Lincoln at Gettysburg by Garry Wills (Simon & Schuster, $14). The granddaddy among contemporary books about prominent American speeches. Wills’ brilliant reading of Lincoln’s brief, eloquent Gettysburg Address reveals Lincoln’s heavy reliance on classical rhetoric.
King’s Dream by Eric J. Sundquist (Yale, $14). Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is probably the most celebrated American speech not given by an elected official. Sundquist’s masterful research ties King’s 1963 address to Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Frederick Douglass, and teases out the extensive connections between King’s ideas and the culture and politics of his time.
Tear Down This Wall by Romesh Ratnesar (Simon & Schuster, $27). We think of Ronald Reagan’s 1987 Brandenburg Gate address as a quintessentially Reaganesque speech, but one of the surprises in Ratnesar’s book is that many in the administration did not want the president to demand that the Berlin Wall come down. Had their cautions been heeded, it seems unlikely the speech would be remembered at all.
A Sacred Union of Citizens by Matthew Spalding and Patrick J. Garrity (Rowman & Littlefield, $19). A somewhat idiosyncratic reading of George Washington’s challenging farewell address, emphasizing the elements of national character that the outgoing president felt were essential to the preservation of the union.
What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President? by Kevin Mattson (Bloomsbury, $16). Jimmy Carter’s 1979 “malaise” speech is one of the strangest presidential addresses of all time, an attempt to heal America’s “crisis of confidence.” But Mattson’s survey of the troubled late-’70s American landscape creates in the reader a genuine respect for Carter’s courage in trying to break the mold of typical politics.
Ask Not by Thurston Clarke (Penguin, $16). This book is not only a very readable re-creation of the earliest days of Kennedy’s Camelot. It also contains a convincing argument that Kennedy, and not his estimable speechwriter Theodore Sorenson, was the principal author of his famous inauguration speech.