These are my thoughts on each of the victory speeches, ordered chronologically. These are just stray comments and observations because until Clinton they all follow roughly the same outline so there’s not much to analyze.
JFK’s speech is pretty boring especially considering his reputation as one of the most well-spoken presidents. He just reads Nixon and Eisenhower’s messages and his responses to them. Then gives a very generic message of thanks to his supporters as well as a call for unity. Like Adlai before him, I’m sure this will probably serve as the standard for what later speeches would build upon.
Strangely, 1964 was impossible to find either the concession OR victory speech. All I could find was this very brief statement by LBJ. He quotes Lincoln.
Nixon congratulates his supporters and graciously acknowledges Humphrey’s message as well as his own response. His line “I know what it feels like to lose a close one” is very well known. Nixon is the first to acknowledge the opposition’s supporters and speak to them directly to tell them not to lose hope or give up in politics. Nixon’s big shtick seems to be spinning anecdotes about some little boy or something in some town in America–we’ll see that in his convention speeches soon. He also shows off his daughter’s needlework.
Nixon’s second speech focuses a lot more on Spiro’s efforts campaigning. He talks a lot about his campaign as a team, and goes on to thank all of them—including their wives! He mentions the new younger voters (this is the first election since the amendment allowing 18 year olds to vote was passed.) Unless I completely missed it, Nixon doesn’t mention McGovern’s name even once, nor does he even refer to “my opponent.” This is the first and hopefully only time the loser’s message hasn’t been read or acknowledged. He mentions the overwhelming magnitude of his win once at the end but doesn’t dwell on it, instead pivoting to the need to make this great victory worth it with another great term (oh the irony!) He ends with one of his trademark anecdotes/stories that at first doesn’t seem relevant until he ties it in at the end. I consider these to be Nixon’s rhetorical signature.
Carter’s speech is just so green. It looks so strange coming after Nixon’s, who delivered his in dark auditoriums. It’s great he begins by congratulating Ford on a race well fought—a welcome return to form after Nixon’s last, vaguely grim, speech where McGovern wasn’t even mentioned. Like his later concession speech, this is mercifully short especially in comparison to his dreary, long-winded convention speeches. However there’s really nothing that sets him apart rhetorically except his “aww shucks, thanks so ever much” demeanor.
Reagan is presented with a cake in the shape of the electoral map, which I feel is somewhat in poor taste. Reagan also slightly modifies a line from Nixon about his first lady being the first lady in his life. He also quotes Lincoln, which seems like a well-earned cliché at this point considering how beloved he is. But I like what Reagan does to build off that quote, about how he’s not afraid of what lies ahead. I really liked that line at least.
The next Reagan speech looks so strange with the announcement, the weird camera angle from the back and the high school band rendition of Hail to the Chief. I did chuckle at his response to the call for four more years: “thank you—I believe that’s been arranged!” Something I’ve never seen before or since, the crowd starts chanting NANCY’s name. For all his other faults, Reagan was much more kind to Mondale than Nixon was to McGovern in his victory speech. The latter practically ignored his opponents existence, as if the incredible loss somehow made McGovern irrelevant. Nixon treats Mondale (who also only won one state) like any other felled opponent. I don’t have much to say, but I do think this was the best of the election night speeches yet.
Bush says he wants a kinder, gentler nation, which is pretty funny considering his grim “we’ll build more prisons” speech coming up later in his term. He calls a campaign “a disagreement, and disagreements divide but an election is a decision” which was maybe a bit of a clunky line but I like the sentiment. The crowd seems far less harsh towards Dukakis when he’s name dropped than Republicans were in other speeches past and present. I’m not a big fan of the sign that says “America wins” overhead, as if implying America loses if Bush didn’t win. That just seems to spit in the face of some of what Bush actually says in the speech, but it wouldn’t be the first time he was a total hypocrite either. He doesn’t mention any call from Dukakis.
Bill Clinton’s speech has a really nice venue—rather than a dark indoor stage like most of these, he’s outside in a really nice looking building in Little Rock. I actually really admire Hillary’s outfit for once—this was before the unicolor tacky pantsuits. I appreciate how Bill begins the speech by talking about the problems facing America which he intends to solve. That really shows that this isn’t about one man’s victory, but about the road ahead. Bill says Hillary will be one of the greatest first ladies which is pretty ironic given what happened. Something unusual too is the crowd starts cheering for Hillary, and Bill puts up his arms to stop them but when the crowd keeps going he lets them down and says “you can cheer.” Bill goes above and beyond by not only acknowledging Bush, but asking the crowd to cheer for him. He also mentions Perot which surprised me since Bush didn’t offer Perot the same courtesy in his concession speech. However, it’s significant that Bill doesn’t corral the crowd to cheer for Perot as he did for Bush, thereby still relegating the third partier into a lower status. Besides just a quick “yeah and my great VP pick Al Gore” like other winners do, Bill really goes above and beyond to emphasize Gore’s good qualities and the work he and his family did to get out the vote. This is by far the longest victory speech thus far, and much more like a campaign speech than just a victory celebration as has been the trend up to this point. Going into this series, I assumed all of them were going to be like this and was surprised by how brief they used to be.
With the second Clinton victory, something inconsequential that I thought was interesting is how Bill and Gore switch speaking orders from last time. In ’92 Bill spoke first, now he lets Gore be the opening act. I think the latter is smarter (assuming your VP is a good speaker—and before 2000, Gore absolutely was) because everyone is there to see the President. This way Gore’s speech doesn’t feel like an anticlimax after the headliner. I liked the beginning of the anecdote about taking Chelsea into the ballot box—that’s something my dad used to do with me too—unfortunately it doesn’t go anywhere. He just ends it with the cheesy “and I thanked God I was born an American” which says nothing substantive at all. It’s not like we’re the only country that has elections either–and most other countries’ ballots are far more expressive than ours are in fact.
Like last time, this is extremely long by victory speech standards, and more like a campaign stump speech than these usually are. He asks the audience to cheer for Dole, but this time doesn’t even acknowledge Ross Perot, whose run this cycle was far less impactful. He almost sounds like Trump: “America always wins, and America is going to keep winning these next four years.” He also contradicts himself from last cycle—there he said his mom in heaven must never have doubted he’d be president, now suddenly nobody ever thought he’d someday be president. This is one of the weaker Bill Clinton speeches; it’s still more than passable, but it starts dragging. I’ve noticed with Bill his passionate oration started to slump a bit in the second term—I haven’t paid attention to such trends but it’d be worth dissecting if that befell other Presidents too.
Bush II’s speech is troubled by the long break between the passion of election night and now when the Supreme Court finally decided. “I’m thankful for America” (oh boy). Besides that, this speech is very by-the-numbers and dull. There’s not a whole lot to comment on. “Republicans want what’s best for our nation…” (maybe once upon a time, but no longer.) “Bipartisan foreign policy true to our values and true to our friends” (ugh…)
In the second Bush victory speech, he apes Clinton’s strategy of having the VP introduce him with a little speech of his own. He calls Karl Rove “the architect” which almost felt sinister if you know who he is and what he did, especially to McCain and LGBT people in ’00 and ’04 respectively. Not much else to say, you see enough of these kinds of speeches, especially one after the other and the platitudes start to blend together. And unfortunately this speech is mostly the typical political cliches so there’s not a whole lot to say about it.
Obama’s opening remarks are very powerful, but I do have to point out the hypocrisy in calling out gays here after he campaigned against their rights up to this point. A lot of this speech is meaningless platitudes too (“change has come to America”) but Obama at least has a talent for saying them in a new way, so they stand out among the crowd even if the words ended up being mostly empty.
The difference between a post-Reagan GOP audience and a Democratic one? The Republicans boo the Democratic candidates when they’re name-dropped at these speeches, while the Democrats politely applaud McCain here. You can see Jesse Jackson in the crowd, and considering what he fought for in the 80s, that’s a really powerful moment. I’m wondering if Obama referenced a new puppy for his girls as some kind of nod to Checkers and FDR’s dog who got name-dropped in speeches before, or if that was just a coincidence. “There are many people who won’t like or agree with every decision I make as president” ended up being the understatement of the century considering the unprecedented stonewalling he faced, and the backlash against him that spawned Trump.
Much like Clinton before him, Obama’s victory speech here sounds a lot more like a campaign stump than a simple victory lap and series of thank yous that came before.
I liked how Obama began this second speech, by thanking all the voters one at a time “whether you x or y, etc etc” After talking about standing in line for a long time to vote he quips “and we need to fix that, by the way” and yet…we haven’t. And Obama as far as I recall never spearheaded any particular initiative to do so. There’s a callback to the puppy line from the first speech where he thanks his daughters but says “one puppy is enough.” Once more, this speech is a final campaign stump—very similar to any other Obama speech you may hear. I do like that approach—I think it makes a lot of sense to get your agenda out there one last time, remind the people what they voted for and try to sway the opposition that you’ll make their lives better too. However, I think this one goes on a little too long. Maybe because I lived through it and know this final term especially was largely a great disappointment but I’m just not getting inspired by this.
The more I think about it, I would surmise that Obama’s biggest strength was in the debates rather than speeches. Not that he’s a bad speaker when it comes to stumping, but sometimes the cadence of his voice starts to drone, or the examples of American struggle he gives seem phony. Once again, it bothers me hearing a lame call out to gay Americans after throwing us under the bus on the campaign trail. That kind of tokenism may placate others but it does nothing for me. Now all that said, he REALLY finishes off strong. The last minute or two when he raises his voice is very powerful and succeeds at throwing the crowd into a frenzy.