Almost as important as what U.S. presidents did during their time as leaders of the nation is what they said.
From George Washington to Barack Obama, Michael Waldman, Bill Clinton's former speechwriting director, has selected some of the most famous presidential speeches.
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America's racial divide is the one of the most vexing themes that weaves throughout American history. Yet rarely do presidents, indeed any politicians, touch the subject firmly. So it is all the more notable that the most remarkable rise to the presidency, of the nation's first black chief executive, was saved by a speech on race—a speech stark in its frankness and eloquent in its summoning of all the most powerful themes of American history and its rhetorical legacy.
Barack Obama leapt onto the national stage with a rapturously received keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention. He was a state legislator, "a skinny kid with a funny name" who would soon win a U.S. Senate seat from Illinois. He was born to "a mother from Kansas and a father from Kenya" and raised in Hawaii and Indonesia. He worked as a community organizer in Chicago, and then became the first black editor in chief of the Harvard Law Review (among the top honors in legal education) and a respected teacher of Constitutional law at the University of Chicago. His multicultural, peripatetic path was something very new for American politics. (Or anywhere else, for that matter.)
Two years later, the political landscape began to change. In his second term, George W. Bush had become durably unpopular. The weapons of mass destruction he had declared as the reason for the invasion of Iraq turned out to not exist. His proposal to invest Social Security funds in the stock market flared out. His administration was harshly criticized for inaction when Hurricane Katrina submerged much of New Orleans, making hundreds of thousands permanently homeless. In 2006, the Democrats won both houses of Congress for the first time since 1992. It seemed likely that a Democrat would win in 2008. The frontrunner was the party's most famous working politician—Senator Hillary Clinton of New York, the former first lady.
Then the freshman senator from Illinois plunged into the presidential race.
The campaign transfixed the nation, as a woman and an African American battled for the lead. Obama's powerful speeches ignited a strong organization. "They said this day would never come," he declared in a thrilling speech on caucus night in Des Moines, after winning in the overwhelmingly white state. Clinton recovered, shedding her imperial frontrunner's cloak, and won the New Hampshire primary days later. Obama's concession speech was so eloquent ("Yes, we can!") that it was turned into a popular music video by the hip hop artist Will.I.Am. Obama won a dozen victories in a row, followed by a month in which Clinton and he traded wins.