This is a transcription of this speech made for the convenience of readers and researchers. A single reading copy of the speech exists in the Senate Speech file of the John F. Kennedy Pre-Presidential Papers at the John F. Kennedy Library. Page images of the speech can be found here.
Every American who lived through the past generation has his own favorite memory of Franklin Roosevelt.
I always like to think back to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in 1936- when F. D. R. was renominated by wild acclamation. His acceptance speech inspired a crowd of over 100,000 in Franklin Field. It was a fighting speech. It was a dramatic speech.
But perhaps the most dramatic moment- portraying more than anything else his courage and determination - occurred just prior to the speech, completely hidden from the audience. As the President came forward behind the curtain, leaning on his son Jimmy, he suddenly lost his balance and fell to the ground. Lesser men might have lost their composure - most would have been visibly shaken. But with the aid of his son and the Secret Service, the President was instantly back on his feet before more than a few had observed what had happened. A few seconds later the curtain opened - and he stood there calm and erect, accepting the tremendous roar of the crowd with the familiar Roosevelt smile; and without hesitation, without any sign of recent distress, he launched confidently into one of his most buoyant, most winning speeches.
"Governments can err," the President said, "Presidents do make mistakes; but the immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales. Better the occasional faults of a Government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a Government frozen in the ice of its own indifference."
The American people today are very nearly confronted in their Executive Branch with the very danger of which Franklin Roosevelt warned - "a Government frozen in the ice of its own indifference."
The Vice President of the United States says - and I quote - that Americans are "living better today than ever before - and they are going to vote that way."
"The economic security of American families," to quote the President, "has been advanced significantly."
But the facts of the matter are that 17 million Americans go to bed hungry every night - 15 million families live in substandard housing - 7 million families are struggling to survive on incomes of less than $2000 a year.
We have more than four million unemployed workers, with jobless benefits averaging less than $31 a week.
We have 16 million Americans aged 65 and over - and 80 percent are living out their lives without a decent income.
Five million homes in American cities lack any plumbing of any kind; seven million are unfit and ought to be replaced.
One hundred and nineteen labor markets are still classified as distressed areas, with one out of eight workers unemployed
Six million American children live in the overcrowded hovels that breed delinquency, crime and disease.
Millions of American workers are being paid less than $1 an hour, to say nothing of $1.25.
Our economy has declined to a growth rate which is only half the record increases of the Roosevelt-Truman era. The Soviet Union is expanding its economy three times as fast as the United States.
Millions of young Americans are deprived of a decent education because of overcrowded classrooms - a lack of competent and well-paid teachers - and our unwillingness to ensure that poverty will not be a bar to college education for any talented student.
And our unfinished agenda is even longer in the area of national security. Whatever the exact facts may be about the size of the missile gap, it is clear that we shall need more missiles, more ships, planes and men, more atomic submarines and airlift mobility. It is clear that we are rapidly approaching the point where we will be unable to act as equals at the bargaining table - where we will be unable to seek arms control from a position of strength - where we will be unable to back up our position in Berlin, Formosa or the Middle East. As India falls behind China in their race for economic supremacy in Asia - as new Soviet fires blaze away in the Middle East, Africa and even in Latin America - as NATO falters from its original goals - it is clear that in the sixties we can no longer drift. We must act - we need leadership that will act - and that means a Democrat in the White House.
Mr. Nixon has repeatedly stated that he intends to carry on the policies of this Administration. Let us hold him to that - because I predict on November 8th the American people are going to reject that tradition. Perhaps we could afford a Coolidge following Harding. And perhaps we could afford a Pierce following Fillmore. But after Buchanan this nation needed a Lincoln - after Taft we needed a Wilson - after Hoover we needed Franklin Roosevelt. And after eight years of this Administration, this nation needs a strong creative Democrat in the White House.
Today our very survival depends on that man in the White House - on his strength, his wisdom and his creative imagination.
We can no longer afford a William McKinley, whose backbone according to Teddy Roosevelt was "as firm as a chocolate eclair."
We can no longer afford a Calvin Coolidge, who caused a White House usher with 42 years service to say: "No other President in my time ever slept so much."
We can no longer afford a Warren G. Harding, who reportedly said he saw no real problem in the Middle East "that the Arabs and Jews couldn't settle around a table, in the good old Christian way."
We can no longer afford a Ulysses S. Grant, complaining that he didn't want to be President - he just wanted to be the Mayor of Galena, Illinois long enough to build a sidewalk from his house to the station...
And we can no longer afford a James Buchanan, whose performance caused Ohio's Senator Sherman to say: "The Constitution provides for every accidental contingency in the Executive - except a vacancy in the mind of the President."
But the facts of the matter are that only a creative national party can provide a strong, creative President. The Republican Party is not a national party. It does not represent all sections, all interest groups, all voters. And that is why - historically and inevitably - the forces of inertia and reaction in the Republican Party oppose any powerful voice in the White House, Republican or Democratic that tries to speak for the nation as a whole.
Theodore Roosevelt discovered that. Herbert Hoover discovered that. And, even before he could become a candidate, Nelson Rockefeller discovered it.
But the Democratic Party is a national party - it believes in strong leadership - and, with your help, we will give the nation that leadership in January 1961.
But to send that Democrat to the White House we have to win. And I don't believe this talk that we cannot win. I think we can win. I think we will win. I think the American people - after "eight gray years," to use F.D.R.'s phrase - will know that, for their own future and their children's future, we must win.
But we are not going to win by mocking Republican slogans - by putting the budget ahead of our security - by raising interest rates instead of production - by substituting pageants for policy in world affairs.
So I repeat: When Mr. Nixon says that he wants to carry on the policies of the last eight years, let us hold him to that statement. For I cannot believe that the voters of this country will accept four more years of the same tired policies - four more years of Mr. Benson's high farm surpluses and low farm income - four more years of neglected slums, overcrowded classrooms, underpaid teachers and the highest interest rates in history - and four more years of dwindling prestige abroad, dwindling security at home, and a collision course in Berlin.
I firmly believe that the American people next November will respect that candidate and that political party which have the courage to speak the truth - to tell the people the grim facts about what has happened to America during the past eight years and what we must do to survive.
The American people, in my opinion, are going to vote for a change - for a President willing to move ahead - for a President with new ideas and real courage. And I would remind them that just 100 years ago, this nation was brought from the brink of disaster by a great President - a man willing to back up his words with deed - a man willing to risk his popularity in order to meet his responsibility. Abraham Lincoln best demonstrated his concept of the Presidency when he summoned his war-time Cabinet to a meeting on the Emancipation Proclamation. That Cabinet had been carefully chosen to please and reflect many elements in the country. But "I have gathered you together," Lincoln said, "to hear what I have written down. I do not wish your advice about the main matter - that I have determined for myself."
And later, when he went to sign it after several hours of exhausting hand-shaking that had left his arm weak, he said to those present: "If my name goes down in history, it will be for this act. My whole soul is in it. If my hand trembles when I sign this Proclamation, all who examine the document hereafter will say: 'He hesitated'."
But Lincoln's hand did not tremble. He did not hesitate. He did not equivocate. For he was the President of the United States.
Our next Chief Executive must also be - in every sense of the word - the President of the United States.