Peter Schweizer and Wynton C. Hall are editors of the new slim, crisp volume, Landmark Speeches of the American Conservative Movement. National Review Online editor Kathryn Lopez recently talked to them about the hows and whys of it.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Every conservative who picks up your book is bound to have the same reaction: Barbara Bush? She’s not the first orator or conservative one thinks of … how did she make it in?
Peter Schweizer: We can certainly understand that reaction; without knowing the history of her 1990 Commencement Address at Wellesley College, Hillary’s alma mater, we would have had the same reaction. But there’s a reason that Barbara Bush’s speech was rated by top rhetorical scholars as one of the top 100 American speeches of the last century. And that is that rarely has a commencement speaker withstood the kind of controversy and national media scrutiny as did Mrs. Bush. Of Wellesley’s 600 graduating seniors, 150 had signed a petition that read in part, “Barbara Bush has gained recognition through the achievements of her husband…[Wellesley] teaches us that we will be rewarded on the basis of our own merit, not on that of a spouse.” The New York Times then ran a front-page story on the topic and ignited a national firestorm that presaged the “Mommy Wars,” as we now call them. Mrs. Bush’s speech was, in many ways, one of the opening salvos in the Mommy Wars. She deftly argued that the by imposing narrow definitions of the “proper” roles of women, her protesters had undermined their own argument.
Lopez: Is there any line from any one of these speeches that best defines what exactly a conservative is?
Wynton C. Hall: Well, several lines echo conservative themes and truths. But one line that seems to capture the broad sweep of what a conservative is comes from Barry Goldwater’s 1964 acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco: “Those who seek to live your lives for you, to take your liberties in return for relieving you of yours, those who elevate the state and downgrade the citizen must see ultimately a world in which earthly power can be substituted for Divine Will, and this Nation was founded upon the rejection of that notion and upon the acceptance of God as the author of freedom.” It might not fit well on a bumper sticker, but it captures much of what conservatives believe. For a bumper-sticker length definition we’d recommend Ronald Reagan’s First Inaugural wherein he declared that “government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.”
Lopez: Was there a recipe when compiling this book? We need one Buckley and one Goldwater and one Reagan and a chick somewhere…?
Schweizer: Boy, that would sure have made it much easier! No, we actually used a fairly detailed rubric for which speeches to include, recognizing, of course, that we were bound somewhat by copyright restrictions. We selected orations that exemplified the six classic features that Russell Kirk argues in The Conservative Mind typify conservative thought and speech. But we used three primary benchmarks. First, for an address to be considered a “landmark” speech it must possess a reach broad enough to impact the movement as a whole. Second, speeches were chosen on the basis of their espousal of conservative principles broadly defined. Finally, speeches were evaluated with an eye toward their rhetorical artistry and style. Thus, many fine essayists, such as F. A. Hayek, Russell Kirk, and others do not appear.