Vital Speeches, back in the day
A sampling of American speeches from 75 years ago reveals rhetoric both strange, and strangely familiar.
Whenever one pundit frets about a loss of civility in the public dialogue, another cherry-picks some violent quotation from a long-ago political fight and says, “See? It was worse in 1840!”
So it was with particular interest that I dove into a copy of Volume 1, Issue 1 of Vital Speeches of the Day, dated Oct. 8, 1934.
Seventy-five years ago today, in this then-weekly (now monthly) collection of U.S. speeches, what were “the leading moulders of public opinion” talking about, and in what tones?
In the middle of the Great Depression and with the New Deal in full swing, the public conversation then is by turns strange to the modern ear, and familiar.
Businesspeople and politicians in 1934 were tackling subjects so massive they made healthcare look like a small detail. President Roosevelt makes nothing short of a “Plea for a Capital and Labor Truce,” and pre-Mad Men ad man Albert Lasker addressed “Freedom of Advertising and a Free Press.”
Aside from Obama’s emergency speech on race in Philadelphia during the election in 2008, I can’t remember anyone daring to tackle a topic as seemingly basic as capital vs. labor. Perhaps someone will step to a microphone to discuss Michael Moore’s documentary-film attack on capitalism, but I’m not holding my breath.
The era of specialization has affected the public speakers too; they stay within their niches and they chip around the edges.
In 1934, an embattled president was talking with perhaps wishful coolness.
Nearly all Americans are sensible and calm people. We do not get greatly excited nor is our peace of mind disturbed whether we be business men or workers or farmers by awesome pronouncements concerning the unconstitutionality of some of our measures of recovery and relief and reform.
And at the same time—in the very next speech in the book, in fact—ex-senator James A. Reed of Missouri accuses Roosevelt’s administration of paternalism, which he says is “the keystone in the arch of despotism.” Delivered on “Constitution Day” at the World’s Fair in Chicago, the speech tastes familiar:
Universally, he who has sought despotic power has pretended he possessed a sovereign remedy for the ills of the people. His countenance has been wreathed in smiles, and in honeyed words he has protested his love for the people. …
… always, he pretended that in all he did, he was acting as the father of the people; that his government was a great paternalism, caring for, conserving and guiding the helpless multitude. …
As editor of Vital Speeches, I’m afraid I must say that while not all the speeches 75 years ago were better written than the ones we publish today, language then was generally more descriptive, enthusiastic and earnest.
Listen to General Hugh S. Johnson, in his farewell address to the National Recovery Administration:
Be it ever remembered that I entered this task with the expressed prediction that in my concept of how it must be done it would destroy the man who tried it. I said I was as a man mounting a guillotine on the hair-breath risk that the axe would not work. I said it would be red fire in the beginning and dead cats and oblivion in the end. …
We didn’t hear talk like that from Tom Ridge, and we don’t expect to hear it from Tim Geithner, either. Our leaders tend to play it cool, which I’m not sure is a good thing.
Or how about the opening of Colonel Theodore Roosevelt’s speech at the New York Herald Tribune’s “Conference on Current Problems”?
When I was a boy, at the beginning of this century, the world seemed settled. Events moved smoothly, in a deep worn rut. Changes were slight. A small war between the British and the Boers, wherein only a few thousand of men were engaged, was a world-shaking event, the topic of every breakfast table. The ordered existence of which we were part appeared to always have been, and looked as if it always would continue. Our very proverbs showed our unlimited confidence in stability. “Sound as a dollar” was a common expression. We were at the end of an era and did not know it.
Note to speechmakers and speechwriters who would like to appear in Vital Speeches: If I ever receive a speech that begins so powerfully, I’ll run the whole thing no matter what the rest says.
Colonel Roosevelt has advice for young people unable to find work in the Depression economy:
… don’t do nothing. Turn your hand to some work that is worthwhile, work for decency in the government, help the younger boys through helping scouting, study something. Don’t let the time be wasted. Use it for making yourself keener and abler to take full advantage of the opportunity when it does arrive.
The language is fusty, but the advice is sound, and makes one wish somebody could lay a modern tongue to it, on MTV.
(It’s also fun to read advice that does smell of mothballs. I’m grateful not to have to be thundered at by my college president, as students at Columbia University did on the first day of school in 1934,
One wonders why it is that you can come to full adolescent years with no apparent appreciation of the difference between good manners and their opposite. Manners are manifested through speech, through dress, through personal bearing and through respect for the personality and opinions of others, particularly those who are older in years or who have justly gained distinction in any walk of life ….)
These speeches were full of hilariously unabashed ego and refreshingly unapologetic leadership.
For a sample of ego, we turn to the lecture of Dr. Glenn Frank, on “America’s Hour of Decision.” Near the beginning of the talk, the president of the University of Wisconsin grouses:
At the cost of sacrificing a much needed vacation, I spent the sweltering days of this summer writing a book which I have called, “The Hour of Decision,” and now I have taken time I could ill afford to come to New York to share in the opening of this conference by speaking on the same subject solely because I am convinced that there are a few fundamental decisions which, as a people, we must make and make soon if we are to avoid economic chaos, make socially secure and table our industrial system, and through it all preserve a way of life congenial to the American temperament.
Translation: While you were on the beach, I was busy saving the country. You’re welcome.
Judging by these speeches, leaders did seem more comfortable being leaders. At the end of his farewell address to the NRA, Hugh S. Johnson tells his troops:
My desk is piled with editorials, telegrams and letters, any one of which would bring tears to the eyes of a brass Buddha, but I would rather not talk about them.
There remains only to say good-bye to you and this in my present state of emotion and affection, I cannot do. I shall devote most of my time to seeing those of you who care to see me and sit down for a few minutes chat. If you will state your wishes we will arrange the time when this can be done, so none of you will have to wait.
Reading the very last paragraph of the last speech in the first issue of Vital Speeches—it’s the Lasker speech on advertising and a free press—I was startled by this paragraph, in which Lasker says he’s not discouraged by the intensity of the debate he finds himself in:
To the contrary:
I am glad the conflicting views of the two philosophies are now being brought boldly into the open. The debate may be long, the decisions delayed. If our debate on all the subjects which are pressing us … is democratically continued, it is my conviction that there will emerge a better, a stronger, a sounder America—undaunted, imperishable!
Well, that’s pretty much been the idea behind Vital Speeches all this time, and it’s a good enough mission statement for us as we embark on the next 75 years.