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Words That Inspire: This Century's Top 10 Gems of Political Eloquence

Subtly disparaged today as sound bites, great one-liners can crystallize political moments and define the leaders who deliver them.

May 10, 1999|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | Ronald Brownstein's column appears in this space every Monday

There's no escaping it: With the decade and the century expiring Dec. 31, this is doomed to be the year of the list. Everybody's making them. The century's 100 best novels. The 100 best movies. Man of the Century. It's only a matter of time until someone compiles a list of the century's best lists.

Leave it to others to handle the heavyweight choices (though we're expecting a say on the 10 best X-Files episodes). This column's mandate is politics, and it is political excellence we're ranking today. More precisely, it is political eloquence: the 10 most effective American political one-liners of the century.

Subtly disparaged today as sound bites, great one-liners can crystallize political moments and define the leaders who deliver them. The utterly arbitrary criterion for this ranking isn't mere rhetorical brilliance but political effectiveness--success at reshaping the political or social environment. And while we're being arbitrary, let's exclude the bumper-sticker labels that presidents slap on their programs--the New Deal or the Great Society. What we want are the thrust and parry of great lines delivered "in the arena," as Theodore Roosevelt once said, in a memorable line of his own.

Before the top ten, some near misses. Franklin D. Roosevelt helped steer an isolationist America into World War II when he argued that providing arms to Britain was like lending a neighbor a "garden hose" to put out a fire next door before it reached your house. In the 1948 election, the rallying cry "Give 'em hell, Harry" provided the gritty theme for Harry Truman's comeback.

Other close calls: Richard Nixon's 1969 "silent majority" speech, which christened a generation-long Republican presidential majority built on opposition to liberal excess; Ronald Reagan's insistence that "government is the problem" (which revitalized the Nixon majority); and Bill Clinton's 1992 promise to "end welfare as we know it," which helped bring together a Democratic coalition based on balancing opportunity and responsibility.

Now the winners:

10. "I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." Dan Quayle crumpled as if hit by a 2-by-4 when Lloyd Bentsen leveled him with this rejoinder during their 1988 vice-presidential debate. Has any candidate ever said anything nastier--or more devastating--in a national political forum?

9. "I will go to Korea." Simple, declarative and devastatingly effective--like Dwight Eisenhower himself on his best days. Ike's promise to personally pursue peace, delivered just 11 days before Election Day, sealed his victory over Adlai Stevenson in the 1952 presidential race.

8. "The world must be made safe for democracy." Later, the sentiment behind this classic affirmation of Wilsonian idealism curdled in the disillusionment over World War I (and, generations later, over Vietnam). But when Woodrow Wilson first offered this ringing declaration in April 1917, it sent America surging into battle.

7. "Speak softly and carry a big stick." In this compelling admonition from a 1901 speech, Theodore Roosevelt fused his own rough-and-ready image with the rising confidence of a nation first stepping onto the international stage. Almost a century later, it still captures an essential element of how America sees itself.

6. "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" Just by asking this simple question in the sole presidential debate in 1980, Ronald Reagan not only solidified discontent with Jimmy Carter but also synthesized a powerful test that still shapes the way Americans evaluate their presidents.

5. "Ich bin ein Berliner" and "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." These are the rhetorical bookends of American purpose in the Cold War. The first line, delivered by John F. Kennedy in June 1963 outside city hall in West Berlin, marked America's commitment to manning the watch against Soviet expansion; the second, delivered not far away by Reagan almost 24 years later, expressed America's triumphant cry of victory. Each was offered to exultant crowds (though Kennedy's was much larger); when Kennedy left Berlin that day he turned to ace speech writer Ted Sorensen and said, "We'll never have another day like this one as long as we live."

4. "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." Overflowing with glittering Sorensen phrases, Kennedy's unmatched 1961 inaugural address sparkled with candidates for this list. Equally eloquent was Kennedy's promise to "pay any price [and] bear any burden" in defense of liberty. But that pledge translated into the quagmire of Vietnam; "ask not" earns the nod because it anticipated and helped summon the idealism that was the best side of the 1960s.

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