Why These Speeches?
National convention acceptance speeches are not perfect windows into candidates’ minds. But they pull in larger audiences than most other political speeches, so they’re crafted with unusual care. They’re a combination of what the candidate wants to say, what key advisors and benefactors want to hear, and what they all — candidate, advisors, donors, party officials, and pollsters alike — think the American people want to hear.
Precisely because they are a careful blend of so many things, they are interesting summaries of a party’s politics in a presidential election year. So this year’s speeches are not just old, pre-Olympic news. They’re useful portraits of our time.
Two Are Old, Two Are New, Three Are Red, One Is Blue
I watched and read Donald Trump‘s speech from the Republican convention. I was immediately struck by something I’ll mention in a moment.
The next week, Hillary Clinton gave her acceptance speech at the Democratic convention. I watched part of it, listened to part of it, and read all of it.
(Hers was a good speech, by the way — competently delivered and internally consistent, more or less. It might have been enjoyable if I hadn’t been smacked silly by one smoothly delivered irony after another, such as when she said that we must get the money out of our politics — she who is so brazen and so skilled at extracting millions from her politics. I suppose that’s not what she meant me to think.)
What struck me above all in this year’s speeches is that Mr. Trump talked primarily about greatness and strength, but not freedom. This should be unthinkable in a Republican candidate’s speech.
In the end I made a list of what each candidate said should be free, and I noted where and how many times each used the words freedom and liberty.
In chronological order by delivery . . .
Then-Governor Reagan used the word freedom nine times and the word liberty once. His first substantive mention of freedom was in his fifth sentence.
Here’s what he said should be free:
- the American people
- the people of the world
- immigrants and refugees
Near the end of his speech, he said:
Can we doubt that only a Divine Providence placed this land, this island of freedom, here as a refuge for all those people in the world who yearn to breathe freely: Jews and Christians enduring persecution behind the Iron Curtain, the boat people of Southeast Asia, of Cuba and Haiti, the victims of drought and famine in Africa, the freedom fighters of Afghanistan and our own countrymen held in savage captivity[?]
There is a quintessentially American vision here — and every Republican presidential candidate owes us his best effort to articulate that vision.
Come to think of it, every Democratic presidential candidate owes us the same. It’s just that we expect less of them, having noted their long-standing focus on free stuff instead of freedom.
Governor Romney first spoke of freedom two or three minutes into his 2012 speech. He used the word freedom eight times and liberty thrice (counting one reference to the Statue of Liberty). He said freedom is “the essence of the human experience” — not Reagan’s lofty words about a lofty vision, but vision nonetheless.
Here’s what he said should be free:
- Americans (who are mostly immigrants, he said)
- economic activity
It was a good speech, a Republican speech, an American speech.
Mr. Trump used the word liberty not at all and the word freedom only in this sentence: “I pledge never to sign any trade agreement that hurts our workers, or that diminishes our freedom and independence.”
This came more than 50 minutes into his speech, long after Reagan or Romney would have finished, and long after the subsequent ovations would have died down.
Later, he also promised to repeal a certain law to protect Americans’ free speech, and he said we’ll show the world that America is “still free, independent, and strong.”
Therefore, if we’re generous, here’s what Mr. Trump said should be free (even if freedom is so unimportant that he didn’t mention it at all for almost an hour):
There is a vision here, but freedom scarcely bears mentioning in it. Strength and greatness are the themes. Three times he said that we’ll be strong, and he called two individuals strong. He spoke of a great border wall, great trade agreements, people who are great (including his mom), great miners and steel workers, and great veterans.
“We can accomplish great things,” he said.
“We will make America strong, proud, safe, great again.”
When the traditional American freedoms are in as much peril as they have known in a century and a half, it’s hard to imagine a Republican candidate not speaking seriously and at length of freedom. Regrettably, we don’t have to imagine such a candidate. We — now they, because I recently left the party — have nominated the unimaginable.
Secretary Clinton called freedom an “enduring value” and said that every generation “has made our country freer.” She used the words freedom and liberty once each, and also spoke of liberating people from their student debt.
If we give her full credit for the above — which is rather generous of us, I think — then here is what she said should be free:
- college tuition (for the middle class)
- people who already have student debt
Truth be told, I expected a longer list of free stuff, partly because she’s a Democrat and partly to appeal to Bernie Sanders’ supporters.
How can a presidential candidate speak of who we are as a nation, and who we’ve been and will be, and of our place in the world and our enemies’ designs, but mention freedom only in passing?
We need a president who understands, loves, and tirelessly preaches and explains the classical American freedoms. We haven’t had one in a while, and it appears that we won’t have one anytime soon.
Which is not to say our lot is hopeless, or that every president must be Lincoln or Reagan. In any case, no matter the vices and inadequacies of our president, we shall have to be citizens who understand, love, and tirelessly preach the classical American freedoms — and who put our work behind our words.