Turkey Hollow Almanac: The Power of Words

This week in Turkey Hollow we had over six inches of rain in two days. As the Willowemoc River rapidly rose, another flood was on everyone's mind. It has been only two years since the last deluge hit neighboring Livingston Manor very hard. This time the water rose just to the brim and then, blessedly, the rains let up. Been quite awhile since I remember it raining so hard that the plants were beaten into the ground. The two days of rain forced everyone inside and gave us the opportunity to watch Obama's Berlin speech.

I have already written about my feelings immediately following the speech. However I was amused afterwards by some of the pundits saying it lacked substance or was "just words given well." Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks even compared it to a Disney ride. Not sure if he wanted Obama to stand up before 200,000 and read dry position papers or what. Poor Mr. Brooks just has to get out of the city and more into the country where we still appreciate a good orator. Indeed, before television, one of the great entertainments in the country was the politician that could turn good phase and inspire the crowd. Some like William Jennings Bryan with his "Cross of Gold" speech started a populist revolution that changed America forever and made him a "saint" in rural communities .

Many a time, country folks would jam the courthouse square to hear either the candidates or their representatives give speeches that would have the crowd cheering, laughing at the biting wit or booing an unpopular notion. Repeatedly, if a good speaker came to town, the citizens turned out to be informed, entertain and cheer their favorites. I remember growing up in southern New Jersey where they used to come to Elmer Grange Number 29 long before television intruded into our country politics. Back then, the farmer folks in Elmer were pretty sedate compared to the great Southern orators of our time, but a bad speaker was just not tolerated. After all, we brought our best cover dishes to the event and expected to be inspired!

So as I watched the rain pour down this week, still savoring the brilliance of Obama's oratory, I pondered the impact of words on our nation and on myself. As a child, I went to Daretown elementary -- a school with barely over a hundred students in all eight grades. We were taught to memorize great speeches like Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address", Washington's "Farewell Address" and Roosevelts "Nothing to Fear" speech. Can't ever recall being asked to memorize or recite a campaign position paper. To this day, we remember our great presidents by the speeches they gave at crucial times and their ability to mobilize a nation or to face a great challenge like Roosevelt's "Day of Infamy" speech in front of Congress following the attack at Pearl Harbor.

For me personally, my forty years of involvement in politics can be traced to speeches. I will never ever forget President Kennedy saying to my generation, "Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country." This man's incredible ability to challenge us to serve the world, make peace and end discrimination created an entire generation called the "Children of Kennedy" -- a group of which I still proudly proclaim myself a member. Although at times some of Kennedy's policies might have been wrong or implemented badly, he had the ability to make us feel we could all do better (including himself) and change the world. Forty years afterwards, I am still answering his call.

There was, of course, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Washington, D.C. "I Have A Dream" speech on the mall in August of 1963 where he shared with all of us his dream of an America where black and white could live together; a future where children would live in a world without hate. While we still have a long way to go to rid this nation of discrimination, I can't help but wonder if Dr. King was envisioning a day when a Barack Obama could run for President. Over and over again this preacher's great words inspired me to leave the petty politics and small beliefs of where I grew up and seek a better way. Dr. King was not known as a great strategist but he surrounded himself with some the best minds at that time. They handled the logistics and he created a movement that is still creating change.

Many of us will never forget Senator Edwards Kennedy's "The Dream Will Never Die" speech at the 1980 Democratic Convention. That speech set the Democratic Party agenda for the next decades. An amazing moment from an amazing man.

Even when I think of Bill Clinton running for President in 1992, his mere words created a new generation. At that time, to most people in the LGBT community he was a very questionable governor from a Southern state. They were suspicious of his record and of his skills. Most in the community were supporting either Paul Tsongas or Jerry Brown. However, when he came to campaign at a LGBT event in May, 1992 at the Hollywood Palace he gave his famous "I Have a Vision and You are Part of It" speech. Many wrote it off as just words but they were words that massively empowered an entire community firmly into the political process and their world has dramatically changed since then. Dramatic words led to dramatic change.

As I recounted in my initial thoughts about the Obama Berlin speech, Gandhi said we have to value our words as much as our actions. This is a time in America where that is the case. For the kind of dramatic change that needs to take place in order for us to get this country back on track, we need words that will inspire us, challenge us, and set us free from the past.

Barack Obama understands that. Our history has shown it to be true. The times demand it. Now if only the skeptics could let go and believe again in the power of words to transform.