The Amazing Endurance of Remarkable Words

How the power of words bring change.

A while back, I published this piece at Constant Commoner, my sister publication here at Substack, but it occurred to me that it’s a piece for writers, too. We’re all about words and this is a piece about words having power. Not in ways you might think, but power nonetheless.

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Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty, or your recklessness. . . Little did I dream you could be so reckless and so cruel as to do an injury to that lad. It is, I regret to say, equally true that I fear he shall always bear a scar needlessly inflicted by you. If it were in my power to forgive you for your reckless cruelty, I would do so. I like to think I’m a gentle man, but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me. . Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you no sense of decency? Joseph Welch to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Army-McCarthy hearings, June 9, 1954

My mother and I were watching the hearings on our small black-and-white TV set that summer day in 1954 — the day Joseph Welch calmly but forcefully challenged Joe McCarthy’s hold on the depths of the baseless paranoia both Washington and Main Street had been wallowing in for almost a decade. I was sixteen years old but I’ve never forgotten the sound of Joseph Welch’s voice — the mix of rage and sorrow as he spoke those words.

Something big happened then, and I’m remembering the look of amazement on my mother’s face. I remember my own feelings — of absolute joy and shuddering fear — when Welch finished talking and the hearing room erupted into wild cheering. Within minutes the room had emptied, every reporter rushing out to file the story. I didn’t know until I read it recently that afterward McCarthy looked around the empty room, threw up his hands and said, “What did I do?” Within days the Senate voted to take his power away and, for all intents, he was done.

There are some who will always believe that Joseph Welch’s words were what brought down McCarthy, stopping those meaningless, hateful hearings once and for all. The fact is, for many years before there had been scores of people at work trying to expose the insanity of McCarthy’s crusade against Communism — “The enemy within” that had all along been essentially toothless. 

In 1952 Jack Anderson and Ronald May wrote “McCarthy: The Man, The Senator, the “Ism”, spelling out his tactics, exposing his lies, and warning of the consequences if he wasn’t stopped.

Edward R. Murrow’s “See it Now” program on March 9, 1954, broadcast three months before the Welch/McCarthy blow-up, was made up entirely of footage and quotes by Sen. McCarthy himself — more damning than any second-hand account could have been. On that same day, President Eisenhower wrote a letter to a friend criticizing McCarthy’s approach (later telling an aide that McCarthy was a “pimple on the path to progress”).

But what we remember today are Joseph Welch’s words, used as a kind of easy shorthand to put a stamp on Joe McCarthy’s downfall.

 Throughout our history, we’ve given certain quotes almost magical attributes in order to condense and clarify the stories behind them. We want to believe that all it took was a single utterance and — poof! — life changed.

When Lincoln delivered his speech at Gettysburg in 1863, he said, “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here. . .” He was wrong, of course. Nearly every schoolkid learned “Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. . .” I thought for years that it was the speech that ended the Civil War, and, by rights, it should have. The speech contained phrases of such heartbreaking beauty, it should have ended any signs of conflict. In fact, the war went on for more than two years — the final battles fought many months after Lincoln was assassinated in 1865.

In 1933, when FDR told the country during his first Inaugural speech, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, there was plenty to fear that was much more tangible, but it was exactly what he needed to say at exactly that moment. Did that one sentence ease the pain of the years to come? No. But it’s a sentence etched into the American psyche, pulled out as needed, even now.

In 1961, John. F. Kennedy said in his Inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Almost 60 years later, we’re still repeating those words, hoping we can get the crowds to listen.

In the summer of 1963, Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered his “I have a dream” speech. The entire speech is quotable, but he ended with these words:

. . .When we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

The speech was widely covered (and was recently called the top American speech of the 20th Century), but racial inequality didn’t end on that August day. It hasn’t ended yet. But every soldier in every battle needs inspiration in order to keep going. MLK’s words will always be there.

In July, 1974, Barbara Jordan (D-NY) gave an impassioned speech to the House Judiciary Committee, in favor of Richard Nixon’s impeachment. Her words, “Today I stand as an inquisitor”, held stronger meaning as she prefaced it with the fact that, when the constitution was written, members of her race were purposely excluded:

Earlier today, we heard the beginning of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, “We, the people.” It is a very eloquent beginning. But when the document was completed on the seventeenth of September 1787 I was not included in that “We, the people.” I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation and court decision I have finally been included in “We, the people.”

Today, I am an inquisitor; I believe hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemnness that I feel right now. My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.

In January, 2020, House Impeachment member Adam Schiff begged Senate members to remember their obligation to the constitution and vote to impeach Donald Trump. His speech fell on deaf ears in the end, but it went viral and will forever reside in the annals of great congressional speeches.

Do we really have any doubt about the facts here? Does anybody really question whether the President is capable of what he’s charged with? No one is really making the argument, Donald Trump would never do such a thing, because of course we know that he would, and of course we know that he did. It’s a somewhat different question though to ask, okay, it’s pretty obvious whether we can say it publicly or we can’t say it publicly. We all know what we’re dealing here with this President, but does he really need to be removed? And this is why he needs to be removed. Donald Trump chose Rudy Giuliani over his own intelligence agencies. He chose Rudy Giuliani over his own FBI Director. He chose Rudy Giuliani over his own National Security Advisors. When all of them were telling him this Ukraine 2016 stuff is kooky, crazy Russian propaganda. He chose not to believe them. He chose to believe Rudy Giuliani. That makes him dangerous to us, to our country. That was Donald Trump’s choice.

In June, 1987, Ronald Reagan stood at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate and shouted “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”. Though it would take another two years for the wall to come down, fully half our nation still believes those six words were all it took to tear down that wall and end the long Cold War. Still, Reagan, ever the actor, knew to speak those words so forcefully, so succinctly, they would be heard ‘round the world and quoted ever after.

And in September, 2019, Swedish environmental activist, Greta Thunberg, still a teenager, gave her “How dare you!” speech to an audience of startled participants at the UN Climate Action Summit held in New York City. She was an instant sensation and has gone on to continue her ‘Save the planet’ activism all over the world.

“My message is that we’ll be watching you. This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!

“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!

“For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight.

“You say you hear us and that you understand the urgency. But no matter how sad and angry I am, I do not want to believe that. Because if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil. And that I refuse to believe.

Our planet is still in grave danger, with no remedies in sight, no real effort to make the drastic changes necessary, but a teenager will make it her life’s work to keep trying. And the world won’t be able to shut her down.

Share Writer Everlasting

Magical words. Enduring words. Words that live on through generations, through the shudderings of history, still pristine, still precise, owned by their creators. They’ll be theirs, and ours, forever.

Did those speeches make a difference? They did, in that we’re still talking about them, still quoting them, still keeping them alive. I chose these few speeches as examples, but I could have chosen dozens, even hundreds, more. The right assemblage of words, written or spoken, can alter our brains in ways we can’t explain. They inspire us. They resonate at some level and we’re never the same. They’ve shaped us and when we find we need to go back to them, over and over again, they’ll always be there. 

How often have we heard, “that book, that article, that column changed my life”? Well, here comes the advice: Be that change, writers. Don’t diminish your own work. Never buy into the fallacy that arm chair activism is no activism at all. That nothing you say will matter. Our long history is filled with words that matter.

Do your best to make a difference. Believe you can change the world, and you may just do it.

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