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.
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.