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Speeches: The Current State of the Oldest Art

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It's been about a year since I took over what an observer once called the cushiest job in the world: editor of Vital Speeches of the Day, the 75-year-old monthly collection of the speeches.

"You go to the mailbox once a day, and it's filled with two things: checks from subscribers, or your work done for you in the form of the speeches that you're going to reprint."

But I've discovered the job isn't quite as easy as that.

Between what I go out and find and what comes over the transom, I find myself awash in speech texts and transcripts.

And that's where the work begins.

Here are a few other things I've come to understand while searching for and sifting through thousands of speeches over this last year.

Vitality is in the eye of the beholder. Remember when Tina Brown took over The New Yorker and everybody said she was dumbing it down? Well what do you think happened to me when I printed, in the April issue, along with a particularly bombastic Glenn Beck speech, the Tiger Woods public apology?

Among the letters I received was one from a man who's been subscribing for 50 years (subscribing, for 50 years!) who reminded me of our original motto: "The Best Thoughts of the Best Minds On Current National Questions." He asked me how the Woods statement and Beck's speech fit our criterion.

I replied, in part, "many of the 'best minds' aren't giving speeches these days" and "ultimately, I'm more wedded to the title of the magazine itself: Vital Speeches of the Day. And am bound to publish the most compelling speeches given every month."

I added this: "And if you ever find a better speech that I should have published and didn't, send it to me and if I agree with you, I will publish it in the very next month."

The offer stands.

Just as there are many justifications for publishing a speech, there are also many good reasons to read one. It's living history, uttered by an important person on an important subject at an important moment. Or, it's an inspiring example of great rhetoric. Or--and these are my the speeches that I'm most pleased to publish--they're just plain interesting, and you wouldn't find them anywhere else.

Speeches like a fascinating talk on the state of the art of ... collision repair. And Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's belated "Apology to the Forgotten Australians," a half-million indigenous children and children of migrants who were taken from their families under an insane government program and placed in institutions where many were abused.

And like, "Let's Start the Stream of Psychic Healing," the case made by a Vietnam veteran that post-traumatic stress isn't a disorder but more or less an inevitability for a combat soldier:

I was raised a Catholic and of the grand prohibitions expressed in the Ten Commandments, the grandest was that against killing.  I could find detours around most of the Commandments but killing was one that stood out as being pretty much immutable. ... So when I did ... when I shot an enemy from ambush and ended his life ... I ended part of mine as well. I had crossed a line from which I knew there would be no return. I had become someone different and would never be who I was again. I was not only ready for punishment but almost eager for it; eager for the atonement that would expiate my guilt at violating the most inviolate commandment of the Judeo-Christian ethic. Instead, I was rewarded. ... Think of the mental Mixmaster stirring all those conflicting beliefs into some kind of amoral paste: standing over an enemy body and trying to muster the pride your comrades say you should feel ... standing over a dead friend and feeling relief that it wasn't you who died ...

Speeches are the oldest, and thus most elegant, form of mass communication. The social utility of speeches is undiminished by technological advances such as YouTube, Twitter and even the Kryptonite of rhetoric, PowerPoint. There comes a time--a crisis in confidence, the crescendo of a debate (and, yes, commencement season)--where everyone knows: One member of the society has to screw up the courage to stand naked before other members of the society and share what he or she believes is true. The act is significant for the same reason it always has been: The audience has the speaker outnumbered and can accept or reject the speech before, during or after its delivery.

Not every speech carries such drama; many speeches are merely ceremonial, and no one knows better than I, speeches can be dull--especially chronically overlong American and Australian speeches, which, as someone said of William James, often chew more than they bite off.

But at Vital Speeches, we reject windbaggery, and toss those speeches out of our office by the flat-shovel-full.

What remains, usually, is inspirational.

Which is why I think everyone should read Vital Speeches, for the very same reasons it was first published in 1935: To participate confidently in the public conversation, one ought to hear straight from the people who are doing the speaking--and not only what they're saying but how they're saying it: in what context, at what length and in what tone of voice.

David Murray is editor of Vital Speeches of the Day.

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