Photo by Lucas Carter/The American Legion

Past champ, ambassador returns to Oratorical Contest

An old friend returned this weekend as a judge for The American Legion High School Oratorical Scholarship Program: "A Constitutional Speech Contest" in Indianapolis.

Former U.S. presidential candidate and ambassador Alan Keyes not only made his mark as a commentator and political activist, but he played a significant role in American Legion history as well.

After placing first in the national Oratorical Contest in 1967, Keyes was elected American Legion Boys Nation president just a few months later – the first person to win both honors. He earned a doctoral degree at Harvard University and was appointed ambassador to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations by President Reagan. The conservative stalwart spoke of his involvement in American Legion programs while visiting the National Headquarters on April 17.

Q: How has The American Legion's Oratorical Contest and Boys Nation program impacted your career?

A: When I started in those experiences, if you asked me if I would have ended up going into politics, I would have told you no. In any case, it was not some sort of settled interest ... I would have been more interested in that time in singing. God blessed me with a pretty good voice and I tended to spend a lot of time working on it and seeing what that future would hold. When The American Legion (Oratorical) contest came to my high school, my speech coach Mrs.Schlesinger was insistent (that he participated) and she would not take no for an answer. It was the first explicitly devoted effort I made in my life to get an understanding of the Declaration of Independence. I knew of it because Martin Luther King made a lot of use of the famous Preamble of the Declaration, “We hold these truths to be self-evident etc” when he was giving his speeches about the justice of the civil rights movement. This led me to take a look at the founding itself and the history of the Declaration and the background and what it means and to translate to something that could be articulated to audiences. So it was a major turning point. For a black American at the time, a young person like myself, it also involved coming to terms with what was a kind of struggle because in the heritage of my country, people of my heritage had a difficult time that didn’t necessarily correspond to talk of justice and rights.

My participation in The American Legion programs helped me to approach it with a sense that it was positive but also fragile. That the commitment to it wasn’t a matter that happened by nature. That it was something that you had to work at understanding and translating into your citizen life. And that was part of the theme of it – to bring young people to the consciousness that citizenship is a kind of vocation. And if you’re going to accept it, then there’s work involved and a requirement to be open to the things that it stood for, the questions that it raises and the basis for looking at those questions. The same thing was true of course at Boys State, only translated into more practical terms. The end result was of course that it made a watershed difference ... it re-oriented my priorities. It had a major influence on me that changed my life entirely.

My participation in the National Oratorical Contest and Boys State and Boys Nation, it was literally a turning point in life that helped me to shape the mind and form the mind that then led the rest of my career.

Q: Is that why you volunteered to participate as judge in this year's National Oratorical Contest?

A: I was happy that I got the invitation. Actually, this is the 51st anniversary (of his participation as an orator in 1967). So I jumped at it and have been in no way disappointed.

Q: What is your view of the U.S. Constitution?

A: Two-fold. In a practical way, the Constitution represents what that word constitution means in a larger sense. When we refer to somebody’s physical constitution, we mean their overall health. We mean the integrity with which all the different things that are part of their body and keeping them alive are working. I think the constitution in that sense is like the body of our self-government as a people and it represents our constitution in that sense. And to keep it healthy, we must try to understand how it works, what will keep it working and what will make it work to our own good. So we can use that energy that results from that constitution and places in our hands the responsibility for what this body politic does and that we use it wisely. We are not a nation like other nations. From the beginning we were founded on a premise of humanity as a whole that’s stated in the Declaration in terms of our relation with the God who made us.

Q: When you ran for president in 2000, you spoke of a great moral crisis. Is the situation better now?

A: Things are not better, no. I think things have gotten worse in some ways. From the point of view that I’m concerned about ... in our time, when the premises of right and justice are being challenged in the name of something that represents power and are we going to allow that power philosophy to once again be unleashed on humanity. Think of the Civil War, who would have ever thought that it would be fought so that the evil of slavery would be confronted and that the Union would in not just a geographic but a moral sense come back to life in the decades that followed? Show me one other people in the history of mankind, a nation of nations composed of people brought from all over the world, who when they had their chance to cement their control of humanity, not only didn’t they try to do it – it didn’t even occur to us.

To use the great American Legion term, “Americanism” – Americanism is concerned with those ideas and concepts which inform the soul of America because they are in a sense the soul of decent humanity and I don’t think we should ever abandon that and I hope we never will. Our job is always to do what is right according to God’s will to the best of our ability and American troops that were moralized in that literal sense to a dedication to that purpose. Think of what they accomplished again and again – starting with a ragtag bunch of patriots that defeated the best professional army in the world.

I feel in the course of this day, that The American Legion is a place where I can speak freely about this.

Q: What is in the future for Dr. Keyes?

A: I spent the last few years devoted to writing. I have amassed a large amount of writings which (in) the next couple of years, I will organize so I can do books on particular subjects of which I’ve already done much of the thinking and writing.