Irondequoit Post
  • Exhibit features look into presidential speeches

  • The collection on display at the University of Rochester features items ranging from John Quincy Adams to Bill Clinton.


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  • Judson Welliver is a name likely not familiar to many, but his legacy is.
    Welliver is considered the first official presidential speechwriter, having been hired by President Warren G. Harding to craft prose that would appeal to the populace. It was 1920, and the Republican Harding had just defeated Democrat James Cox. Nov. 2, 1920 was an historic night in other ways, too: Radio station KDKA became the first licensed commercial station to broadcast a newscast, and the station did so on Election Day to bring the results of the election to the masses over the airwaves.
    It wasn't unusual for speeches by presidents or candidates for the highest office in the land to be reproduced in newspapers. But Harding knew that this new medium gave him a new way to reach people, according to Curt Smith, a former presidential speechwriter and senior lecturer in English at the University of Rochester.
    "It's not accidental that he then, once inaugurated, hired the first presidential speechwriter," Smith said. "His sole function was to write the words that Harding would then speak."
    Speechwriters have helped create phrases like "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" (Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933) and "Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country" (John F. Kennedy, 1961), which have become part of historical and political lore.
    The role of the speechwriter is examined through an exhibit at the University of Rochester in its Rare Books and Special Collections Department in the Rush Rhees Library. Materials reference Harding, John Quincy Adams, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and Bill Clinton, among others. Comprised of more than 50 selections from public and private collections, "A Presidential Voice" includes a signed copy of Kennedy's famous inaugural address as well as a copy of Lincoln's first address.
    Lori Birrell, manuscript librarian in the university's Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, finds the juxtaposition of Lincoln's first and second inaugural addresses particularly interesting because of the changes and challenges the country endured between 1861 and 1865.
    Smith considers Franklin Roosevelt as the "gold standard" by which presidents and speechwriters try to measure themselves, noting his famous "fireside chats." The 32nd president employed a "murderer's row" of speechwriters.
    "He was able to inspire America when the country was on its knees economically, and in the first days of World War II when it wasn't clear that it would win a war," he said.
    The key to being a successful speechwriter, Smith said, is to get to know the person who will be delivering the words. Smith, a Messenger Post columnist, says he wrote more speeches for President George H.W. Bush than anyone else between 1989 and 1993.
    "It's a wonderful feeling when you're working with him and the speech is one that he likes and the speech works," he said.
    Page 2 of 2 - To familiarize oneself with the president, speechwriters spend time listening and watching him on tape, meeting with him in person and accessing the president as much as possible in order to write words that seem to just naturally flow from the president. Upon his first meeting with Bush in the Cabinet Room, the two discussed how his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, frequently quoted from the Founding Fathers. Bush, an avid sports fan, was aware that Smith had written some books on baseball and said he wanted to do things differently.
    "He looked at me and said, 'I would rather quote Yogi Berra than Thomas Jefferson,'" Smith said, chuckling.
    Smith fondly recalls a speech he wrote for Bush to deliver at a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1991. Bush had tried to enlist the day after Pearl Harbor but was turned down because he was only 17. He came back at 18 and joined the U.S. Navy, and almost died when his plane was shot down. Smith, who called Bush "sentimental" and "gentle," said Bush told him he couldn't deliver the speech because he feared he wouldn't be able to get through it. His advisors convinced him to do it.
    The president broke down three times.
    "And I think he was glad that he gave the speech after the fact," Smith said. "It meant a lot to me because that was my dad's generation."
    The exhibit runs through Friday, March 8 and can be viewed in the Rare Books and Special Collections Department on the second floor of the Rush Rhees Library on the UR campus, located off Elmwood Avenue. The exhibit is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays. For more information, call 275-4477.

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