In 1953 evangelist C M Ward began a weekly broadcast on ABC radio, "Revival Time." I probably picked him up first at about age 14, when I inherited my just-married brother's room and radio. I don't know how much Dr Ward may have influenced me religiously, but he did make me a lover of eloquent speaking. I came to love good talkers; and, C M Ward could sure talk.
Many years later I learned that for production reasons Dr. Ward's sermons had to be exactly twelve minutes. If they ran too long or too short he'd have to re-record it. Frankly, twelve minutes sounds just about right for a sermon. Over 30 years ago an old time Methodist preacher told me his approach to preaching: "For the first 10 minutes you talk to the congregation, God and yourself. For the second 10 minutes you're talking to God and yourself. For the third 10 minutes you're talking only to yourself."
The current political conventions brought old CM to mind. The purpose of these conventions seems to be to have as many speeches as close together as the delegates can endure without changing Party. Some speeches will be great rhetoric; others so dull even CSPAN skips over them. Some will inspire for the moment; while others compel the question, "what time is it?" And, for those of us nostalgic for Camelot, one last Hurrah. It is most likely they will all go over twelve minutes, some over thirty. Whether God is listening to any remains to be seen. It is doubtful any speech at either convention will go down as one of the great speeches of history.
Great, memorable speeches come rarely. They are a cosmic combination of historic or tragic events; human talent which comes to few; and an uncanny, even God given, ability to choose the right words. Great speeches change things, because they change people. Great speeches are recalled by generations which, having never heard the speaker, cannot forget what was said -- nor sleep through the repetition.
These are my choices for the three greatest speeches I've heard in my lifetime. All, if memory serves, could be re-recorded into twelve minute segments:
#1"I have a dream." Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave this unforgettable speech as the culmination of the March on Washington in 1963. It was not the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, and was certainly not the end. It was perhaps its "finest hour." After that August day Right could never again be stopped. Because of that speech and movement, my children live in a world of which Dr. King could only dream.
#2 "Ask not what your country can do for you." President John Kennedy's inaugural address moved a generation, of which I am a poor representative. His magical words came at just the right point in history when the pressures for "change" were immeasurable. He opened a gate, and the world as we know it changed in ways which one born this century will never comprehend.
#3 Ich bin ein Berliner ("I am a 'Berliner'"). Few will think of this as one of the great speeches in American history, but americarhetoric.com rates it 22nd out of 100. If the expression "Cold War" comes to you from history books, there is no way you can completely comprehend the majesty of this speech. In front of the newly built Berlin Wall, Kennedy gave inspiration to an oppressed people who in time tore down that wall and brought down an evil empire.
All of these speeches can be read and heard at http://www.americanrhetoric.com. They are rated there as among the 100 Greatest Speeches [recorded] in America.
So, what moved you? Whose speech, or sermon, could you have never slept through? Did you hear it at a convention?
David L. Lewis is an observer of and sometimes commentator on life who may be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.