Like dates that live in infamy, quotes do too.
Throughout the 20th and 21st Centuries, there have been political speeches, quotes and remarks that have become memorable. They could be carefully crafted or off-the-cuff. Their words have preceded words and events that shook the world. They’ve elicited gasps and tears.
Here are, in no particular order, 20 quotes from American politics that shook the world.
- “Therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow” – Richard Nixon, August 8, 1974
Richard Nixon’s resignation is the first, and only one so far, for a sitting President. Whilst common in other countries, such a situation is evidently rare in the United States. Nixon had clung on to his presidency as the Watergate scandal ran. Eventually, the so-called ‘smoking gun’ was released. This smoking gun was a recording that proved that Nixon knew about the break-in and that he wanted the investigation quashed.
Several leading Republicans, headed by Barry Goldwater, visited Nixon to inform him their support was gone and that they’d vote to impeach. With his mind made up, Nixon announced his resignation. This was a huge turning point in American history and hugely contributed to the climate of mistrust.
- “Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan” – FDR, December 8, 1941
Though WW2 had already swept much of the world, America’s isolationism had kept it out of officially joining in. That changed on 7th December 1941, when Japanese planes hit Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Thousands were killed and destroyed a lot of navy equipment, most famously the USS Arizona.
Franklin Roosevelt’s speech is oft-quoted, though it is incorrectly referred to as ‘the day which will live in infamy.’ It was also hugely influential at the time- just half an hour later, Congress voted to go to war. 7th December 1941 is often referred to as ‘the date which will live in infamy’ in common vernacular.
- “Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts” – George W. Bush, September 11, 2001
The USA saw terror attacks in the 90s, from the Oklahoma Bombings to the first Trade Center bombing. On 11th September 2001, two planes crashed into the World Trade Center. A third crashed into The Pentagon. The fourth, headed for either the White House or the Capitol, was bravely brought down at the cost of the passengers’ lives.
George W. Bush had been reading at an elementary school in Florida when the attacks came. Later that day, he spoke from the Oval Office to a shocked nation. This was regarded as his finest hour and his popularity ratings contrasted with his unpopularity at the end of his second term. It was a defining moment for a president who saw 3,000 people murdered in a few hours.
- “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by their character” – MLK, August 28, 1963
On a warm day in August 1963, the March on Washington saw thousands of Civil Rights activists descend upon the capital. Martin Luther King Jr was speaking when Mahlia Jackson shouted for him to tell them his dream. Though the quote above was not the first in the speech to start with ‘I have a dream,’ it is the most remembered.
Though the Civil Rights movement was far from united, MLK succinctly summed up the goal- equality and lack of judgement. Remembered as one of the finest speakers in history, MLK delivered many speeches, but this is always the one that defines the age.
- “I have bad news for you, for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight” – RFK, April 4, 1968
1968 was a tumultuous year in US history. The Tet Offensive was in full swing and Lyndon B. Johnson had shockingly announced that he wasn’t running again only days earlier. Popular candidate Robert F. Kennedy was on his way to a campaign stop when he received word of MLK’s shooting. He was off the plane when he received the news. On the back of a flatbed truck, he told a crowd of mainly African-Americans that MLK had been assassinated.
The speech is stunning to listen to. Indianapolis, where RFK was speaking, was saved from the riots that plagued the nation that night. Kennedy was credited for his quick thinking and was believed to be the reason why Indianapolis stayed quiet. Two months later, Kennedy was a victim of an assassination.
- “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” – Ronald Reagan, June 12, 1987
The Cold War has been raging for decades when Ronald Reagan made a trip to Berlin a year before leaving office. He’d made a lot of inroads with moderniser Mikhail Gorbachev, but tension still loomed. Staffers and speechwriters fought over the key phrase, which was kept in as Reagan liked it.
This became one of Reagan’s key speeches and one for which he was often remembered. It struck a balance between cordiality and determined anti-communism. The Berlin Wall would fall three years later and the USSR fell not long later.
- “Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president” – LBJ, March 31, 1968
The Vietnam War was not going well for America. The My Lai massacre of the 16th March would make headlines a year later. LBJ faced daily protests even as he remained favourite for the Democratic nomination- conventional wisdom said a sitting president should win. Unfortunately, he faced stiff competition from the anti-war Euegne McCarthy and popular Robert F. Kennedy. By the end of March, he knew he was out.
LBJ’s decision was known only to a few people including his wife Lady Bird and Vice President Hubert Humphrey. His speech shocked many- even though he was unpopular, he was expected to take the nomination. There has been lots of speculation on why LBJ lost- a promise to his wife, his very bad health (he died three days after what would have been his second term), lack of policy and Vietnam being a few. His popularity shot up after he resigned.
- “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer” – Barack Obama, November 4, 2008
When Barack Obama was born in 1961, the idea of an African-American President was ludicrous. Blacks still couldn’t vote in many places. After being elected to the Senate in 2004, Obama enjoyed a meteoric rise, especially after a well-received speech at the DNC. In 2008, he decided to run for President against the Hillary Clinton brand. He managed to outpace Clinton despite her being the favourite, and took the nomination.
His election to the Presidency was historic. This was the first time an African-American/minority had won the White House. The residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue would be black. His speech in Chicago really confirmed this reality for everyone.
- “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over,” Gerald Ford, August 9, 1974
Gerald Ford had an unlikely rise to fame. The mild-mannered House Minority Leader was chosen to replace disgraced Vice President Spiro Agnew. He was only in office a few months when he was told by Al Haig that a tape which incriminated Nixon was to be released.
In his inaugural speech, Ford sought to soothe a fractured nation. This was still new territory to Americans as they’d never had a president resign before. Ford, commonly seen as one of the nicest people in politics, attempted to heal the nation. This phrase came back to bite him in the ass when he decided to preemptively pardon Nixon. Though he only lost by a surprisingly close result in 1976, the damage to his legacy remained.
- “The judgment of the Supreme Court of Florida is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion” – Supreme Court of the United States, December 12, 2000
It’s 2000. Sitting Vice President Al Gore is running for President. His opponent is the previous President’s son, George W. Bush. Despite Bill Clinton’s high approval ratings, Gore chose not to use him in the campaign until much later- he was always reportedly closer to Hillary and was upset by the affair. Despite being a political unknown, Bush did well in debates and came across as more personable. It was water tight on the night. Then came Florida. The state was swinging from Bush to Gore and back until it was decided that a recount was needed. For an agonising month or so, Florida was the nation’s focus.
Somebody was going to be upset with the result either way. Bush winning ended eight years of Democratic rule and ushered in a new era. We do not know what would have happened if Gore had won instead. The decision meant the War on Terror among other things. It all could have gone completely differently.
- “Last night, I congratulated Donald Trump and offered to work with him on behalf of our country” – Hillary Clinton, November 9, 2016
There are shocking elections, then there’s 2016. Eccentric billionaire Donald Trump entered the race to everyone’s amusement, before suddenly coming out on top. His opponent was veteran politician Hillary Clinton who was expected to coast through to victory. It was believed Trump was the only Republican who could lose to the unpopular Clinton. Polls had her winning at every turn.
Then the unexpected happened. Clinton voters did not turn out. States that hadn’t turned Republican for years- Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin- went for Trump. Places like New Hampshire were tight. It soon became clear that Clinton had lost. For her supporters- and critics- it didn’t seem real until she made a concession speech. Clinton hadn’t expected to lose and hadn’t prepared properly. It seemed the media hadn’t either.
- “We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” – Brown v Board of Education, May 17, 1954
The Civil Rights movement was one of the dominant forces in post-War America. In Kansas, a girl named Linda Carol Brown wasn’t allowed to attend a local school that was whites only, despite it being the same distance from her home to the bus stop she had to walk to. Her father, Oliver Brown, became the plaintiff in a case challenging school segregation. He was represented by NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall. In a rare unanimous 9-0 consensus, the Supreme Court ruled that school segregation violated the Equal Protection Clause.
Though the ramifications were huge, it took years for segregation to be broken down in schools. Still, it was a huge turning point and victory for the movement. Thurgood Marshall would become the very first African-American member of the Supreme Court in 1967.
- “For the stage prior to approximately the end of the first trimester, the abortion decision and its effectuation must be left to the medical judgment of the pregnant woman’s attending physician” – Roe v Wade, Supreme Court of the United States, January 22, 1973
Probably the most controversial Supreme Court ruling in living memory, Roe v Wade started when Texas single mother Norma McCorvey sought an abortion. With the help of two young female attorneys, the case went to the Supreme Court. In a 7-2 decision, the court ruled that the right to an abortion was fundamental, but government couldn’t intervene during the first trimester of a pregnancy.
The decision is still divisive to this day. A later court case, Planned Parenthood v Casey, allowed the government to use viability as a metric. This would permit them to make restrictions in the first trimester, overruling Roe. To this day, activists on both sides fight constantly over the issue.
- “I did not have sexual relations with that woman… Miss. Lewinsky,” Bill Clinton, January 26, 1998
Oh Bill. In 1996, Clinton began an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. This continued even after Lewinsky was transferred to the Pentagon by concerned advisors. Lewinsky confided in colleague Linda Tripp. Tripp recorded the tapes and eventually revealed them to Kenneth Starr, the White House’s independent counsel. Newsweek discovered the story but buried it. Hours later, The Drudge Report broke it. On a 26th January press conference with his wife Hillary, Clinton uttered those famous words.
It’s a widely parodied quote but was even more than that. For Clinton, it was the start of an impeachment process stemming from charges of lying under oath and obstruction of justice. He eventually escaped impeachment and remained popular. Lewinsky was vilified by the press and public, though her reputation has been re-evaluated in the modern era.
- “From Dallas, Texas, the newsflash, apparently official, President Kennedy died at 1PM Central Standard Time,” – Walter Cronkite, November 22, 1963.
With a year to go before the next election, President Kennedy headed to Texas to shore up support. He was supported by his popular young wife Jackie, who usually forwent those trips. As he was riding down Dealey Plaza, he was shot. Texas Governor John Connally was also hit. The two were rushed to hospital, with Walter Cronkite breaking the news on the airwaves. Several hours later, Cronkite received word that Kennedy had died and passed this on.
The nation was shocked. Three presidents had previously been assassinated, but the last one had been over sixty years ago. Kennedy was fairly liked and his young family had received extensive media coverage. LBJ was sworn in on Air Force One that afternoon as the nation mourned.
- “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” – Joseph N. Welch, June 9, 1954
Communism had been a fear for many Americans since the Russian Revolution. One politician who took advantage of that was Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy led the Red Scare with his dramatic hearings and accusations. During the Army-McCarthy hearings, McCarthy got into a verbal altercation with Army counsel Joseph Welch. After McCarthy attacked another member, Welch uttered the famous words.
Dwight D. Eisenhower had been accused of not doing enough to stop McCarthy, but he helped orchestrate the televising of the hearings in order to show what he was really like. McCarfhy received a huge loss of popularity. Ten days later, Wyoming Senator Lester C. Hunt killed himself. Hunt’s son had been arrested on charges of homosexuality and McCarthy had threatened him with the information. This led to McCarthy being censured by the Senate. He lost a lot of attention and died only two years later.
- “I have a terrific headache,” – FDR, April 12, 1945
Having led the country since 1933, many Americans had become used to FDR. His health had always been precarious, however, though this was hidden to the public. A fourth term seemed reckless but FDR was determined to see the war through. His two former Vice Presidents had left or been forced out of the ticket, so Missouri Senator Harry S. Truman was picked to join him in ‘44. Truman was supported by bosses, which was essential due to the fair chance of him becoming President. Only three months after the inauguration, FDR was sitting for a portrait when he spoke those last words. He fell unconscious and later died of a cerebral hemorrhage.
The death of FDR was a huge shock to the American people. Most weren’t aware that he was that ill. Young Americans could only really remember Roosevelt. It was expected he’d outlast the war at the least. Harry S. Truman had barely known the president, yet was greeted by Eleanor Roosevelt informing him of the death. Only a few months later, the war ended.
- “‘…That the state of war between the United States and the Imperial German Government, which has thus been thrust upon the United States, is hereby formally declared…” – Woodrow Wilson, April 2, 1917
When hostilities started in 1914, America stayed far away from what they deemed a European war. Woodrow Wilson had been attempting to build support with the war, especially after the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. Two events pushed American entry forward. The first was the Zimmerman Telegram, a communication from Germany to Mexico. The Germans offered Mexico help in retaking land from America in exchange for assistance during the war. Americans were furious when this was revealed. At the same time, American ships were being sunk by German u-boats. Wilson eventually decided it was time for a declaration.
The war changed America. Thousands of young men were injured or killed overseas. The work of women helped them win the vote in 1920. The Great Migration occurred, with African-Americans moving out of the segregationist south in hopes of getting jobs in the urban north. It also encouraged more isolationism in WW2.
- “And so tonight—to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans—I ask for your support” – Richard Nixon, November 3, 1969
The 60s was a decade full of change- Civil Rights, sexual liberation and Stonewall to name a few. Towards the end of the decade the hippie movement rose, scaring the conservatives of the era. Enter Richard Nixon. The conservative, anti-communism defeated the anti-war Eugene McCarthy in the 1968 election. His 1969 speech was a response to massive anti-Vietnam war demonstrations.
Nixon ushered in a new conservative era of politics. Goldwater had failed to benefit from the Conservative Revolution, but Nixon benefitted both from that and the turbulent 60s. The phrase ‘silent majority’ has become popular in politics, usually referring to conservatives who feel they cannot
- “Ich bin ein Berliner,” – JFK, June 26, 1963
The Cold War was a thorn in JFK’s side. He oversaw the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and the near end of the world during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In June 1963, he visited Berlin. After a trip to Checkpoint Charlie, Kennedy spoke to a crowd of West Berliners. East Germans listened from the other side but could not react due to police presence. In his speech, JFK uttered those immortal words.
First things first- JFK did not say he was a jelly doughnut. That is a myth. His speech did reignite hope in West Berliners who lived in constant fear of Soviet takeovers. It showed off JFK’s anti-communist stance and became one of the speeches most associated with him. Only months later, he was felled by an assassin’s bullet. Some believe that the Soviets were involved.