U.S. presidents talk a lot—at Rose Garden ceremonies, international summits, press conferences, prayer breakfasts and campaign fund-raisers, and in radio and video chats and addresses before Congress. They often say things that are, by virtue of the office they hold, consequential. Only rarely, however, have their utterances been truly memorable. This map looks at seven instances in which presidents rose to magisterial eloquence—and one in which a commander-in-chief stooped to demagogic warmongering.
Abe Lincoln wasn’t just a vampire hunter. In his spare time, the 16th president guided the United States through its most extreme crisis while occasionally speaking words of undying poetic force.
The nation was nearing civil war when Lincoln took the presidential oath on March 4, 1861, and his first inaugural address was a heartfelt, densely argued plea to the secessionist Southern states to reverse their catastrophic course. But “the better angels of our nature” whom Lincoln so movingly invoked at the speech’s close did not prevail: On April 12, Confederate forces initiated hostilities, bombarding the Union stronghold of Fort Sumter, South Carolina.
Two years later the Civil War ground on, at incredible cost to both sides. Its bloodiest engagement came in July 1863, when approximately 50,000 men were killed during the three-day Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The appalling toll only intensified Lincoln’s passion to preserve the Union, and the address he delivered at the dedication of the battlefield’s cemetery later that year bears witness to his conviction that the “new nation,” founded in 1776 (“four score and seven years” earlier), should “not perish from the earth.”
Despite the Constitution’s prohibition of governmental establishment of religion, U.S. presidents sometimes resort to overtly religious language in their official utterances—especially at times of national tragedy. Given faith’s ubiquity in American politics and culture, that’s not surprising. What’s noteworthy is that the two presidents who’ve deployed religious imagery most effectively were the possibly agnostic Abraham Lincoln and the church-skipping Ronald Reagan. Whatever Lincoln’s religious beliefs (a question debated by scholars), he was an avid Bible reader, and his sentences often have a King James cadence. This occurs in the Gettysburg Address and also in the closing lines of Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, where besides those “better angels,” Lincoln summons “the mystic chords of memory” that “will yet swell the chorus of the Union.”
A gifted rhetorician, Lincoln penned his soul-stirring words himself. Reagan, the “Great Communicator,” had help—not just from his chief speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, but, in the case of the Challenger space shuttle disaster speech, from American aviator-poet John Gillespie Magee. Noonan borrowed the “surly bonds of earth” wording that so movingly concludes the speech from Magee’s sonnet “High Flight,” written shortly before the young pilot was himself killed in a 1941 aerial accident.
“The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans,” announced John F. Kennedy in his inaugural address of January 20, 1961. Kennedy urged that new generation to commit itself to patriotic self-sacrifice: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Within months his administration was creating opportunities for such service, including a greatly expanded U.S. space program charged, in Kennedy’s words, with “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth” before the decade’s end. Kennedy did not live to see Apollo 11 complete this mission in 1969. By that time, Americans were aware of the sacrifice that space exploration could demand: On January 27, 1967, the first Apollo crew had been killed in a launch-pad test fire at Cape Kennedy, Florida.
Nineteen years after that tragedy, Ronald Reagan appeared on TV to console the nation following an even worse mishap: the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger moments after its January 28, 1986, launch. Reagan’s measured, somber speech becomes, at its climax, a panegyric to the seven Challenger crew members, who “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”
Much differentiates the moderately conservative Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower from his successor, the liberal Democrat John F. Kennedy, but both presidents were celebrated World War II heroes. As Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, army general Eisenhower led the operations that resulted in Nazi Germany’s defeat. In a humbler but no less heroic role, naval lieutenant Kennedy piloted the PT-109, conducting raids on Japanese emplacements in the Pacific and acting to save surviving crew members after an enemy destroyer sank his patrol torpedo boat.
Both were also Cold War leaders who together presided over an enormous buildup in the U.S. atomic arsenal. And both former military men worried about America’s relentless preparation for nuclear war. Eisenhower, in a televised farewell address delivered just three days before Kennedy took office, warned of the dangers to democracy posed by the burgeoning “military-industrial complex.” Kennedy, whose talent for nuclear brinksmanship would be proven in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, spent much of his “Ask not” inaugural speech imploring the Soviet Union to establish a “beachhead of cooperation” with the United States. The 1963 negotiation of a treaty with Russia limiting the testing of nuclear weapons was a landmark achievement of Kennedy’s presidency.
Who poses the gravest threat to American democracy? For many, the answer was achingly clear in the wake of September 11, 2001: international terrorist organizations and the rogue states and corrupt regimes that shelter and support them. Reflecting and aggravating the national mood, a chest-thumping, “you are with us or you are with the terrorists” attitude pervaded President George W. Bush’s first State of the Union address, delivered on January 29, 2002. In it Bush described the nations of North Korea, Iran and Iraq (and “their terrorist allies”) as constituting “an axis of evil.” (The phrase, alluding to the Axis powers of World War II, was speechwriter David Frum’s.) The speech laid groundwork for what came to be known as the Bush Doctrine—justifying preemptive war—and for the U.S. invasion of Iraq a year later.
One imagines that Dwight D. Eisenhower, who during World War II had faced down the actual Axis, would have been suspicious of Bush’s speech. Eisenhower had no illusions about his era’s foreign enemy, the USSR. But as his farewell address makes apparent, Ike was equally wary of the domestic climate of fear nurtured, for its own undemocratic ends, by the military-industrial complex.
On December 7, 1941—dubbed “a date which will live in infamy” by Franklin D. Roosevelt in his declaration of war speech to Congress the following day—Japan executed a surprise attack on the American naval installation at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. More than 2,300 U.S. servicemen were killed and eight of the nine battleships in the U.S. Pacific fleet destroyed. World War II had begun two years earlier, but until Pearl Harbor, the United States had maintained official neutrality while providing backdoor support for nations battling the Axis powers of Germany, Italy and Japan.
The toll of the al-Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2011—nearly 3,000 civilian lives lost—was worse than Pearl Harbor’s. The U.S., in retaliation, promptly invaded Afghanistan, which prior to 9/11 had provided haven for al-Qaeda terrorists. There was no Axis-equivalent power behind the attacks. But that didn’t stop George W. Bush from contriving one composed of three nations—North Korea, Iran and Iraq—that were not, in fact, allied and that bore no responsibility for 9/11. In his 2002 “axis of evil” address, Bush was already outlining the factitious rationale for the unprovoked American invasion of Iraq the following year.
Franklin D. Roosevelt sure could turn a phrase, and several of them have entered the American lexicon. In his first inaugural address (March 4, 1933), for instance, Roosevelt rallied a nation sunk in the mire of the Great Depression: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Then this assertion, from his speech accepting the Democratic Party’s renomination at its Philadelphia convention in June 1936: “This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.” And then, of course, the opening statement, as eloquent as it is angry, of his declaration of war address: “Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” There was nothing remotely folksy about Roosevelt’s style—his accent and inflection were strictly upper-crust. And yet, listening to recordings of his speeches (including the so-called fireside chats he regularly delivered over the radio), one feels Roosevelt’s desire to communicate plainly, frankly and compassionately with ordinary Americans. That’s a reason, certainly, for the unmatched popularity enjoyed by the only president ever elected to four successive terms.
Two of America’s greatest presidents took office as the country faced dire emergency. Between Abraham Lincoln’s election and inauguration, seven Southern slave states seceded from the Union, and four more joined the Confederacy soon after. When Franklin D. Roosevelt swore the presidential oath, the United States was four years into the Great Depression, the worst economic slump in American history, with unemployment stuck at 25 percent and the banking system in tatters. In their first inaugural addresses, both men greeted the monumental challenges they faced with ironclad determination and a measure of optimism. Lincoln’s speech denounces secession as a breach of the “perpetual” contract binding the states and vows that the Union “will constitutionally defend and maintain itself.” But it ends on a note of hope that cooler heads—“the better angels of our nature,” in Lincoln’s loftier locution—will win the day. (They didn’t, but under Lincoln’s leadership the Union won the war.) Roosevelt’s address castigates the “money changers” responsible for the nation’s economic woes but promises renewal if only “fear itself” can be conquered. Whether the New Deal programs his administration introduced actually solved the problem is debatable, but under Roosevelt’s leadership, the Depression did end.