Piggybacking on Jesse’s last post, I came across this Ann Applebaum piece in today’s WaPo on great American speeches and the way in which the especially good orators tended to build on the rhetoric of their predecessors.

I think this is mostly true, with a few historical exceptions. One that comes to mind is Jesse Jackson’s 1984 speech at Tendley Baptist. This is one of my favorite speeches of all time, as it delivers everything you would expect from Jesse Jackson in his prime. But more than that, it really is a remarkable example of a speech delivered in a freer form than those we tend to remember. The timely pauses – just as important as any of the words delivered – allow the listener to fill in the blanks with their own wisdom and summations (a common and effective speech technique). I often juxtapose this speech in my mind with Robert Kennedy’s Indianapolis message on the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.–brief, eloquent and brilliant, however, leaving little for the human mind to imagine. And why should it? At that point in time, Kennedy’s audience needed to be guided, to be comforted in such a tragic and terrible time in American history. Piecing together his own notes on the plane, Kennedy used Aeschylus to weave a calm and steady word of hope for the audience.

The Jackson speech is entirely different. Meant to mobilize and energize, this speech is filled with pockets of air intended to be sucked up by the eager listener:

20+ years of scandal and tabloid attention have sullied and fogged our memories on Jesse Jackson. Rightfully so, perhaps. But Jackson was a powerhouse in his time, albeit brief. The voter registration and mobilization he did in his respective ’84 and ’88 presidential bids further ensconced African-Americans firmly in the hands of the Democratic Party.

And it’s interesting, that in 1984, Jesse Jackson offered this ‘choice.’ That same year, President-elect Obama, fresh out of Columbia University, was working an entry level job for a multinational corporate consulting firm in New York City. The choice he would soon make – to leave the position for his community organizing position in Chicago – would become the subject of campaign ads and radio hit spots years later.

So, seeing Jesse Jackson in tears on the night of November 4 certainly feels like a culmination of sorts. There’s a lot of Jackson in Obama’s rhetoric, and without Jesse Jackson there arguably is no President-elect Obama today. His admonition to the audience, “don’t stop at the mayor’s office, go higher,” seems precient and fulfilling in light of the events of 2008.

Jackson would lose the nomination in both years, and much like Al Smith before him, it would’ve been easy to give up and assume that “we” would never achieve the highest office in the land. Jackson did not, and his tears must’ve felt pretty joyous on that night in Grant Park.