(The following is a story written by Mark Hartsell for the Gazette, the Library of Congress staff newsletter.)
For decades at the National Press Club, America got acquainted with the men and women who made history: presidents and premiers, rising stars and old heroes, allies and enemies, establishment figures and revolutionaries – all hoping to explain themselves, over lunch, to the public.
“I am not afraid of any questions for one reason: I believe in what I do. I tell what I think, and I do what I tell,” Fidel Castro told journalists at the club in 1959, just three months after he helped over- throw the Cuban government.
Since 1932, the National Press Club has hosted luncheons that offer prominent figures the chance to meet the Washington journalism establishment and, perhaps, like the young rebel Castro, make news. Those gatherings served as a forum for many of the 20th century’s most important leaders: Truman, Eisenhower, Khrushchev, Reagan, Thatcher, Nixon, Begin, Sadat and de Gaulle.
The club donated nearly 2,000 recordings of the luncheons to the Library of Congress in 1969. Last week, the Library launched a web presentation that showcases more than two dozen of the recordings – many of them speeches that haven’t been heard in their entirety since they were delivered decades ago.
The presentation, “Food for Thought: Presidents, Prime Ministers, and other National Press Club Luncheon Speakers, 1954–1989,” is now available online.
“In recognition of the historical importance of the luncheon talks, the Library of Congress has undertaken to digitize the complete National Press Club collection of recordings,” said Eugene DeAnna, head of the Library’s Recorded Sound Section. “Researchers visiting our Recorded Sound Research Center can listen to any of the hundreds of speeches, but we have selected talks by some of the most distinguished speakers.
“This enlightening online presentation has great potential for use in the classroom because audio has the ability to convey experience and ideas more powerfully than the written word.”
The speeches capture history as told by the people who made it.
In 1958, then-Vice President Richard Nixon spoke at the club following a “good-will” trip to South America that ended in violent anti-American demonstrations. March on Washington director A. Philip Randolph addressed the club in 1963, two days before the historic civil-rights demonstration.
Ronald Reagan, a movie star turned rising political star, spoke at the club just after his dominating victory in the California gubernatorial election of 1966.
Reagan discussed his philosophy of governance, the Civil Rights Act, the Watts riots and the Supreme Court’s ruling in Miranda v. Arizona – and poked some fun at his old movies and the career he’d left behind.
“You just sit up late enough at night in front of the TV set and they all come back to haunt us. Sometimes as I sit there, I think it’s like looking at a son you never knew you had,” Reagan quipped.
Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev appeared at the club the day after his arrival in Washington in 1959 on the first visit by a Soviet leader to the United States.
In a nationally televised address, Khrushchev gave Americans their rst close-up view of the man who recently had promised the U.S., “We will bury you.” In a combative question-and-answer session with the press, Khrushchev tried to explain himself.
“Now, capitalism is fighting against communism. I personally am convinced that communism would be victorious,” he said. “As a system of society which provides better possibilities for the development of a country’s productive forces, which enables every person to develop his capacities best and ensures full freedom of a person in that society. Many of you will not agree with that.
“What is to be done? Let us each of us live under the system which we prefer.” Sixteen years later, the woman who helped the West win that struggle with the Soviets made her Washington debut in the same forum.
“In the past generation, there are many political giants: Marshall, Bevin, Churchill, Adenauer, de Gaulle, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower – all in their different ways met the challenge of their times,” Margaret Thatcher told the Press Club crowd. “Today, we have to meet the challenge of our times.”
She did. Thatcher went on to become the first woman prime minister in British history and, along with Reagan, played a key role in achieving the West’s Cold War victory.
The luncheons weren’t all war, life and death; there were fun and games, too.
Heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali sparred with rival Ken Norton at the club in 1976 before the third and last of their three great bouts. Comedian Bob Hope needled accident-prone pal and ex-President Gerald Ford about his golf game: “He made golf a contact sport. You never have to worry about his score – you just look back along the fairway and count the wounded.”
Director Alfred Hitchcock, in town to promote his new thriller “The Birds,” delivered 20 minutes of deadpan one-liners, then took questions. Who, he was asked, is your favorite actor?
“There is no such thing. Actors and actresses are necessary evils that we have to tolerate in our business,” Hitchcock joked. “I’ve always said, apropos of this problem of actors and actresses, that Mr. Disney has the right idea.”
Collectively, the luncheon talks provide an audio window into the past that help reveal how movers and shapers of the Cold War era explained divergent policies, opinions and worldviews, said presentation curator Alan Gevinson of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division.
“We hear not just their words, but also attitudes, expressiveness and personal charm,” Gevinson said. “Our views of the past always inform our understandings of the present, and listening to these talks can aid in clarifying the issues, events, and conflicts of a bygone era that still impact us today.