In my latest reading of Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician, Roger Morris talks about an oratorical contest that the teenage Richard Nixon won in 1929.
The aim of these oratorical contests was to extol the U.S. Constitution. One of the contestants looking back at these contests, Merton Wray, said that they “were seeking to promulgate this philosophy of the American Constitution demonstrating that it came down from Mt. Sinai along with the Decalogue…whereby all the Founding Fathers were saints and especially ordained by God and had connections with Him”. Wray’s speech was a little too liberal for two out of three of the judges’ taste, however, for Wray proposed making the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights worldwide. Because two of the judges didn’t care for Wray’s promotion of a one-world government, Wray came in last place. “I never realized that I was stepping on a sore point,” Wray would reflect years later.
Nixon in his speech, however, criticized those who were using the Constitution’s rights to undermine the Constitution. Personally, I much preferred how Morris discussed this to how Stephen Ambrose handled it in volume 1 of his Nixon trilogy. Ambrose simply said on page 47: “One struggles to imagine who ‘some’ and ‘those’ were. The year was 1929, conservative Republicanism was at its zenith, and there certainly were no labor agitators in Whittier, much less people going around denouncing the Constitution.” Morris, however, interprets Nixon’s speech in light of the Red Scare, the union agitation, and the fear of unions that were gripping parts of California in the early 1920’s. According to Morris, Nixon’s speech “spoke unmistakably to the inbred fear of leftist or alien forces among the small businessmen and merchants of Southern California enclaves like Whittier” (page 105), people who thought that leftists were using the Constitution to undermine the Constitution. Labor agitation had even impacted Nixon’s own family, on some level: “Over the musty school auditoriums where he spoke there was still the specter of the Wobblies who had left their initials so ominously scrawled that night on the Yorba Linda packinghouse where he and his mother worked” (page 106).
Wray’s characterization of the view of the Constitution held by the sponsors of the contests stood out to me because it resembled how a political science professor of mine characterized Ronald Reagan’s conception of the Constitution: that a dove descended upon the Founding Fathers, and they wrote our most holy document, the U.S. Constitution! A teacher who would say such a thing in an elementary school, a junior high school, a middle school, or a high school would probably be criticized by the religious right, at least if he lived in the sort of area that I did! But a college professor can have a bit more leeway (depending on where he teaches). I’m not sure if Ronald Reagan actually believed all that about the U.S. Constitution. But I did find my professor’s mockery of that concept to be quite refreshing, for, while I appreciate the rights that I have under the Constitution, I don’t think that the Constitution is perfect, nor that the men who framed it were perfect.
I’d like to turn now to the essay and oratorical contests that I participated in when I was in junior high and high school. In junior high school, I won the local level of an oratorical contest, then I went on to come in third at the next level (third out of four boys—-I feel sorry for the guy who didn’t even place!). The next year, I won at the local level, then I won at the next level, and then I lost at the level after that. On the essay contests, I never got too far. I won an essay contest two years in a row at the local level because I was the only one participating, but then I apparently lost at the subsequent level (since I never heard back about my essays). I also lost other essay contests.
There may have been a variety of reasons that I lost the contests that I did: my ideas not being fresh enough, or others being able to communicate their ideas in more effective, profound ways. Some of you may be thinking that, if I wrote my essays like I write my blog, then it’s no wonder that I lost! Okay, ha ha, you had your laugh! But what I’d like to focus on is the role of ideology in these contests. Morris talks about how the local judges of the essay contests in which Nixon participated were largely conservative: Wray lost due to his promotion of world federalism, whereas Nixon won after giving a speech that spoke to conservative fears about those who would supposedly use the Constitution to undermine the Constitution. What was the ideology of those judging the contests in which I participated, and how could that have worked for or against me?
Well, I think that ideology may have helped me at the local level of the oratorical contests, the ones that I won. People there were more conservative and religious, and I was talking about the importance of religious values and patriotism. I don’t think that giving a conservative speech was enough to win these contests, for a fellow contestant who gave a dry speech about the dangers of the national debt did not do too well. But I managed to give a fairly decent delivery, while also saying things that resonated with my rather conservative audience.
At the next level, though, my hunch is that the judges were a bit more liberal, since that was an urban area and a college city. In the first year that I participated in the oratorical contest, the guy who won at the second level gave a speech extolling the United Nations. That poor guy who did not even place, however, gave a speech denouncing the bias of the media. How I won at this level the next year, with my faith and country speech, I have no idea! Maybe the judges were less ideological in that year, or there were pastors who were judging the event. (I was later invited to give my speech at the church of a pastor who was at the contest.)
On the essay contests, I lost whether the judges were liberal or conservative. I participated in one essay contest about the family, and I wrote about the importance of Christian devotion in maintaining a healthy family life. I watched some of the essays that won on TV, and one of them was praising gay and lesbian families—-and this was during the early 1990’s, when homosexuality was not as widely accepted as it is now. The judges of that contest may have been more to the left. But I also lost essay contests that were sponsored by groups that probably leaned to the right. There were essay contests about how freedom is America’s most precious heritage, or about how we have a responsibility to preserve freedom. I participated in these contests, but I had a difficult time writing these essays. The reason probably was that I didn’t know how to reconcile “freedom” with my own right-wing beliefs. Freedom is our most precious heritage? I didn’t think that our right to do what we wanted was our most precious heritage! For one, I didn’t believe that we should always have the right to do what we wanted, for I supported the government banning certain things that I considered immoral, plus I looked with favor on the times that the government restricted freedom in an alleged attempt to preserve the country (i.e., the Palmer raids). Second, I believed that devotion to God was a more precious aspect of our national heritage than freedom! But I also managed to lose by going the other extreme. In one essay contest, which was sponsored by conservatives, I criticized the American Legion for wanting to force Jehovah’s Witnesses to say the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools in the 1940’s. I viewed that as an attack on religious freedom. In all of these cases, I may have lost because I wasn’t profound or eloquent enough, or because there were others who were more profound or eloquent than I was. But I do believe that there was an additional factor to my losing: I was an oddball!