Friday, January 21, 2011

Because Memorable Speeches Live Forever...

This week I've been discussing speechmaking as both storytelling and historical artifacts.

There are so many speeches I could discuss but those that seem truly memorable are not only superior in prose but also delivery. Obama's speech at the 2008 Democratic Convention is one such example. It was amazing to see a not well-known Illinois Senator captivate a room so fully. I believe people on all sides of the political spectrum would find it hard to deny that when he delivers an address, there is a kind of infectious charisma.

My all-time favorite speech, however, is by another president: Theodore Roosevelt. He's not the first person or even probably the second that comes to mind when flipping through the mental filing cabinet of memorable speeches. Perhaps that's because the speech was delivered in 1910 or perhaps because it's birth may not be recognized.

It may in some minds be associated with President Nixon, who quoted it twice or with Nelson Mandela who gave a copy of it to the South African Rugby Team before the start of the 1995 World Cup.

And that speech is Roosevelt's "Citizen in a Republic" (sometimes called "Man in the Arena") and which he gave on April 23, 1910 at the Sorbonne in Paris, France. What I love about this speech is not only its call to action--to be better people, to be better citizens, to strive for more for our republics but Roosevelt's vision of our country and its governance.

We sometimes forget that creating a government by, of, and for the people "represents the most gigantic of all possible social experiments." But Roosevelt reminds us that it is us, average citizens, that truly drive the direction of this country. Yes we have that much power if we exercise it, if we're proactive, if we choose to be not on the sidelines of life and government but engaged or, as Roosevelt would say, "in the arena."

Below are a few memorable passages, the most famous section in bold though if you'd like to read it in its entirety, it can be found here.

Today I shall speak to you on the subject of individual citizenship, the one subject of vital importance to you, my hearers, and to me and my countrymen, because you and we are citizens of great democratic republics. A democratic republic such as each of ours—an effort to realize in its full sense government by, of, and for the people—represents the most gigantic of all possible social experiments, the one fraught with greatest possibilities alike for good and for evil. The success of republics like yours and like ours means the glory, and our failure the despair, of mankind; and for you and for us the question of the quality of the individual citizen is supreme. Under other forms of government, under the rule of one man or of a very few men, the quality of the rulers is all-important. If, under such governments, the quality of the rulers is high enough, then the nation may for generations lead a brilliant career, and add substantially to the sum of world achievement, no matter how low the quality of the average citizen; because the average citizen is an almost negligible quantity in working out the final results of that type of national greatness.

But with you and with us the case is different. With you here, and with us in my own home, in the long run, success or failure will be conditioned upon the way in which the average man, the average woman, does his or her duty, first in the ordinary, every-day affairs of life, and next in those great occasional crises which call for the heroic virtues. The average citizen must be a good citizen if our republics are to succeed. The stream will not permanently rise higher than the main source; and the main source of national power and national greatness is found in the average citizenship of the nation. Therefore it behooves us to do our best to see that the standard of the average citizen is kept high; and the average can not be kept high unless the standard of the leaders is very much higher....

[Roosevelt goes on to juxtapose those of high wealth who sit around and criticize work they've never or never dared to do, with this, the kind of citizen we need to make--and keep--our country great:]

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

Doesn't this last part make you feel motivated...captivated, even?

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