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. 


The Last Kennedy in Politics, and the First.


As he took the oath of office in the shadow of a snowy United States Capitol, John F. Kennedy stood for far more than the ascendance of one man to the office of the Presidency. Rather, his inauguration laid a capstone in the story of a family steeped in American political life for more than a half-century; a story that begins with John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald.

An Advertisement Placed in the “Boston Daily Globe” on December 12, 1905

55 years earlier, a car carrying John Fitzgerald’s brother James and a representative from the Boston Daily Globe arrived at the Fitzgerald residence on Welles Avenue in Dorchester. As later recounted in a Globe story, James Fitzgerald and his reporting companion were greeted at the door by overwhelming elation: John would be elected Mayor of Boston.

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin tallies Fitzgerald as having won 44,174 votes out of more than 92,000 cast; because his nearest opponents – a Republican and independent identified by Kearns Goodwin as having split the same demographics of voters – drew 35,028 and 11,628 votes respective, “Honey Fitz” had won a plurality victory in Boston. The Boston Daily Globe described the rousing cheers in Dorchester’s Codman Square as Fitzgerald made his way towards Democratic Party headquarters in downtown Boston, marking his first public appearance as Mayor-elect. As described in another Globe piece, a Fitzgerald supporter called out in the gallery of City Hall (which had never recorded a larger election night crowd), “what’s wrong with the old North End?”

The victory was likely quite gratifying for Fitzgerald. Kearns Goodwin

Photographs from an article in the “Globe.”

asserts that the Mayorship was a position that intrigued him for some time, but it had not seemed to be the right opportunity until 1905. It was a race in which he had worked incredibly hard, up to and including election day. The Boston Daily Globe reported that Fitzgerald began December 12th with a “whirlwind” campaign through each of Boston’s 25 wards, followed by meetings with his campaign staff that lasted a significant part of the day. As the day waned, Fitzgerald focused on a ground campaign in his tougher wards, even having an encounter with a hostile ward boss, described in the same Globe article:

“Cheer up Martin. Don’t be discouraged,” said Mr. Fitzgerald, his remarks evidently being designed to carry with them the impression that the battle was all over but the shouting, but Martin failed to see the humor of the situation and scowlingly looked defiance as the democratic standard bearer was whisked away in his automobile.

As much as it was victory for Honey Fitz, it was equally sweet relief for other members of the Fitzgerald family, some of whom had trouble concealing their nervousness on election day. “Miss Rose,” as the eldest daughter of Honey Fitz and future mother of John Kennedy is described in the Globe, was so nervous that she “visited her church and offered up a fervent prayer for the success of her father” on election day. More than a century later, it is clear from Boston’s political and ethnic landscape that she did not have cause for great concern.

The late-19th and early-20th centuries were as transformative for Boston as for the United States as a whole.

A photograph of Copley Square in downtown Boston, circa 1912. The building on the right is the Boston Public Library, which still stands.

The 1900 Census shows that between 1850 and 1900, the number of people living in Massachusetts’ capital city more than quadrupled from just over 130,000 to over half a million, a number propelled upward by an influx of Irish immigrants. The Harvard Encyclopedia of Ethnic Groups, compiling several decades of Census data, reports that Boston saw 45,000 Irish-born residents in 1860 and 71,000 by 1890, or 12 percent of the entire city’s population.

The transition from a bastion of Brahmins to a center of immigration was not easy for Boston. Kearns Goodwin shows that with the swell of Irish Bostonians came the blight of slums and poverty, a trend that slowly edged the wealthier families out of the North and South Ends and into the Back Bay and Beacon Hill. While this separation likely served to propogate discrimination, it also helped to generate a formidable and cohesive political machine. Combined with voting regulations that were comparatively equitable (as Virginia Harper-Ho reports in Law and Inequality), Irish Bostonians were able to assume major influence on their city’s political process.  In 1885, just 30 years after Irish immigration reached its peak, Boston had elected its first Irish mayor. A few months after John Fitzgerald walked the streets of Boston’s wards on election day 1905, an official guide to Boston’s mayors had four Irish-Americans within its pages.

44 years later, John Fitzgerald passed away. An Alderman, Congressman, and Mayor, his obituary in the New York Times hailed “one of the most colorful figures in the history of Boston politics.” A product of an oft-painful chapter in the history of Irish-Americans, he never lost sight of that sense of attention to people that was honed so carefully across decades of election days. His grandson, the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, would recall in his autobiography that, as late as 1947, Honey Fitz would tip a hotel bellman to ring the bell once for a guest from Massachusetts and twice for a guest from Boston. Every time the bell rang twice, any guest at the hotel could hear, in a great booming Irish brogue, “you’re from Boston, aren’t you!”

This piece was originally published at Dickinson College as part of my scholarship in a class on the history of voting rights in the United States. Check out the course blog for a look at some other great work by my classmates. Also check out a short documentary I produced as a midterm project.