60 Years of Sound Bites to Remember

Some of the best sound bites of all time were spoken long before my time listening for, editing and narrating them. A good sound bite packs emotion, opinion, news value and personality, and leaps into a reporter's ear.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a sound-bite master: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Ronald Reagan was another, and I covered some of his campaign for president. His trademark sound bite, which his audiences unfailingly cheered, was also in his inaugural address: "Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem."

Reagan's opponent in 1984 was Walter Mondale. Reagan was 73 years old, when he pledged in a televised debate: "I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."

Mondale, for his part, conquered his primary election opponent, Gary Hart, quoting in their debate a line from a Wendy's hamburger commercial: "When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad: 'Where's the beef?'"

I was in the convention hall that summer when Mondale accepted the Democratic nomination. I rose from my seat in amazement when he sound-bited: "Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did."

President Reagan, who cut taxes sharply in his first term, accepted increases in his second term when budgets remained in deficit.

There was one particularly notable sound bite from my decade overseas, notable for how little was said. Before he toured the United States in 1975 -- including a visit to Disneyland -- Japan's Emperor Hirohito gave a press conference and then agreed to individual interviews with American reporters. I took a camera crew to the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. We were instructed to bring a vase of flowers and hide the microphone behind it, and the sound technician was positioned behind a screen.

The Emperor entered and shook my hand, limply. When it came to the major topic of Japan's responsibility for World War II, Hirohito repeated tepid formulations, that he "regrets that most unfortunate war, which I deeply deplore," and "there are certain things which happened for which I feel personally sorry." He said so little of substance in the entire interview that the filmed story had to be fleshed out with scenes of Tokyo.

More productive was my political campaign coverage. I was in Houston in 1960 when John F. Kennedy sought to reassure Protestant ministers that a Roman Catholic was worthy of the presidency: "Whatever issue may come before me as President -- on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject -- I will make my decision in accordance with...what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside pressures or dictates."

When Lyndon Johnson gave his State of the Union speeches, to introduce them on ABC Radio, I stood in the back of the House of Representatives chamber and held a microphone plugged in to a telephone company patch in the anteroom. In 1964, Johnson offered this sound bite: "This administration here and now declares unconditional war on poverty."

The war in Vietnam got in the way, leading Johnson to announce, in a White House address, "I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president."

But Johnson's lasting achievement was the passage of civil rights laws. The landmark 1964 bill was held up in the Senate by a filibuster that continued for 54 days, and would end only if enough Republicans voted to end it. Republican leader Everett McKinley Dirksen made the decisive conclusion in his Shakespearean tones: "The time has come for equality of opportunity in sharing of government, in education, and employment. It must not be stayed or denied."

Equality of opportunity in the right to vote took still another law.

I was in the convention hall in 2004 when a young state legislator from Illinois, Barack Obama, electrified his fellow Democrats with his keynote speech: "There is not a liberal America and a conservative America -- there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America -- there is the United States of America."

In 2010, the former vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, electrified the National Tea Party convention: "I gotta ask the supporters of all that, 'How's that hopey, changey stuff working out?'"

Another memorable sound bite arose from the debate between vice presidential candidates Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle, who said he had as much experience at a potential president as Jack Kennedy did when he ran. Bentsen's rebuttal: "I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy."

Quayle became vice president, under George H.W. Bush.

As Barack Obama sought the presidency. I was in New Hampshire when he came in second in the Democratic primary to HIllary Clinton, but in the end she had to concede the nomination:

"Although we weren't able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you it's got about 18 million cracks in it." -- a reference to the number of votes she received in the primaries -- "filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be easier next time."

Next time is almost upon us. For more sound bites, stay tuned.