Seizing the Moment
Memorable presidential speeches are few and far between. But Ronald Reagan's words in Berlin two decades ago will live on
On the pleasantly warm but overcast afternoon of June 12, 1987, Ronald Reagan stood in front of the Berlin Wall and spoke six words that resonated deeply with millions who endured Soviet domination throughout Europe and among proponents of democracy around the world. "Mr. Gorbachev," Reagan said firmly, with a hint of anger and a flash of indignation, "tear down this wall."
It was an archetypical moment for Reagan, who had fought communism all his life and as president had made the destruction of the "evil empire" his raison d'être. His words have stood the test of time.
As Reagan's admirers prepare to mark the 20th anniversary of that historic speech this week, and as many wonder if inspirational presidential rhetoric is dead, the question is how a president manages to capture a moment and define an era the way Reagan did. It doesn't happen very oftenonly a handful of times, experts say, in more than two centuries of U.S. history. But political scientists, historians, presidential advisers, and experts on public communication tend to agree on the factors that allow a chief executive to speak for the ages. Such a moment almost always emerges from a crisis, when a president can rise to the occasion and unify or inspire the nation"when an individual is sitting in the Oval Office and history shows up at the door," says White House Press Secretary Tony Snow. And the commander in chief doesn't do it alone. In most cases, his wordsmiths and other advisers are indispensable.
"There are moments when there is a tide running and someone who understands it, senses it, intuits and appreciates it," says Mo Fiorina, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a political scientist at Stanford. "It doesn't matter if you are Roosevelt or Reagan, if the moment isn't right, it doesn't work."
Says Mike McCurry, former White House press secretary for President Clinton: "Part of it is the memorable phrase that defines for the country an enormous change we're going through or captures a moment of crisis."
To be sure, Reagan, a former actor who excelled at stagecraft, had more than his share of those moments. He understood that words could bring the country together, and he was always looking for ways to give voice to a special time and place. But a handful of other presidents have also managed to capture or change history with their words:
Abraham Lincoln, in his Gettysburg address on Nov. 19, 1863, dedicated the Civil War battlefield and, in an address infused with spirituality, called on the nation to persevere. "Four score and seven years ago," Lincoln said, "our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal...It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before usthat from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotionthat we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vainthat this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedomand that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."