I’m missing Barbara Jordan today.
I think of her from time to time—the incandescent U.S. Congresswoman from Texas, with the booming voice and the eloquent words. When elected in 1972, she was the first Black woman from a Southern state ever to serve in the House. Appointed to the House Judiciary Committee, in 1974 she made a televised speech to that committee supporting the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. Some said it was the most influential speech of all.
She began, “Earlier today, we heard the beginning of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, ‘We, the people.’ It is a very eloquent beginning. But when that document was completed, on the 17th of September in 1787, I was not included in that ‘We, the people.’ I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation and court decision, I have finally been included in ‘We, the people.’”
She concluded, “The Constitution charges the president with the task of taking care that the laws be faithfully executed, and yet the president has counseled his aides to commit perjury, willfully disregarded the secrecy of grand jury proceedings, concealed surreptitious entry, attempted to compromise a federal judge while publicly displaying his cooperation with the processes of criminal justice.
“If the impeachment provision of the Constitution of the United States will not reach the offenses charged here, then perhaps that 18th century Constitution should be abandoned to a 20th century paper shredder.”
She died too young, at age 59 in 1996, of multiple sclerosis and complications from pneumonia. But what a life she led. Mentioned as a possible running mate to Jimmy Carter in 1976, that year she became the first African-American woman to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. Her speech in New York that summer was considered by many historians to have been the best convention keynote in modern history until the 2004 keynote by Barack Obama.
Jordan retired from politics in 1979 to become professor of ethics at the University of Texas at Austin. She delivered a second keynote at the 1992 Democratic National Convention.
I was reminded of Jordan again after reading Peggy Noonan’s Wall Street Journal critique of Obama’s West Point speech, about the Afghanistan strategy.
Noonan had this to say about the ending of Obama’s speech:
About two-thirds of the way through, the speech degenerated into the faux eloquence that makes people listening across America want to gouge out their eyes and run screaming from the room. Lots of our children and our children’s children, the dark clouds of tyranny, the light of freedom.
Our strength comes from “the entrepreneurs and researchers who will pioneer new industries; from the teachers that will educate our children, and the service of those who work in our communities at home…”
This is where normal people began to daydream. Or scream. None of it was terrible, but we’ve heard it now for 40 years. Enough. Make it new.
What would Barbara Jordan have said?
In her 1976 Democratic National Convention speech, she said: “Now we must look to the future. Let us heed the voice of the people and recognize their common sense. If we do not, we not only blaspheme our political heritage, we ignore the common ties that bind all Americans.
“Many fear the future. Many are distrustful of their leaders, and believe that their voices are never heard. Many seek only to satisfy their private work wants. To satisfy private interests.
“This is the great danger America faces. That we will cease to be one nation and become instead a collection of interest groups: city against suburb, region against region, individual against individual. Each seeking to satisfy private wants.
“If that happens, who then will speak for America? Who then will speak for the common good? This is the question which must be answered in 1976.” (and today no less)
“Are we to be one people bound together by common spirit sharing in a common endeavor or will we become a divided nation?
“For all of its uncertainty, we cannot flee the future. We must not become the new Puritans and reject our society. We must address and master the future together. It can be done if we restore the belief that we share a sense of national community, that we share a common national endeavor. It can be done…”
She said so many other wonderful things. She quoted Lincoln and Jefferson and FDR and the Constitution. She had a sense of history. A sense of what could be accomplished when people of good will came together for the common good. And she knew how to express it, how to light a fire in the soul. Her voice made her words dance.
I’m missing Barbara Jordan today.
Cynthia Starks is a freelance speechwriter and blogger based in Indiana.