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Jan 26, 2005 3:49 pm


Speechwriting 101 ...



Of all the commentaries on President Bush's second inaugural address, David Kipen's"To Quote Bush, Being Original is Hard Work" in the San Francisco Chronicle strikes me as the most interesting.

There was a time, says Kipen, when speechwriters would"strive for the rhythm, cadence and crescendo that would singe a line into everlasting memory." But, in recent years, memorable lines with any hint of originality have had a way of haunting presidents: Bush I's"a kinder, gentler nation" or Bush II's" compassion." Thus, a speechwriter is very likely to create a text that rings with the familiar and unobjectionable. The art of presidential speechwriting has become the art of crafting a text"so inert that we don't even have to forget it, because we hardly hear it the first time."

Like Kipen, I'm not particularly interested in Bush-bashing here. In fact, I've made a somewhat similar point in reference to Martin Luther King's work. King's obviously someone I'm more sympathetic to than Bush. But King's example suggests that, even though we're obliged to call a student's plagiarism, there's a side of us that prefers that their papers ring with the familiar, because we suspect that they're not ready to produce credible originality. And, somehow they know that, and the short cut to credible familiarity is plagiarism.

The canons of public speech are obviously different than the canons of term papers and dissertations. Kipen does a good job of sourcing George Bush's second inaugural address. Its only attributed quote is from Lincoln:"Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves, and under the rule of a just God cannot long retain it" Lincoln was speaking of American slaveholders, with whom he would soon have a confrontation; Bush was speaking of despots abroad. We'll see what comes of that. The other Lincoln allusion modified the Emancipator's:"As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy." Bush's abbreviated version ran:"no one is fit to be a master and no one deserves to be a slave." Who could object to that? No one's likely to fling it back at him, unless you know that mastery and slavery come in many forms.

Bush's"By making every citizen an agent of his or her own destiny we will give our fellow Americans greater freedom from want and fear" obviously relies on Franklin Roosevelt's Four Freedom's – though oddly missing speech and worship – in a pious address that re-iterated the call for freedom 27 times. Bush's"Self-government relies, in the end, on the governing of the self." There, he relies on George Santayana, only secondarily Michael Foucault. I suspect Bush would prefer not to rely on Michael Foucault."Freedom Now" the movement said and the line about history not running on"wheels of inevitability" -- well, that one comes from Martin Luther King's"Letter from the Birmingham Jail":"human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability." Maybe Condoleezza Rice suggested it. She was born in Birmingham and was nine years old when King went to jail there.

Finally, there's Bush's"When the Declaration of Independence was first read in public and the Liberty Bell was sounded in celebration, a witness said it rang as if it meant something." Kipen gets it wrong in attributing that one to Henry Clay Watson's The Old Bell of Independence; or, Philadelphia in 1776 (1852). Chronological priority credits it to George Lepard's Legends of the American Revolution (1847) and, as my colleague, Jonathan Dresner, pointed out, it didn't happen anyway. But even if it didn't happen, the Liberty Bell rings with the familiar"from every mountainside" and you won't find a memorable original line in George Bush's second inaugural address.

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Jonathan Dresner - 1/26/2005

My favorite part has to be

During all the fawning inaugural post-game shows last Thursday, only one commentator had the temerity to wonder over an open microphone whether it would be asking too much for the leader of the free world, just this once every four years, to write his own damn speech, without any help from the West Wing term-paper mill.

That commentator, I was just as surprised as anybody else to discover, was Dan Rather. In television as in politics, watch out for the lame-duck with nothing to lose.
Regarding the sources he chose, it's worth noting, perhaps, William Safire's parting advice to discount anything which draws on sources from the other side's heroes because it's almost certainly window-dressing for something otherwise objectionable.

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