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'It Was Said' Podcast Breaks Down Iconic American Speeches

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

What makes a great public speech in America? Some are written by hand on an envelope, some by staff, some by committee, some are just spontaneous. In this political year, Jon Meacham, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, has a podcast about American speeches called "It Was Said."

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now because I've been to the mountaintop.

BARACK OBAMA: (Singing) Amazing grace.

MEGHAN MCCAIN: The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again because America was always great.

SIMON: Jon Meacham joins us now from Nashville. Jon, thanks so much for being with us.

JON MEACHAM: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Was it a pleasure to revisit some of these speeches or, given political rhetoric nowadays, a little dispiriting?

MEACHAM: Both (laughter). The great thing about rhetoric is, you know, the original Greek sense of the word was not simply words in the air but words designed to create action. It was an explicit covenant, dialectic between the speaker and the audience. And what I find so fascinating about history in general and particularly these speeches is, it's not that it's a lost art because it was never a prevalent art. These speeches stand out not because they were common at the time but because they were uncommon.

SIMON: Your first episode delves into what led up to Martin Luther King's final speech from - we just heard a clip, become known as the Mountaintop speech. You follow that with an episode about a speech that occurred 24 hours later. Robert F. Kennedy, before a crowd of Black supporters in Indianapolis, has just learned that Dr. King has been assassinated.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

ROBERT F KENNEDY: I have some very sad news for all of you. And that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tenn. Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort.

SIMON: Some people urged him not to speak, didn't they?

MEACHAM: Particularly the police in Indianapolis were hoping that Senator Kennedy could be prevailed upon to not come from the airport. He had just flown in. It was John Lewis, future Congressman, icon of the movement, who said no. These people are here. They need their leader. They've lost one leader. And, of course, the poignant overhang of that evening is that two months and two days later, Robert Kennedy would be gunned down in Los Angeles.

SIMON: It's a very eloquent address that he obviously gives spontaneously. Then at one point, he says, my brother was also shot by a white man. In these times, is a trickier to say that, to suggest that John F. Kennedy was somehow brought down by the same kind of bigotry that Martin Luther King was?

MEACHAM: It's complicated now, and it was complicated then. One of the many things we lost at the Ambassador Hotel in June of 1968 was a political figure, a white man who had experienced something of the pain that Americans had experienced by losing his brother to an assassin. And, you know, that speech in Indianapolis really ends on this note from the Greeks, from Aeschylus, that pain is inevitable. And the question we have to face is, what do we do with that pain? And RFK's plea to that audience was to rise above the hate and try to love, which is what Dr. King had lived - that, in fact, the country is stronger and better the more just and the more fair it is for all.

SIMON: Let me ask you about another speech - Barbara Jordan...

MEACHAM: Yeah.

SIMON: ...Keynote of the 1976 Democratic National Convention. She said the difference between other previous Democratic conventions was right in front of them, a Black woman delivering the keynote speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

BARBARA JORDAN: I feel that notwithstanding the past that my presence here is one additional bit of evidence that the American dream need not forever be deferred.

SIMON: A very powerful speech - and interestingly, when you hear it nowadays, it was not as political as the standards of a political convention might be.

MEACHAM: It's a powerful document. I urge folks to go read it. It was six days after the bicentennial of the United States, after the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It was Monday, July 12, 1976. Barbara Jordan was from a family of Baptist ministers. Her grandfather was hugely important to her. She was the first Black woman in the Texas State Senate. She was the American story. And what she speaks to in that speech is, I am the embodiment of the promise of the declaration when, in fact, we live up to the full implications of that promise.

SIMON: Let me ask you about a Ronald Reagan speech. This one, his farewell address from the Oval Office, 1989 - none of this, your favorite president or I hear they like me. This is what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

RONALD REAGAN: I wasn't a great communicator. But I communicated great things. And they didn't spring full bloom from my brow. They came from the heart of a great nation, from our experience, our wisdom, and our belief in the principles that have guided us for two centuries.

SIMON: Now, you struck by the fact that the landscape of the world had changed in so many ways with the collapse of the USSR, which President Reagan noted. He didn't take credit for it. He didn't gloat over it - on the contrary.

MEACHAM: To me, the most remarkable line in that speech - and it tells you everything you need to know about the Republican Party in the 21st century - is President Reagan said that he had always thought of the shining city on a hill, the line from Jesus and John Winthrop that only Ronald Reagan could improve upon.

SIMON: (Laughter).

MEACHAM: They said city upon a hill, he added shining. But he said that he wanted it to be a place where all the lost pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness toward home would find a rest and a refuge. And in 1989, a Republican president could still talk about a big-hearted, big tent conservatism - some people will think that's an oxymoron. But this is a big, complicated country. And can you imagine a world where a single presidential candidate would carry 49 states, which he did in 1984 - you know, at Christmas, they ask him what he wanted for Christmas in 1984. He said Minnesota.

SIMON: (Laughter).

MEACHAM: The first-person pronoun - the point you make, Scott, is exactly right. It wasn't about, I want praise.

SIMON: And equality in great public speeches that you find runs through all of them?

MEACHAM: The capacity to bring the many into conversation with the few. It really is about we, the people, more than I, the person, the speaker. And to be lifted as one, as opposed to one person being elevated above everyone else, I think tends to be a characteristic of oratory that endures because that's - at its best, that's the American message that endures.

SIMON: Jon Meacham - his new podcast, "It Was Said" - thank you so much for being with us.

MEACHAM: Thanks, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: September 12, 2020 at 12:00 AM EDT
In a previous version of this story, we incorrectly said Barbara Jordan was the first black woman in Congress. She was the first black woman representing Texas in Congress.