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In this collection of 27 of the most influential presidential campaign speeches of the twentieth century, Michael A. Cohen brings to life the words that have shaped American politics over the last century. From the legendary, like William Jennings Bryan's "Cross of Gold" and Ronald Reagan's call for a "national crusade to make America great again"; to the infamous, including Richard Nixon's maudlin "Checkers" speech and Bill Clinton's rhetorical broadside against the rapper Sister Souljah; to the poignant, such as FDR's evocation of America's "rendezvous with destiny," Hubert Humphrey's call for America to walk "into the bright sunshine of human rights," and Kennedy's demand for an end to "religious intolerance," all the great campaign speeches are here.
With supporting essays that dramatically set the scene and provide the reader with a historical context to better understand the impact of these seminal addresses, Live from the Campaign Trail will do what no book has ever done before -- use the great oratory of the campaign trail to help us examine anew how we got where we are today in American politics and help us better understand the grand themes that underscore the political debates of the twenty-first century.
Monday, May 19, 2008
Speeches are meant to be heard, not read. Even so, most of the ones Cohen analyzes in this lively work are consequential; not all, however, are "the greatest." Edited versions of the speeches are included, and on the page, many are flat; others read better than they sounded (and still sound on recordings). Nixon's "Checkers" speech now seems mawkish, the sentiments of Kennedy's "New Frontier" speech overblown. Yet Cohen, a professional speechwriter, is a sure guide, starting with the words, which now appear prescient, of Williams Jennings Bryan's 1896 "Cross of Gold" speech. Most important speeches are recognized as such when given, but Cohen doesn't tell us why that's so. He does, however, emphasize how campaigners have adapted their words and styles to changing media and audiences. What seems great in one setting (say, a convention) may fail in another (on television). What's clear from these speeches is that the great ones take a risk and are given at a particular moment for a particular purpose. This is an ideal book for the campaign season.
Sunday, Jun 1, 2008
An anthology with commentary, Cohen’s selection of campaign speech making spans the century, from William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech of 1896 to Bill Clinton’s 1992 acceptance speech. Representing a declamation from most of the presidents of that period, plus several from unsuccessful candidates such as Adlai Stevenson and Barry Goldwater, Cohen’s volume demonstrates the rhetorical structure and political purpose of the speeches. A practitioner of and lecturer on political speech writing, Cohen identifies the speakers’ general temporal pattern of connecting America’s past and present to an attack on whatever or whoever seems to be impeding its progress toward a better future. Pausing to digress on how the speaker has deployed stereotypical images of the Democratic and Republican parties, Cohen proves most insightful about the standard of success of these speeches: winning the election. For that, eloquence is secondary to aligning with the electorate’s mood, as Harding and Truman proved. With historical coverage indicating the images the candidates of 2008 must counter (Democrats as doves; Republicans as privileged), Cohen offers a timely source for understanding the craft behind this year’s oratory.
The Wall Street Journal
Monday, Jul 7, 2008
... The great American campaign speech is obviously hard to pull off and, for the readers among us, now hard to find. Students no longer stand before classrooms and recite the hallowed words of past office-holders and -seekers, and the small volumes of political speeches that once lined every American library -- I cadged some splendid ones when Dartmouth's Baker Library disposed of its collection 35 years ago -- are a thing of the past.
Thus the offerings in Michael A. Cohen's "Live From the Campaign Trail" meet a need. They also help to define a genre worth paying attention to, since politicians speak differently from the stump than they do from their desks in the Senate or from the Inaugural podium. Campaign rhetoric in its more memorable forms, as Mario Cuomo once noted, is more poetry than prose, aiming at the heart instead of the head.
Some of Mr. Cohen's selections are part of our mental hard drive without our even knowing it -- the notion, say, of rugged individualism (Herbert Hoover, 1928), of a rendezvous with destiny (Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1936) or of the forgotten (not yet "silent") majority (Richard M. Nixon, 1968).
There are chestnuts, too, like Nixon's 1952 "Checkers speech," so remarkable a slice off the American cheeseboard that it still astonishes: Such shameless sentimentality to save a dog and a career. (And yet it worked.) Mr. Cohen also includes Dwight D. Eisenhower's pledge to go to Korea (1952), Kennedy's declaration of a New Frontier (1960), and Dan Quayle's thoughts on the unmarried but pregnant Murphy Brown (1992). Each of these speeches, lacking eloquence, was more remarkable for its effect on the politics of its time than for its effect on listeners then or on readers now.
Mr. Cohen's informed narrative and perceptive analysis illuminate the addresses he gathered, particularly the handful of speeches he unearthed from the near-oblivion of shorthand. We may remember that Theodore Roosevelt's New Nationalism speech, in 1912, was an attempt to rally America to a higher purpose. But it is surprising to come across a passage as powerful as this: "I believe that the greatest force for peace, the greatest force for righteousness, the greatest force for the elevation of mankind, is organized opinion, is the thinking of men, is the great force which is in the soul of men, and I want men to breathe a free and pure air."
"Live From the Campaign Trail" includes speeches that are known for a single phrase, like FDR's 1932 announcement of the New Deal or, in one case, a speech known for a single word. Warren G. Harding's oratorical effort before the Home Market Club in Boston in 1920 is known only for his reference to "normalcy." (For the record, he promised "not nostrums, but normalcy.") The rest is forgotten, and now we know why. Here is a typical sentence: "Sober capital must make appeal to intoxicated wealth, and thoughtful labor must appeal to the radical who has no thought of the morrow, to effect the needed understanding."
One of the most striking items in Mr. Cohen's anthology wasn't a campaign speech at all but a speech in the middle of someone else's campaign: Minneapolis Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey's remarks on civil rights at the 1948 Democratic National Convention (the one that would nominate Harry Truman). Mr. Cohen rightly says that the speech "would not only shape [Humphrey's] political career but reshape the political destiny of the Democratic Party." Humphrey, whose 1968 call for an end to the bombing of North Vietnam is also included in this volume, threw the Democrats a fateful challenge 20 years before: "The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadows of states' rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights. People, human beings, this is the issue of the 20th century."... -- David M. Shribman