Bill Long 10/29/06
From 1950 to the 1990's
By 1950 the word stemwinder seemed to have found its natural home as a term of political rhetoric. A stemwinder was a forceful speech. Thus, when ex-President Harry Truman entered the fray in 1956 to try to help his fellow Democrats mount a challenge against incumbent Dwight Eisenhower, he gave a speech at a dinner sponsored by NY Governor Averill Harriman which tried to light a fire under the Democrats. The NY Times of Feb. 5, 1956 referred to his speech as a "stemwinder."
And this usage continued unabated into the 1960s. For example, just one month after he was sworn in as President (Dec. 1963), Lyndon Johnson was in New York trying to raise support from the unions for his programs. A contemporary report has it: "Mr. Johnson gave the 400 Liberal party leaders and workers an old-fashioned, stem-winder speech, denouncing sweatshops, calling for equality for all before the law..." Theodore White, one of the great political chroniclers and biographers of the last generation wrote in the Making of the President 1972 (1974): "After all the calls to unity..a stemwinder in the old tradition from Hubert Humphrey..appearances by Muskie and Kennedy, Sargent Shriver was formally nominated for Vice-President."
A Definition Begins to Change
Though the stemwinder, in reference to a political speech, seemed just to refer to a forceful presentation, you could actually divide such a speech and refer to at least four elements that comprisd it. For example, such a speech usually was quite long; it often was delivered by a Southerner; it could be very forceful; it often used florid language. But it need not be a political speech. Even a sermon could be denominated as a stemwinder. From the Atlantic Monthly in 1966: "A stem-winding sermon by Rev. Cecil Todd..can be obtained by sending one dollar to Revival Fires of Joplin, MO."
By the late 1970s, the news stories often referred not simply to how emotional the speech was but also to how long a person's speech lasted. For example, in the Sept. 1979 Libertarian convention, the keynote speaker was Roy A. Childs who reportedly gave a fiery 45 minute speech which the NY Times called a "stemwinder." But the crack in the facade of unitary definition happened when the "quite long" part and the "forceful" part came in conflict with each other. We don't yet have this fully demonstrated by this period, but a quotation from Time Magazine in 1977 opens the way for a different assessment of stemwinder. "The 1,008 cadres and 24 fraternal foreign delegations..endured no fewer than 55 speeches, including an eight-hour stem-winder by Le Duan." Here is the first usage I could find to stemwinder being used in a potentially negative way. After all, the guy spoke for eight hours.
The 1980s-1990s, Two Crucial Decades
The New York Times lists 58 appearnces of the word stemwinder in its articles from January 1, 2006 until today. Of course I won't survey them all, but they are a representative sample of how the usage of the term has stayed the same/changed.
Traditional meanings are easy to find. From 10/26/80 we have reference to a powerful endorsement speech, called a stemwinder, given by Barbara Mikulski. An 1981 reference talks about some Midwest companies that are not the "stemwinders of the world" (i.e., the best-performing companies), while two other references from 1981-82 speak of a "stemwinder of a ballplayer" and a Fourth of July band playing a "real stemwinder" of a concert. William Safire, who even in those days wrote a column on words for the paper, referred to stemwinder in his 12/26/82 column, but his reference was only historical (to clocks and "the latest thing," and then to spellbinding political speeches). Thus, the remark by Time Magazine in 1977 to an eight-hour stemwinder (to suggest something boring--you have to "wind the stem" of your watch to make sure it is still going) wasn't yet picked up elsewhere.
Then, in the summer of 1984, Governor Mario Cuomo of New York delivered a wonderfully powerful address at the Democratic National Convention. This speech was immediately denominated his stemwinder, and many reports circulated in the press in August of that year regarding whether the Republicans would be able to have a similar stemwinding speech in their convention. Of course, they didn't need it, since Ronald Reagan was in the middle of a campaign to bury Walter Mondale.
In 1988 the word stemwinder again appeared, and this was in a column by Russell Baker. But Baker was speaking here of the Gettysburg Address(es) of 1863. He referred to Edward Everett's two hour stemwinder. Notice, however, that this was a 1988 usage superimposed on an 1863 speech; there is no indication that anyone in Everett's time would have referred to his speech as a stemwinder.
By 1990, the NY Times was still using the word stemwinder only in its positive political meaning. Edward Kennedy, and even Mikhail Gorbachev, were among those who delivered stemwinding orations. In 1992, Arthur Schlesinger wrote a long retrospective piece on Democratic political conventions, where he had this to say about 1948 party keynoter Senator Alben W. Barkley of KY. "[He] grought the delegates to life with a trenchant, witty, caustic keynote speech, a classic stemwinder in the best Southern tradition--a speech that stands in memory with Mario Cuomo's keynote at the 1984 convention." Barkley's reward was the Vice Presidential nomination.
Bill Clinton's 1992 acceptance speech was called "not a sleep-inducer but not quite a stemwinder" by William H. Honan. As Clinton began the transition to his Presidency in late 1992, an author spoke of his attempt to adopt a more populist style "in the best tradition of old-timers like Sockless Jerry Simpson, a Kansas stemwinder of the 1890s." Note again that the term stemwinder is used in the 1990s to describe an 1890s phenomenon. Indeed, another example of this phenomenon appeared in an August 2004 column of the Times, where the author called Robert Ingersoll's 1876 nominating speech of James G. Blaine a stemwinder. Finally, another August 2004 column (same day as preceding) called Abraham Lincoln's 1860 Cooper Union speech a stemwinder. I could, however, find no reference to political speeches as stemwinders before 1942. Thus, the NY Times is, at best, confusing historically-minded people and, at worst, unwittingly trying to foster a word-anachronism.
Copyright © 2004-2008 Wiliam R. Long