Where are today’s intellectual giants — in speechwriting and in politics?

by Cynthia J. Starks on November 3, 2010

The death of JFK speechwriter Ted Sorensen this week has been much in the news and the blogosphere. Writers have waxed poetic, or tried to, about the speeches he wrote and their impact on several generations. Some have suggested that we’d be hard-pressed to cite memorable lines from any presidential speeches since then. They’d be right. 

The only exception I’d suggest is Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, whose Challenger disaster speech “They slipped the surly bonds of earth…to touch the face of God,” remarks on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, “These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent…,” and several other of her speeches stand out as beautiful, powerful and memorable.

In addition to the death of Ted Sorensen, last night’s election put me in mind of the political giants we’ve lost…and their Lilliputian counterparts of today.

For example, between 1960 and the mid-1980s, the majority and minority leaders of the Senate included Democrats Lyndon Johnson, Mike Mansfield and Robert Byrd, and Republicans Everett Dirkson, Hugh Scott and Howard Baker.

Their counterparts from the 1990s to today? Democrats George Mitchell, Tom Daschle and Harry Reid, and Republicans Trent Lott, Bill Frist and Mitch McConnell. Yawn.

Comparing Speakers of the House in the same time periods, we had Sam Rayburn, John McCormick, Carl Albert and Tip O’Neill between 1970 and 1990. Since then? Tom Foley, Newt Gingrich, Dennis Hastert and Nancy Pelosi. A sad bunch.

In addition, the Senate itself had many giants during the same 1970-1990 time period. They included Ted Kennedy, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Sam Nunn, Mark Hatfield, Lowell Weicker, Scoop Jackson.

And a gentleman who was elected to the Senate after he lost his presidential bid: Adlai Stevenson, III, Democrat – Illinois, 1970 to 1981. Their current Senate counterparts? I’d like to list them, but I’m crying too hard. 

“Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you…”

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Eugene Finerman November 3, 2010 at 3:04 pm


Peggy Noonan knows a good quote when she finds it. “I have slipped the surly bonds of earth” is from the poem “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee. Magee was a pilot in the RAF and he wrote the poem a few months before he was killed in a crash.

Aside from my pedantic quibble, I agree with you that rhetoric now is measured in 15 second soundbytes.


Techquestioner November 4, 2010 at 4:30 pm

I would have been a lot more inspired by the various candidates for governor and senator if their political ads had been excerpts from their own notable speeches. Instead we had attack ads snidely quoting things the opponent had said out of context, and exaggerating the consequences. By the time the election was held, my response was “a pox on both their houses” because the ads for/against both sides were so annoying. I was almost tempted to vote for the Libertarian candidates, who had almost no ads, but too many people doing that could have thrown the election into a runoff (if no candidate got >50 %) and we’d have to listen to another month of the same ads.

jimmy-jo barrows November 16, 2010 at 2:20 pm

when our president speaks from his heart, the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and salute.

maybe hairs saluting is a little much…but they do stand up and I want to salute.


jimmy-jo barrows November 16, 2010 at 2:46 pm

During the budget debates of ’94, I sat in the Senate galley for 11 hours and watched the personal and professional antics of all 100 senators and our vice-president (he broke the tied votes)

Very exciting and very boring. There are so many stories I could write about that day.

Concerning this topic though, the senators speaking from their hearts and not a politically forced position where well worth the listen. Those with only party lines and forced speeches were obvious and chore to consider even viable.

The newest senators speaking from their hearts were most enthusiastic and believable whether I agreed or not. The most challenging to withstand were the new senators towing the party line with speeches written seemingly by the same person.

Another noteworthy observation is thee women senators made the most passionate and well delivered speeches. Senator Boxer’s was the best. And I’m Republican; although not for long–does anyone know whom I would send a letter of resignation?—probably Rush Limpbaugh

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