Two days ago, the August 31 edition of the PBS program Need to Know concluded with a brief video retrospective of American political convention speeches from the last century:
From William Jennings Bryan to FDR to Adlai Stevenson to Barack Obama, anchor Jeff Greenfield takes a look at the convention speeches that propelled some politicians into the limelight, and some even to their party’s nomination.
At the end of the segment, host Greenfield offers a sobering observation about a striking change in the intellectual level of these speeches over the past several decades, as illustrated by something President Kennedy — then candidate Kennedy — said in his nomination acceptance address at the 1960 Democratic National Convention:
There’s one more fascinating note about such speeches that’s not exactly encouraging about how politicians once regarded their audiences — that is, us — and how they might regard us now. Listen to this excerpt from John Kennedy’s 1960 speech where he’s tweaking Richard Nixon by comparing him to other Richards as an unworthy successor:
For just as historians tell us that Richard the First was not fit to fill the shoes of the bold Henry the Second, and that Richard Cromwell was not fit to wear the mantle of his uncle, they might add in future years that Richard Nixon did not measure up to the footsteps of Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Now, can you imagine a Presidential nominee today trusting in his audience to understand these references to British history from the 12th and 17th centuries? I can almost hear his media advisers saying, “If you want to mention a Richard, try Little Richard.”
From Greenfield’s tone and wording, it’s unclear whether he’s laying the responsibility for this rhetorical dumbing down on America’s politicians, for failing to trust their audience’s intellect, education, and historical awareness, or on the audience themselves for being increasingly and authentically untrustworthy in these matters. What’s clear, though, is that something has indeed changed, and changed drastically, in the intellectual level of American political speech and general public discourse in the last 50 years, and that this has been accompanied, caused, produced, and/or exemplified by a generalized intellectual, social, economic, and cultural shift of seismic magnitude. This period of enormous advances in (to name just two areas) civil rights legislation and technological expertise has also seen a kind of cratering of the intellectual center and a society-wide stratification into two classes consisting of an increasingly isolated and rarefied educated elite on top and a burgeoning “great unwashed” underclass on the bottom.
What’s also clear is that the current season of political speechifying on the road to the November presidential election is taking place within this context, and that we should make a habit of paying attention to the rhetoric being used and the audience being targeted whenever candidates and their supporters speak, because they’re all aware of this ominous late-imperial evolutionary shift in the American polis, even as they themselves are caught in its grip, and are being used as mouthpieces for its furtherance.
These may be my favorite words ever spoken by an American President. They come from a speech delivered by John F. Kennedy on October 26, 1963 — less than a month before his death — at Amherst College, in honor of the late Robert Frost. The speech was published the following February in The Atlantic under the title “Poetry and Power,” while the nation was still in shock and mourning.
[A]rt establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstones of our judgment. The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state. The great artist is thus a solitary figure. He has, as Frost said, “a lover’s quarrel with the world.” In pursuing his perceptions of reality he must often sail against the currents of his time. This is not a popular role. If Robert Frost was much honored during his lifetime, it was because a good many preferred to ignore his darker truths. Yet, in retrospect, we see how the artist’s fidelity has strengthened the fiber of our national life.
If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, make them aware that our nation falls short of its highest potential.
I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist. If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.
We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth. And as Mr. MacLeigh once remarked of poets, “There is nothing worse for our trade than to be in style.”
In free society art is not a weapon, and it does not belong to the sphere of polemics and ideology. Artists are not engineers of the soul. It may be different elsewhere. But in a democratic society the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist, is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation. And the nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost’s hired man — the fate of having “nothing to look backward to with pride, And nothing to look forward to with hope.”
Note that the first link above will take you to the full text of the speech at the online Kennedy Library, where you can also click a link to hear the audio recording of him delivering it on that day in October 1963.