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Powerful words still ring out decades later

In the summer of 1976, I was 11 years old.

I was interested mostly in the Olympics and my Little League baseball team. So when my Mom – a political junkie – tried to get me to watch the Democratic National Convention, I resisted.

But there was one speech she really wanted me to watch. I still remember it today.

My mom was a diehard Texan – even though we had moved out of Texas and into South Carolina three years before. She convinced me to sit down with her on the old green couch in our basement to watch Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan’s keynote address.

I didn’t know who Jordan was. She was the first African-American woman to give a keynote address at the DNC. She wore big glasses and looked ordinary. But that voice….

It was a voice that rolled through you like a wave. A voice that could make a baseball box score sound like Shakespeare.

“There is something different about tonight,” Jordan said. “There is something special about tonight. What is different? What is special? I, Barbara Jordan, am a keynote speaker.”

It went from there, with Jordan delivering a speech that would ultimately rate No. 5 on the 1999 list “Top 100 political speeches of the 20th century,” which reflected the opinions of 137 scholars.

Jordan’s speech is the high standard that all political convention speakers aspire to but have such a difficult time reaching. A speech can fail because of its words or its delivery or its subject matter.

As the DNC speeches began in earnest Tuesday night at Time Warner Cable Arena – where a raucous audience yelled for every speaker, chanted “U-S-A, U-S-A!” and booed every reference to Mitt Romney – I asked some delegates what speeches they most remembered.

Many mentioned President Obama’s keynote speech at the DNC in 2004, when he was an obscure senatorial candidate.

“I remember that one,” said Cheryl Smith, a 57-year-old delegate from Texas. “That’s what got me interested in being an activist.”

Mario Cuomo, Geraldine Ferraro and the Kennedys were all mentioned. And one Democrat gave a nod to Republican Ronald Reagan’s oratory skills.

Said Alan Burton, 47, a Democratic delegate from California: “I remember watching Reagan in the 1980s. I thought his speech at the 1984 convention was breathtaking. And then in 1992, I thought Bill Clinton’s nomination acceptance was an awesome speech. I watched that one with about 10 Republican friends. So much of that speech sounded new. We talked about it a long time afterward, way into the night.”

Jordan’s speech didn’t make me talk about issues in 1976. I was too young for that.

I mostly just remember the power of her voice ringing out, and sitting with my Mom on that green couch.

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140; sfowler@charlotteobserver.com.

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