I’ve always thought it would be cool to be a political speechwriter ... to tug on people’s heartstrings, push their buttons, and, sometimes, play fast and loose with the facts. And to have the power of history in my hands.
I was reminded of this aspiration while watching a ceremony last week at the White House to honor the 5,000th Daily Point of Light Award recipients. The award’s name, of course, comes from the description of Americans serving each other as “a thousand points of light,” from President George H.W. Bush’s 1988 Republican nomination acceptance speech.
Bush is often remembered, as well, for the expression “a kinder, gentler nation,” another memorable catchphrase coined by presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan.
Noonan calls speech writing an “odd profession,” part policy-explainer, part hack, part innocent. A speech, says Noonan, is a combination of theater and political declaration, a paradox of both great power and great delicacy.
I find Noonan’s presidential words worthy of the history books because, well, they are in the history books. And because Noonan reminds us that speeches are not significant simply because we have the technology to broadcast them to the world, but because they are one of the “great constants” of politics, the ocean on which politicians sail … or in which they sink. These words matter.
Consider, for example, “Give me liberty or give me death!” or “Ask not what your country can do for you.” The iconic 10-sentence Gettysburg Address — in which President Abraham Lincoln reiterated the principles of human equality espoused by the Declaration of Independence, in just over two minutes — survives through hand-written transcripts. Regarded as one of the finest speeches in American history, it was penned by Lincoln himself.
I believe that President Obama won the 2008 presidential election right here in Denver. On a beautiful Colorado evening in August, then-senator Obama, with his characteristic charisma, delivered his Democratic presidential nomination speech at (some business’ field at) Mile High, telling Americans that “this is one of those moments,” a defining moment upon which he built his campaign. The phrase still resonates.
Last week (without partisan bias, in my opinion), President Obama welcomed President Bush and Barbara Bush to the White House to help recognize a retired couple from Iowa, who have created a nonprofit organization to feed hungry children, as the recipients of the 5,000th Daily Point of Light Award. That’s a lot of light.
Noonan doesn’t claim that the phrase “a thousand points of light” has never been uttered before — variations appear in works such as a C.S. Lewis sci-fi novel and a speech by a turn-of-the-century engineer in Venice. Instead, Noonan describes its impact in Bush’s speech as its context: “A brilliant diversity spread like stars … in a broad and peaceful sky.”
The power of such words is indeed in their contexts, in their memorability, in their places in history. When President Obama recognized President Bush for the Point of Light volunteerism effort that he spearheaded more than two decades ago, Obama said: “We are surely a kinder, gentler nation because of you.”
I don’t know about you, but my heart is singing: “America, this is one of those moments.”
Andrea Doray is a word watcher who writes about political-speak, business-speak, social-speak, and everyday language at wordwatching.com. By the way, she will always call it “Mile High Stadium.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.