Bearing the Burden of Writing the Speech | Wall Street Journal | 08.24.05

Three days before his inauguration, as Time magazine correspondent Hugh Sidey sat down to interview him, president-elect John F. Kennedy was scribbling on a yellow pad, crossing out words and scribbling more. The two men were on JFK’s campaign plane, flying from Palm Beach, Fla., to Washington. Kennedy was writing his inaugural address and eager to talk about it with Mr. Sidey, to whom he presented himself as a writer mulling a work in progress with another writer. Before landing, Kennedy had nine handwritten pages. Several reporters had seen them and later wrote about “Kennedy’s first draft.”

Except that it wasn’t. The speech was already essentially completed. Speechwriter Theodore Sorensen would spend the next couple of days polishing it. But Kennedy wanted to avoid the speculation that had followed the publication of his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Profiles in Courage” — that Mr. Sorensen and not he was the true author. So he staged a show for Mr. Sidey and the other reporters, copying what had been drafted and presenting it as evidence of his continuing labors.

In “Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America” (2004), Thurston Clarke called Kennedy’s plane performance “a charade, but an honorable one” that merely underlined the truth that Kennedy had drafted his own speech. Mr. Clarke acknowledged but largely dismissed other contributions, particularly Mr. Sorensen’s.

“Sounding the Trumpet” (Ivan R. Dee, 214 pages, $25) covers exactly the same ground and reaches exactly the opposite conclusion. The speech was the outcome of collaboration, says Richard J. Tofel, former assistant publisher of The Wall Street Journal, but if authorship must be assigned, Mr. Sorensen was the true author. Mr. Tofel suggests that Kennedy’s airborne fiction ranks somewhere between understandable political mythmaking and fraud. His research for the book included Mr. Sorensen’s first extended interview about the inaugural. It is safe to say that Mr. Tofel gets the better of the exchange with Mr. Clarke.

The historical stakes are high. Few inaugural addresses are as well remembered as John F. Kennedy’s. The nearest modern competitor, Franklin Roosevelt’s first, produced “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” and “good neighbor” (for FDR’s foreign policy). JFK’s produced: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”; “if a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich”; “the trumpet summons us again…to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle.” Nearly every paragraph includes a phrase that remains familiar almost a half-century later.

Content is not the reason. What Kennedy said is of a piece with the scarcely recalled Cold War inaugurals of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. All the arguments and commitments that Kennedy made they had made. Even Kennedy’s characteristic list — addressing one group of nations after another with appeals and pledges — is foreshadowed in Eisenhower’s first address. But no other inaugural in recent memory matches the power of Kennedy’s language. It is natural that there has been extraordinary interest in who wrote the speech and how it was written.

Mr. Tofel shows that, instead of being the primary author, Kennedy can solidly be said to have contributed only nine of the address’s 51 sentences. Adlai Stevenson was the source of eight. The biblical references were the suggestions of the Rev. Billy Graham and Rabbi Isaac Franck, Mr. Sorensen’s go-to man for Old Testament quotations. From a draft submitted by Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith Mr. Sorensen took the exhortation, “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”

Mr. Clarke’s case depended heavily on a shorthand dictation that Kennedy’s secretary took from the president-elect 10 days before the inauguration. Mr. Tofel appears to have gotten hold of a more complete transcription of the shorthand draft and publishes it as an appendix. Reading it makes clear that Kennedy’s sentence-by-sentence role in his address’s construction was far from central.

Does it matter? Ever since James Madison helped George Washington with the first presidential inaugural, presidents have had speechwriters. Abraham Lincoln’s one-time rival and secretary of state, William Seward, turned out the initial draft of Lincoln’s first inaugural. Columbia law professor Raymond Moley did most of the work on FDR’s first.

Like Kennedy, Roosevelt apparently thought it a political embarrassment for a speechwriter’s role to become known. Mr. Clarke notes that, until Moley published his memoirs in the mid-1960s, all accounts had FDR writing the speech himself, sitting before a fireplace at Hyde Park. The truth was that Roosevelt copied over Moley’s typed draft, which Moley then burned in the fireplace, remarking to FDR: “This is your speech now.”

Such diffidence is rare today. In recent decades there has developed a near cult of the presidential speechwriter. As a former speechwriter myself (for President Reagan), I suppose I have an interest in fostering it. But neither the adulation of speechwriters as intellectual prime movers nor the Clarke-like dismissal of them as near factotums fits what I saw of how a political leader and his writers work.

None of Mr. Reagan’s speechwriters invented his style, and none has written in just that manner since. Speechwriters learn to “hear” the voice of the president, fitting their habits of language and argument within his. Insiders can tell which writer wrote which speech even as each speech remains distinctly the president’s.

Thus Mr. Tofel is right to emphasize collaboration. “Sounding the Trumpet” allows us to understand that the JFK inaugural address was both Kennedy’s and Mr. Sorensen’s. Forty years later, it does not diminish either man to acknowledge that.

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