Roosevelt, Reagan and Us

The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.

Mark Twain




Lou Cannon at Real Clear Politics has a fascinating piece comparing FDR and Reagan as orators:



Naturally I assumed, as children of that era did, that the president wrote all his speeches. In fact, his gifted counsel and speechwriter, Sam Rosenman, wrote some of FDR’s best lines, and playwright Robert Sherwood, a presidential confidant, wrote others. But they didn’t write the Pearl Harbor speech. Sherwood, reliable on such matters, said that Roosevelt wrote every word except for a “platitudinous” sentence near the end suggested by his closest aide, Harry Hopkins.

What Sherwood didn’t bother to say in his lyrical book, “Roosevelt and Hopkins,” was that FDR edited that speech after he wrote it. His best edit produced the most memorable phrase: “a date that will live infamy.” As FDR first wrote it, it was “a date that will live in history.” In 2002 I saw an immense blow-up of the speech draft at an exhibit on American heroes at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Roosevelt had vividly struck through the word “history” and written “infamy” above it.

As a Reagan biographer, I knew that strike-through. My fellow Reagan chronicler, the economist Annelise Anderson, had sent me copies of Reagan speech drafts for use in a table-top book. The drafts were full of such markings and erasures so that one could barely read the words that had been replaced. Like FDR, Reagan also wrote substitute words above the ones he excised.

It’s not surprising that Reagan emulated Roosevelt’s editing. FDR was Reagan’s first political idol. When Roosevelt gave his stirring inaugural address on March 4, 1933, Reagan listened to it on a radio soon after college, a time when he was dreaming of an acting career. Reagan had an excellent memory and passably imitated FDR’s patrician accent. He was soon entertaining friends by reciting passages of the address, using a broomstick as a microphone.

Reagan would in time diverge from FDR ideologically without ever losing his appreciation for Roosevelt as an inspirational leader. Both men were dominant politicians and transformational presidents. Both understood the power of words and the importance of editing.

Go here to read the fascinating rest.  It is intriguing that the two greatest orators who were Presidents during the last century came from opposite political poles.  Both Roosevelt and Reagan had the talent of making large issues understandable to the average voter and appealing to their hearts as well as their interests.  In a time of petty politicians who shrink the offices they occupy, it is instructive to look back at larger than life figures like Roosevelt and Reagan.  They personified leadership and convinced substantial majorities of the American people to follow them.  Our seeming inability to produce such leaders today is  at the heart of much of our national discontent.  Is the fault in us or in our times?  I think rather in the times.  Gloria Swanson, as mad doomed Nora Desmond, forgotten silent star, utters this classic line in Sunset Boulevard:   I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.  We live in petty times so we produce petty men and women to lead us.  Usually such times end when some great disaster overwhelms the small figures at the helm and I rather suspect that is what will shock us out of this “slough of despond” in which we currently find ourselves.






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Published in: on December 10, 2013 at 5:30 am  Comments (4)  
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  1. This passage was originally written as part of a blog post on the passing of Pope John Paul II, and which I republished last week as the last of the great men of the last century left us.: …This new Polish Pope was destined to live in an age of diminishing and dreary public figures. In the thirties, the forties, the fifties, Popes had competition on the world stage. The leaders of the great world powers, good and bad, were themselves impressive figures: Mussolini, Hitler, Churchill, FD Roosevelt, Chang Kai-Shek, Charles de Gaulle, MK Gandhi, Alcide de Gasperi, Konrad Adenauer, Stalin, Mao, Truman, Eisenhower, Macmillan, Tito, Vervoerd, Ho Chi-Minh – heroes and villains on the grand scale, with real lives and interesting personalities, capable of inspiring electors and followers. Culture, too, had its share of heroes and towering figures: Freud, Einstein, Popper, Wittgenstein, Ernst Gombrich, Dumezil, Chesterton, Yeats, Picasso, Schoenberg, Webern, Sartre, Camus, Hesse, Hemingway, Faulkner, Thomas Mann – again, good or bad (and I regard some of them as very bad indeed), these were men of stature, capable of inspiring a following and of altering people’s view of reality. Even popular culture produced its Frank Capras and its Walt Disneys, its John Waynes and its Edith Piafs. Where are their successors now? In retrospect, the Sixties represent not a beginning but an end: the last time when politics, the arts, and popular culture, were capable of producing figures who could stir the masses and really change the landscape they stood up in. Now, we live in an age of dwarves. There is no comparison between the Beatles and Britney Spears, between Charles de Gaulle and Jacques Chirac, between John Wayne and Tom Cruise – not even, as villains go, between Richard Nixon and Tony Blair. The Conclave elected a man of immediate appeal and powerful presence, just as such men were becoming rare to the point of invisibility. The only person I can think of who deserves the same rank is Nelson Mandela – and he, too, is on the edge of his grave. No wonder that one of the mourners in St.Peter’s Square was heard to say that he was “the only great man in the world”.

    • Bravo Fabio! CS Lewis also mourned the coming of The Age of Little Men:

      “It is a change for the better. The great (and toothsome) sinners are made out of the very same material as those horrible phenomena the great Saints. The virtual disappearance of such material may mean insipid meals for us. But is it not utter frustration and famine for the Enemy? He did not create the humans — He did not become one of them and die among them by torture — in order to produce candidates for Limbo, “failed” humans. He wanted to make them Saints; gods; things like Himself. Is the dullness of your present fare not a very small price to pay for the delicious knowledge that His whole great experiment is petering out? But not only that. As the great sinners grow fewer, and the majority lose all individuality, the great sinners become far more effective agents for us. Every dictator or even demagogue — almost every film star or [rock star] — can now draw tens of thousands of the human sheep with him. They give themselves (what there is of them) to him; in him, to us. There may come a time when we shall have no need to bother about individual temptation at all, except for the few. Catch the bellwether, and his whole flock comes after him.

      But do you realize how we have succeeded in reducing so many of the human race to the level of ciphers? This has not come about by accident. It has been our answer — and a magnificent answer it is — to one of the most serious challenges we ever had to face.

      Let me recall to your minds what the human situation was in the latter half of the nineteenth century — the period at which I ceased to be a practising Tempter and was rewarded with an administrative post. The great movement toward liberty and equality among men had by then borne solid fruits and grown mature. Slavery had been abolished. The American War of Independence had been won. The French Revolution had succeeded. In that movement there had originally been many elements which were in our favour. Much Atheism, much Anticlericalism, much envy and thirst for revenge, even some (rather absurd) attempts to revive Paganism, were mixed in it. It was not easy to determine what our own attitude should be. On the one hand it was a bitter blow to us — it still is — that any sort of men who had been hungry should be fed or any who had long worn chains should have them struck off. But on the other hand, there was in the movement so much rejection of faith, so much materialism, secularism, and hatred, that we felt we were bound to encourage it.

      But by the latter part of the century the situation was much simpler, and also much more ominous. In the English sector (where I saw most of my front-line service) a horrible thing had happened. The Enemy, with His usual sleight of hand, had largely appropriated this progressive or liberalizing movement and perverted it to His own ends. Very little of its old anti-Christianity remained. The dangerous phenomenon called Christian Socialism was rampant. Factory owners of the good old type who grew rich on sweated labor, instead of being assassinated by their workpeople — we could have used that — were being frowned upon by their own class. The rich were increasingly giving up their powers, not in the face of revolution and compulsion, but in obedience to their own consciences. As for the poor who benefited by this, they were behaving in a most disappointing fashion. Instead of using their new liberties — as we reasonably hoped and expected — for massacre, rape, and looting, or even for perpetual intoxication, they were perversely engaged in becoming cleaner, more orderly, more thrifty, better educated, and even more virtuous. Believe me, gentledevils, the threat of something like a really healthy state of society seemed then perfectly serious.

      Thanks to Our Father Below, the threat was averted. Our counterattack was on two levels. On the deepest level our leaders contrived to call into full life an element which had been implicit in the movement from its earliest days. Hidden in the heart of this striving for Liberty there was also a deep hatred of personal freedom. That invaluable man Rousseau first revealed it. In his perfect democracy, only the state religion is permitted, slavery is restored, and the individual is told that he has really willed (though he didn’t know it) whatever the Government tells him to do. From that starting point, via Hegel (another indispensable propagandist on our side), we easily contrived both the Nazi and the Communist state. Even in England we were pretty successful. I heard the other day that in that country a man could not, without a permit, cut down his own tree with his own axe, make it into planks with his own saw, and use the planks to build a toolshed in his own garden.”

      • I would add institutionalization. Look at the list of remarkable political heroes and villains in my passage, and you will find that most of them had a life and interests outside politics. Even the tyrants: Hitler was a (rotten) architect and painter, Mussolini a (rather good) journalist. Churchill had been a cavalry officer, Roosevelt was a gentleman of private means (apart from the tragedy of his polio, which nobody knew about ), Gandhi a lawyer, Macmillan came from a family of publishers. Politics was not their only career. What we have now is people who enlist in parties as soon as they leave university and are interns, advisers and eventually candidates without ever having stepped outside the little party cubicle. I suspect that similar points may be made about culture and entertainment.

      • Quite right Fabio. Reagan for example was 55 before he ran for political office, and had worked as a sports caster, a screen star, military service during World War II, multi-year president of the Screen Actors guild, television host, author, etc. You are correct that too many politicians today have never been anything but politicians, and it shows.

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