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Good artists borrow and great artists steal. Shakespeare’s history plays are right out of Holinshead’s chronicles, but that doesn’t diminish his greatness. He decided what to take and did it so effectively that the material was thereafter known as his. Early in your candidacy is a good time to decide what concepts to steal. The generation of pols reading this book know John Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country” from memory or from David Letterman’s comedy routine “Great Moments in Presidential Speeches.” What may not immediately come to mind is the next sentence: “My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.” I suspect speechwriter Theodore Sorensen knew that this theme had permeated political speeches for 50 years and political thought and writing for decades before that. Eighteenth-century French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau said “As soon as any man says of the affairs of state, ‘What does it matter to me?’ the state may be given up as lost.” The Mayor of Haverhill, Massachusetts said in a eulogy, “Here may we be reminded that man is most honored, not by that which a city may do for him, but by that which he has done for the city.” Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1884 stated: “It is now the moment when by common consent we pause to become conscious of our national life and to rejoice in it, to recall what our country has done for each of us, and to ask ourselves what we can do for our country in return.” Guy Emerson in The New Frontier: a Study of the American Liberal Spirit italicized this quote late in the book: “men and women are born to put more into their country than they take out of it.” Even JFK had used a version of the phrase before. At the Democratic National Convention, he defined his “New Frontier” by saying “It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them.” On September 5, 1960, in Detroit, he said “The New
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Frontier is not what I promise I am going to do for you. The New Frontier is what I ask you to do for your country.” In American political life, it was reformer Teddy Roosevelt who put these ideas on the table in 1910: “O my fellow citizens, each of you carries on your shoulders not only the burden of doing well for the sake of your country, but the burden of doing well and of seeing that this nation does well for the sake of mankind.” Not content with that, he emphasized a few paragraphs later that “Equality of opportunity means that the commonwealth will get from every citizen the highest service of which he is capable.” Warren Harding edited and polished the lines for the 1920 campaign: “If we can prove a representative popular government under which a citizenship seeks what it may do for the government and country rather than what the country may do for individuals...” But Harding was also calling for isolationism and limited government, not the activism of Kennedy. In 1928 Herbert Hoover foreshadowed the second aspect of the JFK inaugural quote when he spoke of an individual’s “opportunity for greater and greater service, not alone from man to man in our own land, but from our country to the whole world.” Then, in 1932, FDR reworked the thought into this: “The issue of government has always been whether individual men and women will have to serve some system of government or economics, or whether a system of government and economics exists to serve individual men and women.” FDR may also have provided JFK with the template for his Berlin speech 30 years later. Kennedy said: There are many people in the world who really don’t understand, or say they don’t, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin. And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress... Let them come to Berlin. The construction closely resembles that of FDR’s “New Deal” speech in 1932: Go into the home of the business man. He knows what the tariff has done for him. Go into the home of the factory worker. He knows why goods do not move. Go into the home of the farmer. He knows how the tariff has helped to ruin him.
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Politicians rightly quote aphorisms of the past, with or without giving credit. They often modify quotes and make them their own. But they also are “thieves and pirates” with their own speeches, repeating the same remarks at stop after stop on the campaign. This bores journalists, who are always struggling to find something new to report. The exception was Adlai Stevenson, who insisted on making a new speech on every occasion. This kept his “Elks’ Club” group in Springfield, Illinois constantly busy. His speechwriters included Harvard professor, presidential biographer and Pulitzer Prize winner Arthur Schlesinger Jr.; transplanted Canadian economist John Kenneth Galbraith; and Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet Archibald MacLeish. Richard Nixon borrowed from himself, since his “forgotten man” appeal in his 1968 acceptance speech can also be found in his 1940s campaigns for congress and senate. Borrowing from a 1966 hit song (“Tell It Like It Is”) and a phrase used by young people in the 1960’s, Nixon wanted “the truth—to see it like it is, and tell it like it is—to find the truth, to speak the truth, and to live the truth...” In 1972 George McGovern borrowed from Pete Seeger (and The Byrds and Ecclesiastes) in “Turn, Turn, Turn”—when he referenced the “music of our children—‘To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.’” He also borrowed from Woody Guthrie: “From California to New York Island, From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters—This land was made for you and me.” He didn’t credit anyone. Echoing Kennedy’s inaugural, Reagan said “Let our friends and those who may wish us ill take note.” In the same 1980 acceptance speech, he quoted from Thomas Paine and gave credit, but he only credited “an American president ... of the Great Depression” when he used the phrase “rendezvous with destiny” or quoted FDR’s railing against big and wasteful government. Building suspense, he only named Roosevelt near the end of his speech. Bill Clinton brilliantly stole the Republican mantra of the “forgotten” middle class – for police, tax cuts and small government and against generous welfare—in 1992. He also spoke of a “New Covenant” between the government and the people. Senator Obama turns a Bill Clinton line on its head when he bemoans those who would elevate “what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America.” He may also provide a faint echo of a Bobby Kennedy line from the night Martin Luther King was assassinated when he states, “we have a choice in this country.” There’s an echo of Winston Churchill’s “fight them on the beaches” speech in Obama’s “protests and struggle, on the streets and in the
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courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience.” But Churchill got the format from a children’s story—The Jungle Book. There’s also an echo of a quote often attributed to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who may have said words to the effect, “The right to swing my fist ends at the point of another person’s nose.” Obama’s take is that “your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams.” In 1932 FDR spoke of “the greatest good to the greatest number of our citizens” without crediting John Stuart Mill. Modern audiences may recall George H.W. Bush’s “thousand points of light” speech at the Republican convention of 1988, which helped him cut Dukakis’ 20 point-lead in the polls. The phrase may have been inspired by previously published poetry, and there’s an echo from Herbert Hoover’s 1928 campaign, in which he said “government now touches at a thousand points the intricate web of economic and social life.”
PIRATES AND THIEVES
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