The Legacy of the "I Have a Dream" Speech

Casting aside his script, King reset every standard for political oratory. Presidents ever since have been trying to match his words, power and moral authority

On Aug, 28, 1963, no one followed Martin Luther King Jr.'s oratorical tour de force more closely than the President of the United States. "He's damned good," murmured John F. Kennedy as King's flickering image faded from the television screen. Left unmentioned was King's introduction on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as "the moral leader of the nation."

But it must have stung so astute a student of presidential history as Kennedy. Sooner or later, fairly or not, every occupant of the Oval Office is judged by his use of the bully pulpit invented by Theodore Roosevelt to shame purveyors of tainted meat, promote simplified spelling and trumpet the conservation of nature in opposition to a money lust recognizable to any viewer of CNBC's American Greed. Since then, a century's worth of richly symbolic gestures — from T.R.'s White House dinner invitation to Booker T. Washington, the first of his race to be so honored, to Barack Obama's painfully personal testimony about racial profiling in the wake of the Trayvon Martin verdict — have demonstrated a President's capacity to foster change through his moral advocacy.

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