50 years ago tonight was the most important speech in American history

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

-- President Dwight Eisenhower, Jan. 17, 1961.

It's quite the week for honoring great political speeches. This week, you're going to hear a lot about three speeches. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech -- re-broadcast frquently today as the nation celebrates King's 82nd birthday, is arguably the greatest, at least in modern times. On Thursday, there will be much discussion and celebration of the 50th anniversay of President John F. Kennedy's soaring and lyrical inauguration address, from Jan. 20, 1961.

What a time that was! Just three days prior to JFK, the outgoing President Dwight Eisenhower delivered his farewell address -- not the greatest, not the most lyrical, but simply the most important, in my opinion. For eight years, Eisenhower had watched the defense budget, the newish CIA and the other tools of the post World War II national security state explode -- often with his (apparently reluctant) approval. Now, alarmed at the potential monster that has been created largely under his watch, he went before the American people with a warning that was so remarkable and so shocking that the contemporary media and public had a hard time handling it.

It was only after Eisenhower left the White House that the nation was able to grasp all the specifics of the 34th president's broad warning -- stretching from the fiasco at the Bay of Pigs to the blood-soaked tropics of Vietnam, and quite possibly including Kennedy's assassination in Dallas, and all the unrest that followed those events, sowing the seeds of division in America that exists to this very day. The fact that most citizens didn't listen and the few who did were powerless to stop the train wreck does nothing to dimimish the political courage that Eisenhower displayed exactly 50 years ago tonight. A half-century later, the absense of such brutal candor from our political leaders is something palpable.