Barbara Jordan And The National Community

by Bob Schwartz

Well I am going to close my speech by quoting a Republican President and I ask you that as you listen to these words of Abraham Lincoln, relate them to the concept of a national community in which every last one of us participates:

“As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.” This — This — “This expresses my idea of Democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no Democracy.”

In preparation for the Democratic National Convention—in preparation for being an American—everyone must hear and read Congresswoman Barbara Jordan’s keynote address to the Democratic National Convention in 1976, “Who Then Will Speak for the Common Good?”

Even if Barbara Jordan (1936-1996) had not been an extraordinary woman with an extraordinary story, this speech would deserve regular listening and reading, and all the accolades it has received.

Her story is that of a girl raised in segregated Houston. A gifted student, she attended Texas Southern University instead of the University of Texas, which at the time was still segregated.  She was a national champion college debater, and went on to Boston University School of Law.

In 1966, she became the first African American woman elected to the Texas Senate. Then in 1972 she became the first African American woman from a southern state to serve in the House of Representatives. Her skill at pragmatic political compromise was matched by unyielding commitment to the Constitution and to the ideals of America.

(A movie about her life is in development, based on the biography Barbara Jordan: American Hero, starring Academy Award-nominee Viola Davis.)

Barbara Jordan was one of the great American orators of the 20th century. When Professors Stephen E. Lucas and Martin J. Medhurst asked 137 leading scholars to recommend speeches on the basis of social and political impact, Barbara Jordan’s keynote address  was near the top at number 5. In fact, of the top 13 American political speeches of the century, two were made by her. The only other speaker to appear that high on the list twice  is FDR:

1. Martin Luther King, Jr.      “I Have A Dream”
2, John Fitzgerald Kennedy    Inaugural Address
3. Franklin Delano Roosevelt    First Inaugural Address
4. Franklin Delano Roosevelt    Pearl Harbor Address to the Nation
5. Barbara Charline Jordan    1976 DNC Keynote Address
6. Richard Milhous Nixon    “Checkers”
7. Malcolm X    “The Ballot or the Bullet”
8. Ronald Wilson Reagan     Shuttle ”Challenger” Disaster Address
9. John Fitzgerald Kennedy    Houston Ministerial Association Speech
10. Lyndon Baines Johnson    “We Shall Overcome”
11. Mario Matthew Cuomo    1984 DNC Keynote Address
12. Jesse Louis Jackson    1984 DNC Address
13. Barbara Charline Jordan    Statement on the Articles of Impeachment

Her number 13 speech on the Articles of Impeachment against Richard Nixon came in 1974, two years after she took her seat in the House, two years before the keynote address. It is nearly the equal and a fitting companion to that later speech. In the wake of the Watergate revelations, as the impeachment of Richard Nixon moved forward, both Democrats and Republicans stood up to uphold the Constitution against this attempted subversion. America and the House Judiciary Committee had the good fortune to have at its service a very new Congresswoman from Texas:

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….

James Madison again at the Constitutional Convention: “A president is impeachable if he attempts to subvert the Constitution.”

The Constitution charges the president with the task of taking care that the laws be faithfully executed, and yet the president has counseled his aides to commit perjury, willfully disregarded the secrecy of grand jury proceedings, concealed surreptitious entry, attempted to compromise a federal judge while publicly displaying his cooperation with the processes of criminal justice.

“A president is impeachable if he attempts to subvert the Constitution.”

If the impeachment provision in the Constitution of the United States will not reach the offenses charged here, then perhaps that eighteenth century Constitution should be abandoned to a twentieth-century paper shredder. Has the president committed offenses and planned and directed and acquiesced in a course of conduct which the Constitution will not tolerate? That is the question. We know that. We know the question. We should now forthwith proceed to answer the question. It is reason, and not passion, which must guide our deliberations, guide our debate, and guide our decision.”

America was at a crossroads in 1976, which by coincidence was the bicentennial year of our birth as a nation. Democracy had been threatened at the highest level from within, and democracy had prevailed. But democracy, we should have known, is always under threat, and when it is, the question is not only how to uphold it but what exactly we mean by democracy, that is, what exactly is it that we are defending?

In 1976, as the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention, Barbara Jordan spoke as eloquently as anyone has about our “national community.” She stood in front of an audience at Madison Square Garden in New York and explained the promise and challenge of the American Constitution and democracy in a way that has not been equaled since:

It was one hundred and forty-four years ago that members of the Democratic Party first met in convention to select a Presidential candidate. Since that time, Democrats have continued to convene once every four years and draft a party platform and nominate a Presidential candidate. And our meeting this week is a continuation of that tradition. But there is something different about tonight. There is something special about tonight. What is different? What is special?

I, Barbara Jordan, am a keynote speaker.

When — A lot of years passed since 1832, and during that time it would have been most unusual for any national political party to ask a Barbara Jordan to deliver a keynote address. But tonight, here I am. And I feel — I feel that notwithstanding the past that my presence here is one additional bit of evidence that the American Dream need not forever be deferred.

Now — Now that I have this grand distinction, what in the world am I supposed to say? I could easily spend this time praising the accomplishments of this party and attacking the Republicans — but I don’t choose to do that. I could list the many problems which Americans have. I could list the problems which cause people to feel cynical, angry, frustrated: problems which include lack of integrity in government; the feeling that the individual no longer counts; the reality of material and spiritual poverty; the feeling that the grand American experiment is failing or has failed. I could recite these problems, and then I could sit down and offer no solutions. But I don’t choose to do that either. The citizens of America expect more. They deserve and they want more than a recital of problems.

We are a people in a quandary about the present. We are a people in search of our future. We are a people in search of a national community. We are a people trying not only to solve the problems of the present, unemployment, inflation, but we are attempting on a larger scale to fulfill the promise of America. We are attempting to fulfill our national purpose, to create and sustain a society in which all of us are equal.

Throughout — Throughout our history, when people have looked for new ways to solve their problems and to uphold the principles of this nation, many times they have turned to political parties. They have often turned to the Democratic Party. What is it? What is it about the Democratic Party that makes it the instrument the people use when they search for ways to shape their future? Well I believe the answer to that question lies in our concept of governing. Our concept of governing is derived from our view of people. It is a concept deeply rooted in a set of beliefs firmly etched in the national conscience of all of us.

Now what are these beliefs? First, we believe in equality for all and privileges for none. This is a belief — This is a belief that each American, regardless of background, has equal standing in the public forum — all of us. Because — Because we believe this idea so firmly, we are an inclusive rather than an exclusive party. Let everybody come.

I think it no accident that most of those immigrating to America in the 19th century identified with the Democratic Party. We are a heterogeneous party made up of Americans of diverse backgrounds. We believe that the people are the source of all governmental power; that the authority of the people is to be extended, not restricted.

This — This can be accomplished only by providing each citizen with every opportunity to participate in the management of the government. They must have that, we believe. We believe that the government which represents the authority of all the people, not just one interest group, but all the people, has an obligation to actively — underscore actively — seek to remove those obstacles which would block individual achievement — obstacles emanating from race, sex, economic condition. The government must remove them, seek to remove them. We.

We are a party — We are a party of innovation. We do not reject our traditions, but we are willing to adapt to changing circumstances, when change we must. We are willing to suffer the discomfort of change in order to achieve a better future. We have a positive vision of the future founded on the belief that the gap between the promise and reality of America can one day be finally closed. We believe that.

This, my friends is the bedrock of our concept of governing. This is a part of the reason why Americans have turned to the Democratic Party. These are the foundations upon which a national community can be built. Let all understand that these guiding principles cannot be discarded for short-term political gains. They represent what this country is all about. They are indigenous to the American idea. And these are principles which are not negotiable.

In other times — In other times, I could stand here and give this kind of exposition on the beliefs of the Democratic Party and that would be enough. But today that is not enough. People want more. That is not sufficient reason for the majority of the people of this country to decide to vote Democratic. We have made mistakes. We realize that. We admit our mistakes. In our haste to do all things for all people, we did not foresee the full consequences of our actions. And when the people raised their voices, we didn’t hear. But our deafness was only a temporary condition, and not an irreversible condition.

Even as I stand here and admit that we have made mistakes, I still believe that as the people of America sit in judgment on each party, they will recognize that our mistakes were mistakes of the heart. They’ll recognize that.

And now — now we must look to the future. Let us heed the voice of the people and recognize their common sense. If we do not, we not only blaspheme our political heritage, we ignore the common ties that bind all Americans. Many fear the future. Many are distrustful of their leaders, and believe that their voices are never heard. Many seek only to satisfy their private work — wants; to satisfy their private interests. But this is the great danger America faces — that we will cease to be one nation and become instead a collection of interest groups: city against suburb, region against region, individual against individual; each seeking to satisfy private wants. If that happens, who then will speak for America? Who then will speak for the common good?

This is the question which must be answered in 1976: Are we to be one people bound together by common spirit, sharing in a common endeavor; or will we become a divided nation? For all of its uncertainty, we cannot flee the future. We must not become the “New Puritans” and reject our society. We must address and master the future together. It can be done if we restore the belief that we share a sense of national community, that we share a common national endeavor. It can be done.

There is no executive order; there is no law that can require the American people to form a national community. This we must do as individuals, and if we do it as individuals, there is no President of the United States who can veto that decision.

As a first step — As a first step, we must restore our belief in ourselves. We are a generous people, so why can’t we be generous with each other? We need to take to heart the words spoken by Thomas Jefferson:

Let us restore the social intercourse — “Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and that affection without which liberty and even life are but dreary things.”

A nation is formed by the willingness of each of us to share in the responsibility for upholding the common good. A government is invigorated when each one of us is willing to participate in shaping the future of this nation. In this election year, we must define the “common good” and begin again to shape a common future. Let each person do his or her part. If one citizen is unwilling to participate, all of us are going to suffer. For the American idea, though it is shared by all of us, is realized in each one of us.

And now, what are those of us who are elected public officials supposed to do? We call ourselves “public servants” but I’ll tell you this: We as public servants must set an example for the rest of the nation. It is hypocritical for the public official to admonish and exhort the people to uphold the common good if we are derelict in upholding the common good. More is required — More is required of public officials than slogans and handshakes and press releases. More is required. We must hold ourselves strictly accountable. We must provide the people with a vision of the future.

If we promise as public officials, we must deliver. If — If we as public officials propose, we must produce. If we say to the American people, “It is time for you to be sacrificial” — sacrifice. If the public official says that, we [public officials] must be the first to give. We must be. And again, if we make mistakes, we must be willing to admit them. We have to do that. What we have to do is strike a balance between the idea that government should do everything and the idea, the belief, that government ought to do nothing. Strike a balance.

Let there be no illusions about the difficulty of forming this kind of a national community. It’s tough, difficult, not easy. But a spirit of harmony will survive in America only if each of us remembers that we share a common destiny; if each of us remembers, when self-interest and bitterness seem to prevail, that we share a common destiny.

I have confidence that we can form this kind of national community.

I have confidence that the Democratic Party can lead the way.

I have that confidence.

We cannot improve on the system of government handed down to us by the founders of the Republic. There is no way to improve upon that. But what we can do is to find new ways to implement that system and realize our destiny.

Now I began this speech by commenting to you on the uniqueness of a Barbara Jordan making a keynote address. Well I am going to close my speech by quoting a Republican President and I ask you that as you listen to these words of Abraham Lincoln, relate them to the concept of a national community in which every last one of us participates:

“As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.” This — This — “This expresses my idea of Democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no Democracy.”

Thank you.

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