So much more than a speech contest

Between visits to post, district and department functions, along with national meetings and events, I will give more than 200 speeches by the time my tenure as national commander is up.

Today, public speaking comes easier for me. That wasn’t always the case. I remember my first speech class in college and how nervous I felt before I finally was comfortable talking in front of groups. At that time, I wouldn’t have believed that one day I’d be addressing thousands of delegates on the floor of an American Legion national convention. Years of practice later, I’m much more at ease in front of a crowd.

That’s why I’m so amazed when I see the performances of the young Americans who compete in our National Oratorical Contest each year. They’re high-school students – some even freshmen and sophomores – yet they’re so polished, poised and knowledgeable. I’ve attended the national competition faithfully since Indianapolis became its permanent home in 1997. And every year, I’m struck by the quality of the orations and the constitutional knowledge of the competitors. Personally, I’m proud that back-to-back Department of Iowa champions, as well as this year’s champ, have come from my own Ames Post 37.

Now in its 71st year, the National Oratorical Contest – formally named The American Legion High School Oratorical Scholarship Program: A Constitutional Speech Contest – began as a department contest in Missouri in the early 1930s. It soon became a national program. Its mission was to combat the threats of communism and socialism by having young people study the Constitution. Over the years, many significant national figures have participated. Alan Keyes – diplomat, political activist and former presidential candidate – won the national contest in 1967. Longtime U.S. Sen. Frank Church of Idaho also was a national winner. CNN commentator and news analyst Lou Dobbs won at the department level.

This is much more than a speech contest. To succeed, competitors must immerse themselves in some important aspect of the U.S. Constitution, a document so central to the American identity and yet so rarely understood. Beyond that, the contest also aids in the development of leadership qualities, the ability to think and speak clearly and intelligently, and the preparation for acceptance of duties, responsibilities, rights and privileges of U.S. citizenship.

In 2007, first-place winner Co’Relous Bryant spoke eloquently of Article II, recognizing that the U.S. presidency is not based on lineage but “by your heart and your design to make a better America.” Spencer Harjung, the 2008 winner, talked of how the framers of the Constitution were, in fact, normal men: “America was made great by a handful of people – just people ... and America needs the help of every citizen – every person – to stay that way.”

Such words, masterfully expressed by young people who aspire to help lead our nation one day, are an inspiration to me. Once again this year, I look forward to being in Indianapolis for the national contest, and once again, I look forward to the voices, the message and the meaning of an event that always leaves me feeling better about the future.