A well-delivered presidential speech has the power to turn the tide of history. This is certainly true in the United States, where whoever wins the race to the Oval Office instantly becomes one of the most powerful people on the planet. The stakes, therefore, are high, and it’s paramount to set the right tone from the start — whether that’s during an acceptance speech at a party’s national convention or a victory address after winning the White House.
A victory speech, however, is a tricky thing to master. It's a time not to gloat, but to focus on the next step — perhaps to rally a majority or bring together a fractured nation. Striking a balance between substance and style is important, too. Do the voters want to see more charisma or hear more detailed plans? Candidates typically have to juggle both, and hope that one or two lines hit the right note. Here are some lines that did just that, often defining the nature of the candidate, and sometimes echoing throughout their ensuing presidency.
I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people.
— Franklin D. Roosevelt
With the U.S. in economic collapse by the end of the Republican presidency of Herbert Hoover, it was almost certain that a Democrat would win the next election. The competition was fierce among the candidates, but Franklin D. Roosevelt eventually came out on top. At the time, presidential nominees did not appear at party conventions. FDR ignored that tradition, flew to the convention in Chicago, and gave his now-famous New Deal acceptance speech on July 2, 1932. He won the following presidential election by a landslide.
We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier — the frontier of the 1960s — a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats.
— John F. Kennedy
JFK gave his “New Frontier” speech when accepting the Democratic nomination for President in 1960. At the time, there were many doubts about his policy ideas, background, and level of experience — he was only 43 years old. His electrifying speech, however, reassured voters that he was indeed capable of taking the country in a brave new direction. It also foreshadowed the tone of his later speech, in which he famously implored Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country."
Work and family are at the center of our lives; the foundation of our dignity as a free people.
— Ronald Reagan
When accepting the presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention in Detroit in 1980, Ronald Reagan stressed the core concepts of family, work, peace, and freedom. Reagan still had a lot of work to do to win enough votes to seize the Oval Office, but his acceptance speech at the convention helped pave the way. His soothing tone and focus on national unity, along with his promise to restore the “values and virtues handed down to us by our families,” reassured a then-pessimistic nation that he was the man for the job.
I will keep America moving forward, always forward — for a better America, for an endless, enduring dream and a thousand points of light.
— George H. W. Bush
In 1988, George Bush accepted the presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention. It was the first time he made reference to “a thousand points of light,” a phrase he would go on to use in subsequent speeches. It appears twice in the 1988 address, first in the line “a brilliant diversity spreads like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky,” and later in the line above. The speech also included Bush's infamous “Read my lips: no new taxes” promise, which eventually came back to haunt him.
On the open plains of Texas, I first learned the character of our country: sturdy and honest, and as hopeful as the break of day.
— George W. Bush
In 2004, after winning a second term in office as U.S. President, George W. Bush addressed the party faithful at the Reagan Building in Washington, D.C. After thanking his wife, his family, and his campaign staff — and addressing the “War on Terror” — he ended with a special mention for the people of Texas, saying, “We have known each other the longest, and you started me on this journey.”
Tonight, we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals.
— Barack Obama
Barack Obama's 2008 presidential election victory speech focused on the major issues facing the United States and the world at the time. During his campaign, Obama made it clear that he saw America as a perpetual work in progress. With the line above, he sought to reassure allies and warn enemies that America would remain focused on its ideals of “democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope.”
One American put it this way: “Every tomorrow has two handles. We can take hold of it with the handle of anxiety or the handle of faith.”
— Dwight D. Eisenhower
Dwight D. Eisenhower was a popular incumbent President at the time of his acceptance speech at the 1956 Republican Convention, held at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. In his speech, Eisenhower stated his conviction that the Republican Party was the party of the future, and made clear his faith in God and his family values. Eisenhower went on to win a second term against his Democratic rival, Adlai Stevenson.
While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last. Because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.
— Kamala Harris
Kamala Harris is the only person mentioned here who has never held the office of President of the United States. But as Vice President, she made history. Her own victory speech spoke to both the future and the past — to the “Black women, Asian, white, Latina, and Native American women throughout our nation’s history who have paved the way for this moment tonight.”
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