What a difference a speech can make


It was the day after the country celebrated the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK). The rhetoric of Dr. King’s great speeches was still fresh in my mind. Then I viewed the president’s sixth State of the Union speech last week.

Not coincidentally, this speech took place on the sixth anniversary of his historic 2009 inauguration speech that inspired a nation and gave many hope that his election marked the turning point in our nation’s history.

So, with the speeches of these great orators fresh in my mind, I asked myself, what difference can a speech make?

In his latest speech, the president reminded us of the necessity of getting past our differences, of finding common ground, and simply working together. But he also presented a laundry list of proposals that Congress and many Americans are sure to reject.

Still, whether or not one agrees with the president, it is his right to present his case, and find a place of common ground without compromising on his principles. After all, this is what great leaders like MLK did. So, was the president’s speech a step in that direction? Sadly, I would have to say no.

Reflect for a moment on when President Obama first entered office. America hoped that he would help tone down the toxic political rancor in the nation. Many thought he would lead the world towards peace and inspire a generation to give of themselves and achieve great things.

However, after being in office six years and having the opportunity to show the country what it looks like to help a nation heal from political discord and demonstrate to the world that we are a strong and noble nation, it seems the divide between political parties, races, and socio-economic classes are far worse. And our nation as whole, on the global stage, seems diminished as a super-power. Is that just my imagination?

To be sure, the president’s speech had its usual moments of rhetorical brilliance. But his words seemed hollow to me because they stood in such stark contrast to his previous promises, and more importantly, actions over these past six years.

How can you say you want political parties to work together when you have met with the opposing party’s leadership less than five times in the six years you have been in office, and whenever there is opposition to your proposals, you accuse your detractors of not caring about the citizens of this nation and threaten a veto? Is it not true that actions speak louder than word?

Unfortunately, for me, the continued, and glaring contradiction between the president’s rhetoric and his example leaves me discouraged rather than optimistic and hopeful.

And this is in stark contrast to the way I feel as I listen to the speeches of MLK. Just consider, for example, Dr. King’s 1963 “I have a dream” speech. As he stood on the Washington Monument delivering his words, one could feel the weight and the authority as he pleaded with a nation to live out the creed written in her constitution, and painted a glorious picture of what could be if we did.

Immediately, tears of hope and inspiration well up in my eyes. Dr. King’s words thunder throughout time, inspiring generation after generation, begging the question, why is Dr. King so inspirational to all. A great rhetorician he was, no doubt! But his inspiration is not simply due to his literary eloquence, but because of the truth of his message and how he embodied it.

How I wish President Obama would exam the life of MLK and recognize that it is not simply well-constructed and delivered words that changes the hearts, minds, and attitudes of a nation’s people.

It is the messenger who lives out his words and sacrifices of himself for that cause that makes us believe that we, as a nation, are better than pedestrian politics.

[Bonnie B. Willis is co-founder of The Willis Group, LLC, a Learning, Development, and Life Coaching company here in Fayette County and lives in Fayetteville along with her husband and their five children.]