageous; he consoled a grieving community, but was entirely unafraid to talk about the bigger – dare I say it – political picture. Read the transcript for yourself, but to my ears, a big portion of the President’s remarks implicitly advocated for a big push on gun control legislation. This came as a surprise to many, and on Twitter and television, people of all stripes have begun to ask where this speech – in light, particularly, of the aforementioned section –  might stand in the annals of presidential rhetoric. Many are comparing it to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which rings true for me largely on structural grounds. While at least 10 minutes longer, President Obama’s speech was striking in its brevity, and it had the same humble effectiveness that the Gettysburg Address did. An intriguing parity for sure, but the speeches are starkly different substantively.

I think the best comparison is to Lyndon Johnson’s March 1965 speech on voting rights legislation. While significantly longer (more than 45 minutes in total), Johnson’s remarks share a lot substantively and contextually with President Obama’s. Johnson also spoke mere days after a tragedy; a week before his address to Congress, 600 marchers had been beaten and attacked with tear gas by state police as they walked peacefully across a bridge in Selma, Alabama. The images shocked the conscience of the nation, and Johnson used that shock to channel political energy for what would become the Voting Rights Act of 1965:

What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America…it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.

One paragraph from President Obama’s speech seemed strikingly similar to me:

There have been an endless series of deadly shootings across the country, almost daily reports of victims, many of them children, all across America. We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.

Both men addressed a nation in shock, and both men elected to address a tenuous political issue in response. Johnson took on the last untouched bastion of racial discrimination, voting rights, and President Obama seems to be preparing to take on gun control.

Both speeches are also intensely personal. While Johnson enumerated clear policy aims, the most moving portion of his address came when he described his work as a teacher in Cotulla, Texas:

My first job after college was as a teacher in Cotulla, Texas, in a small Mexican-American school…My students were poor and they often came to class without breakfast, hungry…Somehow you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child…I never thought then, in 1928, that I would be standing here in 1965. It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students and to help people like them all over this country. But now I do have that chance—and I’ll let you in on a secret—I mean to use it.

President Obama’s rhetoric on parenthood was similarly evocative:

This is our first task, caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged…And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we’re meeting our obligations? I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer’s no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change.

Neither man feared the cries that they were “politicizing a tragedy.” They understood that in moments of great sadness, Americans look for more than sympathy from their leaders. They look for action.

Every once in a while, at home or in the car, I pull up Johnson’s speech on my iPhone. His words remind me of the moral courage our greatest leaders can deploy when they need to, and the incredible power such displays can have. It never ceases to amaze me how much passion Johnson displayed that night. As long as I’ve listened to the speech, I’ve regarded it as a uniquely fervent address by an American president. Now, more than 45 years later, it finally has some competition. I hope President Obama’s words will have a similar impact on our politics in the weeks and months ahead.

Robert Caro first drew my attention to Johnson’s speech in an August 2008 opinion piece. It is definitely worth a read. 

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