LBJ has never been one of my favorite overall orators, but this is almost certainly his best speech.
I’ll start by making note of something I can’t recall seeing in any other convention speech; LBJ speaks of the nomination as a duty on his part to lead the country to victory. Not only that, he actually thanks the convention for nominating the VP candidate. This is a level of personal humility and connection to the voters you don’t often see the party bigwigs acknowledge these days. It’s refreshing and ought to be the standard practice in my opinion. When you’re nominated by a party, especially one of only two parties which have a hope of winning, half the country is depending on you to champion their causes, and so it isn’t just an honor but a great responsibility.
It was inevitable that JFK would be mentioned in this speech, and I think LBJ handles it well. I didn’t get the sense that the reference was disingenuous or exploitative. Humorously, the camera immediately cuts to RFK, who famously hated Johnson, and he has a bored expression on his face, only offering this shout-out the most polite and brief applause.
There’s something about Johnson’s body language I’ve noticed—it’s very similar to Truman minus the swaying back and forth. He does the same chopping/hammering motion with his hands that you don’t tend to see in modern nominees. I think this might be because it tends to evoke images of a dictator pounding at the podium. But if it’s done sparingly, as is the case here, I think it’s effective.
It’s a cliché in these types of speeches to call your own party “a party for all Americans,” or words to that effect, however Johnson and his Herculean accomplishment of passing Civil Rights earned that attribute more than any other candidate I can think of. Rhetorically as well, I think this speech is the most effective example of this trope in a convention speech. It climaxes with Johnson listing off policies that “most Americans” want, and then repeating the chorus “and so do I.” I can’t help but compare this call to arms against Hillary’s slogan “I’m with her” and the ’16 keynote speaker Elizabeth Warren’s choral phrase: “Hillary will do it, and I’m with her.” It’s subtle, but Johnson puts the people’s needs first with his words, and then tags himself at the end as their representative. Hillary’s rhetoric is a lot more centered on herself as the great chosen one, and we are all supposed to fall in line behind her. It’s a small difference in words, but makes for a big difference in meaning and effect. This is something to think of if you’re ever writing a (political) speech.
Another good rhetorical device in this speech is in emphasizing how long and how hard past politicians have worked to even get America to the point it was enjoying here in ’64, and how disastrous it would be if that were all undone. You compare this with Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing” the same year and it’s somewhat heartbreaking. There’s a lot of chest beating about how great and strong America is, which is expected. Normally such a thing would turn me off, but in this case it feels warranted considering that he’s objectively correct. Unlike the usual bluster in political speeches today, we were truly at the top of our domestic and foreign power and prosperity in the 60s. We had earned the right to be proud.
“Weapons don’t make peace, men make peace” is a great line, and one I’m surprised hasn’t been quoted more often. I think that could be used as a great zinger in response to the usual fear-mongering used to justify unnecessary military build-up. I guess it wasn’t used these last 50 years because of Johnson’s so-so popularity and association with the Vietnam War.
When LBJ starts talking about the rights of every American (to vote, to educate their children, to be judged on merit) I felt sad thinking about modern efforts to suppress voters, to defund public schools and demoralize the teachers, and the resurgence of racism/xenophobia in America today. For me, watching this speech is somewhat like being a Roman citizen in 410 CE as the Vandals march towards the city and somehow getting a brief glimpse of the Empire’s glory days during Trajan’s reign. It just makes me sad to think we used to be so noble and let it all go to waste.
Anyway, another great line comes when he says “let no one tell you that he can hold back progress and at the same time keep the peace […] to stand in the way of progress encourages violence.” I saw this as a great rephrasing of the famous idiom “those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.” I also see it as a great way to emphasize that, as far as the Democratic Party is concerned, the only way forward is progress, not stagnation in the status quo. Again, Hillary and the modern neoliberals would have done well to read this speech and learn something.
The words “Great Society” are used here, just as JFK outlined his “New Frontier” four years earlier. Like McGovern so many years later, this speech climaxes with a call to arms (that’s immediately answered by the audience in the affirmative) towards progress and reform. This leads to the only single instance of a successful second chorus I’ve seen in a convention speech, where he asks the audience “Will You [insert policy/agenda here].” It’s a very effective and powerful conclusion, about on par with McGovern’s, perhaps even a bit better. My one criticism is that Johnson should have ended on this section (that’s where McGovern comes out on top) instead he drones on another couple of minutes and therefore dilutes the impact of this call to arms.
The finale is good but ought to have been flipped with the earlier call to arms part of the speech. It’s very well spoken, but coming after the passionate words from just before, putting the onus on us voters to make it happen, it feels like a dragged out anti-climax. But overall, this was a phenomenal address, which coming from LBJ was very surprising since I could barely stand to watch his inaugural address.
This next observation may be a weird thing to focus on but, hey, appearances matter in politics. I love how LBJ wears glasses. No other president since has done so, except occasionally Bush Snr. I think it gives Johnson a very distinguished, intellectual appearance. Unfortunately I can’t really see a bespectacled President happening again, at least not from the Democrats. They’re already stereotyped as coastal elites, intellectuals, and even back in the ’50s Adlai was called an “egghead.” I can only imagine the stupid insults: nerd, poindexter etc. that would get thrown around in today’s heated climate. With LBJ, I think it’s the fact that he was southern, very much a masculine man (bathroom meetings as a show of dominance, huge cock named “Jumbo,” womanizer, etc) that he was able to pull it off. The glasses kind of tempers that chauvinist side of him and (at least to me) evokes a certain fatherly or grandfatherly image. As if LBJ was a wrestler in his youth and could still bench more than most up and coming young hotshots, but he still finds time to read a book and study world history in his personal time. Again, maybe I’m making too much of this, but there’s a reason W Bush uses that country accent and Hillary sometimes resorts to a southern drawl when their normal speaking voices are a lot more refined. And again, it’s because appearances, while superficial, have a significant effect on voters.
An Aside About YouTube
So, apparently the LBJ speech above isn’t working. I would never have known if one of my readers hadn’t reached out to me. See, it works for me but apparently not for any other user due to an automatic copyright claim. Evidently, YouTube in all their wisdom don’t think that’s important to communicate to the uploader. They just let you find out on your own.
I use my YouTube channel to preserve history in my own small way. I post speeches and debates of US politicians which weren’t already on the platform, because CSPAN’s player is clunky and not user friendly in my experience. And I jump through hoops to do this stupid menial public service. CSPAN’s video player has some weird embedding bullshit so I can’t just rip videos from your average “Keep Vid” or “download Youtube” type of site. No, I have to use Youtube-DL a command line program that’s certainly more tedious than it needs to be but in these circumstances is a godsend nonetheless.
So it’s really fucking annoying when I do all of that just for my video to be copyright claimed within the hour by some mindless Google bots. This is a public speech by a US President, meant for public consumption when it was delivered and with clear historical value to the present day. And some fucking goddamn Chinese company claims copyright on it. Not only that, YouTube sides with the corporate bottom feeders to take my video down and prevent it from being seen until the dispute is resolved–which will almost certainly be in the Chinese’ favor. They are a corporation after all and what am I but a living breathing US citizen trying to get my fellow millennials informed about US politics against all odds.
I tell ya man, between stupid shit like this and the Biden coronation last Tuesday is it any wonder people give up on politics altogether? Like, can you really blame me for taken an extended leave to watch erotic foreign films like Femina Ridens and Belladonna of Sadness? I think that’s the intention of the powers that be….
Glad to see some more of your outstanding political analysis. I was in about 10th grade when LBJ was nominated, so not very interested in politics then. And as you know LBJ is not one of my favorite Presidents. Too much association with Vietnam War. I read an article today that argues that the roots of the big partisan divide in US politics today has its roots in LBJ civil rights legislation. You might find it interesting, I posted it on my Facebook. Liked how you noticed his speaking style, its similarity to Truman, how it is outdated now. Keep up the good work!