Tonawanda News — I’ve been thinking a lot recently about writing in all its various forms — and how those forms relate to the writing I do, here in this space twice weekly.
I’m reading a book on presidential speechwriters that is insightful, inspiring and frustrating. Robert Schlesinger’s tome, “White House Ghosts” chronicles the relatively new advent of presidential speechwriters. I was surprised to learn Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first president to employ a speechwriter. With the advent of radio, it was the first time a president was expected to address the nation all at once. Prior to FDR’s tenure, presidential addresses were generally long, expository affairs the audience for which went little farther than the number of people who could fit in the room.
But equipped with a tool to reach all Americans, FDR realized he needed to reinvent the presidential address. With his first inaugural came the inimitable phrase “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
And so began an age where a president can alter history with a bright turn of phrase.
Another signpost came with the duo of President John F. Kennedy and writer Ted Sorensen, penning the first lines in a new chapter of American history, in 1961:
“Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans — born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage — and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed ...”
After hearing that, how could one fail to ask what we could do for our country?
And then there was Reagan, the great communicator. Pitch perfect in delivery, a lifetime of stage performance to his credit, Reagan soothed a nation when the shuttle Challenger exploded, noting the brave astronauts who “slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God.” (That line is actually a quotation from the poem “High Flight” by John Gilliespie Magee, used expertly by speechwriter Peggy Noonan.)
Later he would stand before the Brandenburg Gate, and demand simply, “Mr. Gorbachev: Tear down this wall.”
So many of these utterances have become part of the collective American consciousness. These aren’t just earworms or the vestigial remains of an all-night cramming session prior to a high school history final. They define what it is to be an American.
And in a strange way, they also define what it is to be a writer, especially one like me, who so regularly deals with things political.
I and every columnist who does it for the right reasons (whether we agree in substance or not) is trying to live up to this rhetorical legacy. We aren’t writing inaugural addresses or speaking from the Oval Office. But it is our job, through thoughtful analysis and clear, accessible prose, to offer commentary on our world and its news.
Contrary to what you might think, I am keenly aware some of you dislike my opinions — and some go farther to dislike me for my opinions. I take no offense. If anything, imbued in the seething responses is a show of respect. After all, you did read the thing.
And so it goes. I try to live up to the great American tradition of the free and elegant exchange of ideas. It is in this moment, in this space, where my America lives.
I guess you can say, it is what I can do for my country.Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. His column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Contact him at email@example.com.