Often enough that it feels routine, I'm cornered by speechwriters who ask me, "So how do you decide what goes into Vital Speeches?"
Usually, the question is a prelude to the two most common complaints that I receive: I publish too few corporate speeches for corporate speechwriters' taste. And I publish too many speeches by members of the Obama administration.
I easily swat away those complaints. First, I point out that I took over as editor after Obama was elected, and I promise that the speeches of any administration will receive equal play from me, because they are by definition important. And then I tell them with equal sincerity and force that I have published every remotely interesting corporate speech that I have seen during my five years as editor of Vital Speeches, and I challenge them to send me one, for once.
That usually shuts them up, but it doesn't answer their question: How do I decide what goes into Vital Speeches?
Here's what goes into Vital Speeches:
• Significant speeches by prominent people, no matter how dull they are. The State of the Union Address, for instance, is automatically included in Vital Speeches. As are many less routine speeches. Vital Speeches is a time capsule, and important speeches by important people always get in, so they can be found and examined by future scholars.
• Speeches on important subjects, regardless of the prominence or even the intelligence of the speaker. In an ideal world, we'd always publish brilliant insights by powerful people on crucial matters. But often, one of the above will do.
• Speeches that say something new or exciting or dangerous or gorgeous. I'm not sure this was quite as stressed by my editorial predecessors at Vital Speeches. (They never published a single speech by Martin Luther King, somehow.) But it makes my month when I run across a weird speech on an odd subject given by an eccentric person at a local library in a small town in Florida … and publish it beside a heavy foreign policy address by John Kerry.
• Speeches, regardless of speaker or subject or statement, that are beautifully crafted. Vital Speeches is a showcase of fine rhetoric.
If anything, the mission of Vital Speeches has grown since through the wars the civil rights revolution and the countless other peaks and valleys in civilization that it has seen since its founding 80 years ago in the middle of the Great Depression.
"The publisher of Vital Speeches believes," wrote the original publisher Tom Daly in 1934, "that it is indeed vital to the welfare of the nation that important, constructive addresses by recognized leaders in both the public and private sectors be permanently recorded and disseminated–both to ensure that readers gain a sound knowledge of public questions and to provide models of excellence in contemporary oratory."
What's the secret of getting into Vital Speeches of the Day? Essentially, same as it was back in the day: Tell us something we don't know, and say it in a way that we'll understand.
And now I'm happy to take your questions. —DM