Tuesday, June 15, 2010

American Zeitgeist Rhetoric (1970-2010)

First, some clarification:

zeitgeist –noun, German
the spirit of the time; general trend of thought or feeling characteristic of a particular period of time

I have long been fascinated by the power of rhetoric and, more specifically, the capacity of words to capture the "essence" of specific periods in history. It is from this interest that I have created a list of "American Zeitgeist Rhetoric" - i.e., individual pieces of rhetoric that summed up the zeitgeist of the years from American history in which they were produced. They come from speeches, movies, songs, interviews, newspaper headlines, and even commercials; they range in length from a few words to several pages of text; some are among the most famous utterances of our time, while others are relatively obscure. Each selection is accompanied by a brief explanation as to its history and why I saw fit to include it on this list. Of course, given the passionate feelings that this subject is bound to arouse, I more than expect there to be ample disagreement on many of my choices - and I welcome the debate!

1970: President Richard Nixon, “Cambodian Incursion” Speech (April 30, 1970)
The Vietnam War was one of the defining political issues of the late-1960s and early-1970s, and although Richard Nixon claimed, during the 1968 presidential campaign that led to his election, that he had a "secret plan" for peacefully ending the war, it soon became abundantly clear that his policies were not going to be substantively different from those of his predecessors. That said, his decision to expand America's bombing program OUTSIDE the boundaries of Vietnam itself - by bombing the adjacent nation of Cambodia in the spring of 1970 - marked a turning point not only in the war itself, but in the reaction to it at home. The announcement of his escalation was greeted with cheers by hawks and cries of outrage by doves; it led to the protests at Kent State University which prompted the Ohio National Guard to lash out in horrifying violence against unarmed students; and it enhanced Nixon's status among right-wing reactionaries whose support he would need to be re-elected.

1971: John Lennon, "Imagine" song (October 11, 1971)
Those who had hoped that the dissolution of The Beatles in 1970 would silence its most outspoken political activist, John Lennon, would be proven mistaken. Indeed, Lennon soon emerged as one of the leading voices of the protest movement, an individual who mobilized millions of Baby Boomers during the late-1960s and early-1970s and inspired future generations of progressive activists. While the themes covered in his song "Imagine" had been addressed before - both by himself and by dozens of other prominent countercultural figures of the time - the lyrical beauty and melodic simplicity of this piece embodied the spirit of "the movement" that was such a defining aspect of both 1971 and the larger period known as "The Sixties".

1972: Al Pacino as Michael Corleone,“Powerful Man” monologue from movie “The Godfather” (March 15, 1972)
The quixotic idealism that John Lennon so eloquently captured in 1971 came hand-in-hand with a seemingly paradoxical reaction that was born from the same wellspring of dissent - pure, unadulterated cynicism. It is appropriate that the most perfect encapsulation of the jadedness toward established institutions which was felt at the time came from one of the most acclaimed motion pictures released in both the 1970s or any other decade - Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather". In a single brief and oft-overlooked explanation delivered by Al Pacino's Michael Corleone to his girlfriend, Diane Keaton's Kay Adams, the future mobster constructs a shockingly simple rationalization for the actions of the mafia by comparing them to other "powerful men" whose actions are quickly justified and dismissed by society. Although the brutal realism from Coppola's magnum opus seems to exist in stark contrast to the hopefulness embodied by Lennon's music, both brilliantly summarize the spirit of disenchantment and rebellion felt in their respective years.

1973: President Richard Nixon, "I Am Not A Crook" statement (November 17, 1973)
Although the Watergate fiasco technically began exactly seventeen months before Nixon's famous declaration of innocence - with the botched burglary of Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel on June 17, 1972 - it wasn't until 1973 that the political scandal truly started coming to a head. The controversy that eventually led to the disgrace and unprecedented resignation of President Richard Nixon better epitomized the growing loss of faith in previously-untouchable figures and institutions then perhaps any other event within the last half-century. When one takes into account just how deeply Watergate dominated America's political and even cultural life at the time - and considering how apparent the multi-layered irony of Nixon's famously shifty insistence in his own trustworthiness was to those who witnessed it - the selection of a "zeitgeist rhetoric" for 1973 was self-evident.

1974: President Gerald Ford, "Inaugural Address" (August 9, 1974)
Less remembered for its irony and false reassurance was the inaugural address of Richard Nixon's successor, Gerald Ford. On the same day that Richard Nixon's dishonor culminated in his stepping down from the White House, the newly-sworn in Gerald Ford - the first, and so far only, unelected president in American history - famously comforted the American people by proclaiming that "our long national nightmare is over". Given Ford's humble and down-to-earth personality, as well as his clear discomfort with the power that had just been thrust upon him, many Americans did indeed believe that their new president might usher in a great restoration of faith and trust in national institutions, beginning with the presidency itself. That promise was soon dashed, however, with President Ford's decision - made exactly one month later - to unconditionally pardon Richard Nixon of all crimes committed regarding the Watergate cover-up. Although historians today agree that Ford was motivated by a misguided sympathy for his predecessor rather than any self-serving ulterior motives, at the time public sentiment overwhelmingly turned against the new president, as more and more people suspected that Ford had arranged a covert deal with Nixon to trade the presidency in return for a pardon. No restoration would occur.

1975: Associated Press headline "Mihn Surrenders, Vietcong in Saigon" (April 30, 1975)
Just as the resignation and pardoning of Richard Nixon solidified the large-scale embarrassment of our domestic political establishment, so too did the fall of Saigon to the Communist-backed Vietcong movement officially bring about the humiliation of America's international establishment - namely, its military. The same country that had turned the tide in two world wars, held back Communist advances from Korea to Germany, and single-handedly become an international superpower in one-third of a century had now been defeated - in a war that spanned more than a decade - by a handful of guerrillas. The news that conveyed this to the American people, and thus the rhetoric capturing the zeitgeist of 1975, needed no embellishment, which is why the Associated Press report will more than suffice.

1976: Peter Finch as Howard Beale, "Mad as hell" monologue from movie "Network" (November 27, 1976)
By 1976, Americans were angry. The economy had entered an interminable state of hyperinflation and recession, violence was rampant in our cities, faith had been shattered in virtually all major governmental, business, and cultural institutions, and no one knew where to turn for solace. The collective cry of frustration and rage was brilliantly evoked in a speech delivered by the fictional protagonist of Paddy Chayefsky's classic film, "Network" - an ex-news anchor named Howard Beale, whose rapid descent into insanity helped him tap into the outrage and despair of the American people better than any real-life, sane human being. Although "Network" is best remembered today for its eerily prophetic vision of the exploitative dumbing down of the American news industry, it is the ranting and raving of Peter Finch (who won a rare posthumous Oscar for his performance) in the Zeitgeist-capturing "Mad as hell" speech that gives this movie its transcendent genius.

1977: Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi, "May the force be with you" line from movie "Star Wars" (May 25, 1977)
People needed a form of escape from reality, and in 1977 that thirst was quenched with the release of a motion picture that revolutionized the film industry - "Star Wars". Although movies had been popular prior to George Lucas' masterpiece, never before had a single movie completely swept up the country in its thrall. From its eye-popping special effects and brisk cinematic pacing to its mesmerizingly-evoked fantasy world and crisp dialogue (the last feature which would, sadly, deteriorate quite noticeably in subsequent franchise installments), "Star Wars" dominated the ethos of the year in which it was released.

1978: Cardinal Karol Wojtyla's Address to the Crowd (October 16, 1978)
When Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was chosen by the Papal Conclave to become Pope John Paul II - the third pope to serve in 1978, as the great Pope Paul VI had died earlier that year and his successor, Pope John Paul I, died after a papacy of only thirty-three days - he shocked the world by breaking centuries of precedent and addressing the crowd which had assembled beneath the Vatican balcony to greet him. Even more surprisingly, he opted to speak to them not in Latin - the language preferred by clergy in the Catholic church - but in their own native tongue, Italian (interestingly, this was not the natural language of the pontiff himself, who as a Polish citizen had become the first non-Italian to become Pope in more than 450 years). This action inspired Americans as much as it did the rest of the world, which is why the bold egalitarianism of Wojtyla's words - despite being delivered by a non-American in a foreign country - better captured the zeitgeist of 1978 for America than did anything uttered by one of our own citizens.

1979: President Jimmy Carter, "Crisis of Confidence" Speech (July 15, 1979)
On July 5, 1979, as President Jimmy Carter found himself scheduled to deliver a national address on the oil crisis - yet another installment in a long series of speeches which had been devoted to that subject - he came to the realization that, if he were a normal citizen instead of the president, he would have long since grown weary of hearing America's leaders drone on endlessly with solutions that didn't work and reassurances that rang hopelessly false. Consequently, he cancelled his expected speech and retreated to Camp David for ten days, reading the works of prominent sociologists and philosophers and engaging in conversations with Americans from all walks of life - from politicians and business leaders to small-town clergymen and working-class citizens. Carter then did something that few other presidents have seen fit to do ever since - he spent some time by himself and reflected on what he had learned. The ultimate product of those contemplations is a speech of remarkable profundity and insight, one that cuts to the heart of America's loss of confidence - in established political and social institutions, in the future, and in itself - better than any other piece of rhetoric delivered before or since. Although the speech temporarily revived Carter's flailing political fortunes, he soon undermined its impact by arbitrarily demanding that all of his Cabinet officers submit letters of resignation, eventually firing four of them. While the speech itself was popular, the dismay people felt at President Carter for his cabinet purging was soon conflated with the rhetoric of the "Crisis of Confidence" address, eventually enabling Republicans to deride Carter's observations as being "the malaise speech" (even though Carter hadn't actually used the word "malaise") and discrediting, in the eyes of many, everything Carter had to say. Despite this, the "Crisis of Confidence" speech better captures the zeitgeist of its year - as well as, arguably, the mood of an entire generation - than any other political oration in recent history.

1980: Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, "There you go again" statement at presidential debate (October 28, 1980)
In 1960, and in every subsequent presidential election since 1976, the two major party candidates have faced each other in national debate on multiple occasions throughout the year. 1980 has been the sole exception to this rule - in it, Republican Ronald Reagan and Democrat Jimmy Carter debated each other only once, exactly one week before Election Day itself, on October 28, 1980. Although Carter dominated his opponent on substantive matters, Reagan's ready arsenal of memorable quips and telegenic expressions of amused disdain caused him to win the perceptual war over his hapless opponent. This approach was exemplified by Reagan's decision to interrupt, and glibly dismiss, one of Carter's main arguments by condescendingly chiding him, "There you go again." The fact that the audience applauded, and the American people were impressed, does not reflect well on either group, considering that Carter's point - which was that, as governor of California, Reagan had voted against Medicare and Social Security benefits, with disturbing implications of what his social policies would be as president -was one that the American people should have listened to. Unfortunately, this preference for style over substance, as well as the public's misguided fleeing into the arms of the New Right for political salvation, was the essence of America in 1980.

1981: President Ronald Reagan, Inaugural Address (January 20, 1981)
By declaring in his inaugural address that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem", President Ronald Reagan was able to pull off one of the great paradoxical achievements of modern American political history. He became a president who expanded the powers of government over the lives of citizens as never before, even as he claimed to be getting that same government "off the backs of the people"; he ushered an era of ostensible fiscal responsibility, even as he ran up unprecedented budget deficits; and he created a climate in which conservatism adopted a populist ring through its use cultural reactionism and knee-jerk fear of socialism, even as its policies caused a deterioration in the standard of living for middle-class and working-class Americans. All of this was symbolized in the rhetoric of the inaugural address that ushered in not only Reagan's own presidency, but a new era in the ideological paradigm of American politics.

1982: Letter from Samantha Smith to Soviet President Yuri Andropov (December 1982)
After hawks took over the governments of the world's two great superpowers - first Ronald Reagan in the United States, then Yuri Andropov in the Soviet Union - concerns flared up, and dominated American's psychological life, about the possibility of nuclear war. In response to this, a ten-year-old girl from Maine named Samantha Smith wrote a letter to the leader of the Soviet Union, General Secretary of the Communist Party Yuri Andropov, asking him to do what he could to create peace in the world. Her letter not only received a tender response from the hardened 68-year-old politician - eventually prompting him to invite Smith on a tour of his country - but brought international recognition to the cause of world peace, particularly for those concerned with the increasing threat of nuclear annihilation.

1983: President Ronald Reagan, "The Evil Empire" Speech (March 8, 1983)
Although American foreign policy had taken a hard-line approach against the Soviet Union, and international communism overall, since the Russian Revolution had taken place in 1917, Ronald Reagan was nevertheless able to bolster his standing among far right-wingers and other hawks - as well as dramatically increase the profit margins of the corporations fueling America's military-industrial complex - by casting himself as the originator of a newer, tougher stand against the USSR. This bellicosity was encapsulated in Reagan's famous "Evil Empire" speech, which came to define much of America's political ethos during the 1980s.

1984: Apple's "1984 - Big Brother" commercial (January 22, 1984)
Another key development of the 1980s was the birth of the personal computer, which revolutionized the way Americans - and, eventually, the rest of the world - lived. This event neatly dovetailed with the rise of Apple Computers as an economic and technological powerhouse, which in turn coincided with the airing of the legendary "1984 - Big Brother" commercial during the third quarter of Super Bowl XVIII on January 22, 1984. In ways that perhaps only Apple CEO Steve Jobs fully appreciated, personal computers truly did change the world - not only in the way we process information, but in the very way we think and live. In retrospect, the Big Brother commercial can be remembered not only as a brilliant piece of advertising, but as a remarkably prescient harbinger of the computer boom to come.

1985: Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie (with the help of supergroup USA for Africa), "We Are The World" song (March 7, 1985)
The technological optimism of the 1980s was matched with an equally potent optimism - albeit one set against the backdrop of dissatisfaction with the policies of the Reagan administration - in the world of pop culture. This was best demonstrated by the release of "We Are The World", a song written by musical behemoths Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie in order to raise funds to fight disease and famine in Africa. It was performed by musical legends, under the aegis of a supergroup called "USA for Africa", including not only Jackson and Richie themselves, but Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Hall & Oates, Bette Midler, Willie Nelson, Diana Ross, Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner, and Stevie Wonder. Although the song made a considerable amount of money, much of its total profit wound up going to the governments of the affected countries instead of the people they intended to help - a fact that tragically underscored how even musicians with the best intentions can fail to achieve their desired goals unless they couple their idealism with political savvy (a lesson understood by John Lennon, though not by his many would-be successors). This disconnect between the motivations of progressive movements and their efficacy was, sadly, another noteworthy element of the 80s zeitgeist.

1986: Matthew Broderick as Ferris Bueller, "Life moves pretty fast..." line from movie "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" (June 11, 1986)
Despite all the serious topics dealt with on this list, there is a lighter, even happier side to the zeitgeist of certain eras. Such is the case with 1986, a year in which the whimsical joie de vivre of youth - a quality that made itself evident in pop culture throughout the 1980s - was captured with a single line from the cult classic, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off". You know which one I'm talking about.

1987: Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko, "Greed is good" monologue from movie "Wall Street" (December 11, 1987)
Although America's middle-class and working-class took a significant economic hit during the 1980s, the deregulation and overall laissez-faire policies implemented by Ronald Reagan caused a period of dizzying prosperity for Wall Street, big business, and others in America's upper class. Fueling this development was a materialistic ethos that permeated our country's moral and cultural, as well as economic, life throughout the decade. It was most brilliantly evoked, and skewered, in a scene in Oliver Stone's classic film "Wall Street", wherein stockbroker leviathan Gordon Gekko (played to perfection by Michael Douglas) explains to a rapt audience that - all assertions to the contrary notwithstanding - "greed, for lack of a better word, is good."

1988: Lee Atwater, presidential campaign of George H. W. Bush, "Willie Horton Ad" (September 21, 1988)
Although there were real problems in 1988 - economic decline, staggering national debt, growing discontent in an increasingly-militant Third World - political professionals realized that the way to win elections was by playing on the public's most irrational fears, preferably (if possible) by focusing on irrelevancies. This technique was turned into an art during the 1988 presidential election, in which Vice President George H. W. Bush - finding himself seventeen points behind his Democratic opponent, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis - drew attention to a prison furlough program supported by his rival that had inadvertantly led to the escape of murderer Willie Horton, who went on to savagely rape a young woman in Maryland after knifing and binding up her fiance. Horrifying though the story was, it had no real bearing either on Dukakis' qualifications to be president or on the welfare of the nation as a whole. In spite of this, it did play on latent racial concerns harbored by millions of white Americans, causing the advertisement aired by the Bush campaign - and masterminded by its great strategist, Lee Atwater - to play a decisive role in reversing Dukakis' lead and ultimately getting Bush elected by a nine-point margin. Its immediate impact aside, however, the advertisement embodied much of the pettiness that characterized American politics throughout the entire decade - perhaps explaining why the 1988 presidential election saw the lowest voter turnout in sixty-four years (although an even lower turnout would take place, due to disinterest rather than disgust, during the Clinton-Dole election eight years later).

1989: Hanns Friedrichs, newscasting "This ninth of November is a historic day..." (November 9, 1989)
Since the end of World War II forty-four years earlier, America had defined itself, internationally speaking, by the Cold War. When the Berlin Wall was torn down on November 9, 1989, the Cold War came to an abrupt end - an end best summarized by the statement of Hann Friedrichs, Germany's most well-respected newscaster, when he issued the simple declaration that "this ninth of November is a historic day." This declaration thus earns its place as one of the three pieces of "American Zeitgeist Rhetoric" to not take place within this country, due to the manner in which the fall of the Berlin Wall transformed how America viewed its role in the world community.

1990: Nelson Mandela, "Speech on Release from Prison" (February 11, 1990)
The sense of hope regarding world affairs that began with the fall of the Berlin Wall continued in early 1990, when Nelson Mandela was released from the jail cell where, as punishment for his outspoken opposition to South African apartheid, he had spent the previous twenty-seven years of his life. Along with being a signficant international event in its own right, Mandela's liberation struck a deep personal chord with the American public due to the similarities between apartheid and the system of segregation that, until relatively recently, had prevailed in America itself.

1991: President George H. W. Bush, "New World Order" Speech (January 10, 1991)
1991 was the third consecutive year of good news on the international stage - and this time, the news directly involved the actions of America itself. After issuing multiple warnings to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to cease developing nuclear weapons, President George H. W. Bush - with the full support of the United Nations and larger international community - declared war on that country. America's swift and decisive military victory restored faith in the supremacy of our armed forces, a faith that had been shattered more than a decade earlier by our defeat in Vietnam. More significant than this, though, was the speech President Bush delivered as the war drew to a close, one in which he laid out a vision for a "New World Order" of international cooperation and peacekeeping efforts that would exist in the wake of our military victory in Iraq and the rapid decline of Soviet geopolitical influence. This speech also marked the high point in Bush's presidency - his approval ratings peaked at more than 90%, by far the highest of any president in American history up to that point, rendering his re-election the following year a seeming inevitability.

1992: James Carville, presidential campaign of Bill Clinton, "It's the economy, stupid" haiku (1992)
Although President Bush assumed his triumph in the Persian Gulf would help him coast to victory in the presidential campaign of 1992, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton recognized that the economic hardships suffered by the American people over the last twelve years would become increasingly prominent in people's minds as foreign policy receded from the fore of public attention. This realization was best captured by a "haiku" written by Clinton's campaign manager, James Carville, for the use of his staffers. Including the memorable line "It's the economy, stupid," it would up proving remarkably adept at identifying the chief concerns of the American people in 1992. Not only would Clinton decisively defeat President Bush that year, but voter turnout reached the highest America had seen in twenty years.

1993: Denzel Washington as Joe Miller, courtroom monologue on AIDS discrimination from movie "Philadelphia" (December 23, 1993)
The AIDS epidemic, which devastated homosexual and minority communities since for more than a decade, had been brushed under the table during the 1980s thanks in no small part to the diffidence and contempt in which its victims were held by the (then) reigning conservative majority. In 1993, however, Hollywood released its first mainstream feature film to directly address the humanitarian ramifications of this disease. Boasting among its all-star cast such prominent names as Denzel Washington, Antonio Banderas, and (of course) Tom Hanks, the movie contains a particularly powerful monologue by Washington that provided defenders of AIDS discrimination with the condemnation they so rightly deserved - and which captured the spirit of assault against AIDS that so dominated much of the public mindscape in 1993.

1994: Weird Al Yankovic, "Headline News" song (September 27, 1994)
By 1994, the economy had entered one of the greatest periods of prosperity in American history. This boom - accompanied by unprecedented peace abroad and a general sense of American military, political, economic, and even cultural supremacy throughout the world - caused the attention of the mainstream news to shift away from matters of consequence and focus instead on trivial-but-sensational stories that would have been relegated to the sphere of tabloid journalism only a few years earlier. The absurdity of this development was identified and irreverently ridiculed by America's leading parodyist, Alfred "Weird Al" Yankovic, in his music video "Headline News". Little could Yankovic have known that he was diagnosing an element of the American spirit that would dominate the remainder of the decade.

1995: Johnnie Cochran, "If the glove don't fit..." closing remarks (September 27, 1995)
The obsessive focus on the lurid-and-petty that characterized so much of the 1990s reached its apex with the trial of football star and television personality O. J. Simpson. The story itself was a perfect storm of journalistic sensationalism, one that contained murder, illicit sex, celebrity, and race relations. Appropriately, the story was best summed up not by such factors as the guilt or innocence of its main character, but rather by a memorably delivered line from the main character's colorful attorney.

1996: "Seasons of Love" song, by Jonathan Larson, sung by the cast in the musical "Rent" (April 29, 1996)
The youth of the 1990s felt a sense of ennui that they could not shake - and that feeling, with its beautifully paradoxical mixture of romantic idealism and cynical frustration, was best evoked in the opening song from Jonathan Larson's musical "Rent", which debuted on Broadway in 1996 (although it had been first performed Off-Broadway two years earlier). Even though the story of "Rent" was set in 1989 and 1990, its ability to combine Bohemian frivolity with the more serious (and under-recognized) issues of the day (the AIDS epidemic, lingering racial and economic inequalities, the burgeoning gay rights movement) made it especially relevant to the era in which it was released.

1997: Robert DeNiro as Conrad Breen, "There Ain't No War But Ours" monologue from movie "Wag the Dog" (December 17, 1997)
Despite the peace and prosperity which marked the 1990s, an air of cynicism toward major institutions - particularly those in government and media - continued to dominate American life. This was perhaps embodied best by the movie "Wag the Dog", in which a scandal-ridden president desperate for a boost in his approval ratings pretends to wage war against Albania. The monologue delivered by media consultant Conrad Breen (played by Robert DeNiro) about how "there ain't no war but ours" says just as much about the attitude held by the American people at that time toward opinion-shapers as it does about the shapers themselves.

1998: President Bill Clinton, Denial of Infidelity (January 26, 1998)
The O. J. Simpson trial was not, unfortunately, the greatest trivial news event of the 1990s. No, that distinction belongs to the sex scandal of President Bill Clinton, one blown grossly out of proportion by a news media that craved high ratings and exploited by a conservative majority in Congress which salivated at the prospect of disgracing a president they detested. Even though Clinton eventually emerged as the winner in this debacle - not only by avoiding forced removal from office but by being the beneficiary of extraordinarily high approval ratings from a sympathetic public - his famous denial of having ever had "sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky" became one of the defining statements of his presidency - on par with another zeitgeist-capturing denial, from a different president, nearly a quarter-century earlier.

1999: Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden, "No Great Wars" monologue from movie "Fight Club" (October 15, 1999)
If "Rent" addressed the plight of 1990s ennui with music devoted to love, passion, and artistic expression, then the movie "Fight Club" responded to those same problems with a middle finger and a punch in the face. In a highly quotable monologue, the character of Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt) captured the feelings of a whole generation of Americans by pointing out how - with no "great wars" to win and no "great depressions" to conquer - men everywhere lacked a sense of greater purpose. Much of the frustration that existed as an undercurrent since the beginning of the decade was given its most eloquent expression in Pitt's monologue from this movie.

2000: Vice President Al Gore, Concession Speech (December 13, 2000)
Americans entered the new millenium with the first presidential election in 112 years in which the victorious candidate had failed to receive the most popular votes. Despite strong evidence of electoral fraud in Florida - evidence that, if properly accounted for, would have caused Vice President Al Gore to be declared the winner instead of his opponent, Governor George W. Bush - the Supreme Court of the United States, in a transparently partisan decision, decided to favor Bush's case over the one presented by Al Gore. Even though Gore was thus fated to never become president, he still had the distinction of becoming that year's greatest leader, by delivering a concession speech after the Supreme Court's decision that handled his injustice with grace and sage perspective. While the speech failed to remove the sting of democracy thwarted, it at least allowed the long-awaited year 2000 to end on a somewhat upbeat note - and allowed Gore, who prior to then had been widely criticized for his overly-cerebral and lackluster speaking style, to reveal surprising gifts as an orator.

2001: President George W. Bush, Bullhorn Speech (September 14, 2001)
The rest of the 2000s would be defined by a single event - the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Although President George W. Bush had, up until then, suffered from low approval ratings and even lower public esteem, his popularity quickly became the highest of any president's in history after he was perceived as unifying the country and taking charge following the tragedy of that day. Bush was even able to rise to the occasion in a spontaneous moment - when addressing a crowd of firefighters from the rubble of one of the World Trade Center buildings three days after the attack, he heard a voice shout "I can't hear you". In response, the new president Bush replied:

"I can hear you! I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people -- and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!"

Had Bush followed through on his encouraging words from that day - had he brought Osama bin Laden to justice and increased America's prestige throughout the world, instead of capitalizing on the 9/11 attacks to wage an unnecessary war against Iraq - his bullhorn speech might have captured the zeitgeist of 2001 as a moment of inspiration. Instead, those words captured not only the horror of that time, but the failures of the man fate (and the Supreme Court) had chosen to lead us through it.

2002: President George W. Bush, State of the Union Address (January 29, 2002)
The first State of the Union address delivered by President Bush after the September 11th terrorist attacks, this speech set the policies and general tone which would define the remainder of Bush's presidency. Along with condemning the perpetrators of the World Trade Center and Pentagon murders, Bush proceeded to label the nations of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea "an axis of evil". Just as Bush's speeches immediately after September 11th helped establish him, in the minds of most Americans, as a leader, so too did this speech convince lay the psychological foundations that would persuade most Americans to follow their president into an eventual war with Iraq, as well as an unprecedented estrangement from much of the international community.

2003: Secretary of State Colin Powell, Address to the United Nations Security Council (February 5, 2003)
By 2003, the zeitgeist of the times had evolved from one of unwavering support of President Bush and his agenda to one of cautious-but-growing skepticism with his single-minded insistence on toppling the regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. As a means of winning the support not just of the rest of the world, but of the holdouts among the American public, President Bush dispatched the most widely-trusted figure of his administration, Secretary of State Colin Powell, to make the case for war to the United Nations Security Council. Although history has since then revealed that Powell had grave doubts about the veracity of the argument he was presenting to the world, he dutifully performed as he was told. There can be no doubt that the war would have taken place even if Powell had abstained from delivering his speech to the UN; even so, the fact that a man of Powell's renowned pragmatism opted to throw his credibility behind the war effort instead of resigning in protest (as one Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, had done in opposition to America's growing involvement in World War I) epitomized the larger national trend of falling in line.

2004: Democratic Senate candiate Barack Obama, Keynote Address at Democratic National Convention (July 27, 2004)
The outrages of Bush's stolen election in 2000, the climate of fear that had been stoked by the Bush administration after September 11th, the gradual abridgement of American freedoms as made manifest by the USA Patriot Act, and the unjust war in Iraq all fired up the liberal movement in ways that had not been seen in more than thirty years. Yet although the Democratic party nominated as its candidate a man believed to be a surefire winner - John Kerry, whose war heroism was felt to make him an ideal opponent to the increasingly bellicose (and chickenhawk packed) Bush administration - Kerry's incompetently-managed campaign, combined with the effective scurrility of the Bushies in casting false doubt on his military record, ultimately rendered the Massachusetts Senator a poor spokesman for the liberal movement. Fortunately, the cause of the left was not without its zeitgeist-capturing advocates; that honor went instead to the Democratic party's Senate candidate in Illinois, Barack Obama, whose eloquent speech at that year's Democratic National Convention made him an overnight star in the political world. Although Kerry would lose to Bush in that election year, Obama's speech made him the voice of a political movement that Kerry was never able to become.

2005: Kanye West, protest at Hurricane Katrina benefit concert (September 2, 2005)
After Bush's re-election, his administration seemed unstoppable - until the bungling of its response to Hurricane Katrina caused many to take the first, tentative steps toward confronting their president on his record. The outcry against the incumbent reached its climax that year at a televised benefit concert for Hurricane Katrina victims, during which then-unknown rapper Kanye West spontaneously blurted out that "George Bush doesn't care about black people." West's statement seemed to symbolize the emergence of an increasingly empowered voice of opposition to the president - a symbolism further highlighted by the split-second decision of the producers to cut off West rather than allow him airtime to further criticize the president. Yet West's words showed that, after Hurricane Katrina, more than one tide had been turned.

2006: Stephen Colbert, comedy routine at White House Correspondents' Dinner (April 29, 2006)
Hurricane Katrina might have marked the turning of the tide against President Bush, but Stephen Colbert's roasting of the president during the 2006 White House Correspondents' Dinner was the most cutting - and hilarious - condemnation of everything the Bush administration represented during that decade. Along with giving brilliantly edgy expression to the sentiments of millions of Americans, Colbert's performance also managed to catapult him to iconic status as a court jester whose unique method of offering faux support for his targets could bring the great and powerful to their knees.

2007: Al Gore, Academy Awards Acceptance Speech for movie "An Inconvenient Truth" (February 25, 2007)
After spending more than half-a-decade out of the public limelight following his historic defeat in the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore's career experienced an unexpected renaissance with the release of his documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth", in 2006. By focusing public attention on the growing threat of global warming - an issue that, despite its increasing relevance, had been largely ignored by a war-and-terrorism obsessed public since 2001 - Gore not only managed to reassert his own relevance, but forced political dialogue to end its single-minded obsession with the issues pre-selected by the Bush administration. The success of Gore's efforts would be made clear in 2007 - eventually, late in the year, by his winning of the Nobel Peace Prize, but first (and more importantly insofar as his influence on the American public is concerned) in February by his receiving an Academy Award for Best Documentary. His acceptance speech during the awards ceremony, while only repeating the basic message of his film, nevertheless revived the spark of public interest in the need to address global warming. One year later, the presidential candidates of both major parties were acknowledging the validity of global warming as a direct result of the accolades Gore received for his movie.

2008: Senator Barack Obama, "Yes We Can" Speech (January 8, 2008)
After besting his two chief rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination - Senator Hillary Clinton of New York and former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina - in an upset victory at the Iowa caucuses earlier that month, Senator Barack Obama seemed unstoppable in his quest to be his party's standard bearer in that presidential election. That image suffered a setback on January 8th, when Clinton defeated Obama (just as unexpectedly) in the Democratic party's New Hampshire primary. Yet despite this serious blow to his presidential ambitions, Obama managed to use his misfortune to deliver a concession speech that would define not only his presidential campaign, but the sense of hope and change that would characterize American politics through most of that election year - i.e., the "Yes We Can" speech.

2009: Jon Stewart's confrontational with Jim Cramer (March 12, 2009)
In late 2008, the bottom of an economy that had been declining for seven years finally fell out in a stock market crash and mass mortgage crisis that still rattles us today. Americans were livid at the manner in which their lives, to say nothing of the prestige of the country they loved, were destroyed by the financial titans of Wall Street. The pervading sense that the people responsible for getting the United States into its current mess were managing to not only avoid accountability, but walk away with record profits, was made manifest when comedian and satirist Jon Stewart received an opportunity to interview Jim Cramer, a prominent economic pundit who had been one of the most passionate shills for the interests of big business. By admonishing Cramer for neglecting his duties as a supposed reporter, and instead contributing to the mentality and practices that made the financial crisis possible, Stewart emerged as one of the few public figures capable of effectively demanding some sort of responsibility from the self-entrusted keepers of America's economic health.

2010 (tentatively): Matt Stone as Kyle Broflovski, bleeped monologue at conclusion of "South Park 201" (April 21, 2010)
The year 2010 is young, and therefore no final zeitgeist-capturing rhetoric can be designated. That said, I feel the bleeped monologue delivered by "South Park" character Kyle Broflovski is a strong contender, not only for the statement it makes about America's willingness to capitulate to the coercive tactics of terrorists, but also for the manner in which it shows how real free speech, as well as the courage it takes to employ it, is stifled far more often than it is rewarded in America today.

So... what do you think?

2 comments:

Max said...

Matt,
Your takes on the zeitgeist of 1971 and 1972 are unique, intelligent, and beautifully written! I never really thought of the optimism and cynicism of "The Sixties" being two sides of the same coin - not being able to have one without the other. This is perfectly captured by your specific, and clever, analysis of Al Pacino's monologue. 1970 was spot on as well. I look forward to reading the rest of them.

Matthew Laszlo said...

For the record:

2010 - I still believe the censored monologue from "South Park 201" better captured the zeitgeist of that year than anything else.

2011 - Right now, my money is on the speech delivered by President Obama after the Gabrielle Giffords shooting. There is still time for another contender to emerge and supplant it, but it's doubtful that will happen.