King, Kennedy, and the Power of Words

Martin_Luther_King_Jr-e1332771446820Tim Wendel at The American Scholar:

Novelist Charles Baxter contends that the greatest influence on American writing and discourse in recent memory can be traced back to the phrase “Mistakes were made.” Of course, that’s from Watergate and the shadowy intrigue inside the Nixon White House. In his essay, “Burning Down the House,” Baxter compares that “quasi-confessional passive-voice-mode sentence” to what Robert E. Lee said after the battle of Gettysburg and the disastrous decision of Pickett’s Charge.

“All of this has been my fault,” the Confederate general said. “I asked more of the men than should have been asked of them.”

In Lee’s words, and those of King and Kennedy, we hear a refreshing candor and directness that we miss today. In 1968, people responded to what King and Kennedy told them. During that tumultuous 24-hour period in 1968, people cried aloud and chanted in Memphis. Words struck a chord in Indianapolis, too, and decades later former mayor (and now U.S. Senator) Richard Lugar told writer Thurston Clarke that Kennedy’s speech was “a turning point” for his city.

more here.