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Essay

Taking Liberty To Revise Famous Speeches

By Hanna Rosin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 25, 2005; Page C01

As Emily Litella used to say, "Never mind."

We've all done it, late at night, perhaps in the presence of people we want to impress: tapped our inner Socrates, talked ourselves up to the mountaintop, then had to play cool the day after. You can see how it happened to President Bush: the crowds, the bracing cold, the hand on the Bible, and suddenly he finds himself mentioning freedom or its equivalent 49 times in his inaugural speech, using phrases such as "hunger in dark places" and "the longing of the soul."

But then morning always comes, and with it the responsibility to, as Ali G would say, check yo-self. Yes, of course, the objective of ending global tyranny is a critical one, said the president's spokesman the next day. But not, you know, right away, or all at once, or in any way that will immediately change our policy toward a specific country, White House briefers said.


The "only thing to fear"? Maybe Franklin Roosevelt, here delivering his 1933 inaugural address, had a few things he might have added to that list. (AP)


"People want to read a lot into it," Bush's father told reporters the day after. It's just a speech about "freedom."

"It's not to say we're not doing this already," said one of the many "administration officials" called on to "clarify" the speech to the press. "It's not a discontinuity," added a third. It's a "message we've been sending" for some time, pointing out as an example the fact that Saudi Arabia had already begun a "national dialogue."

It's a generational struggle, said several officials. Not the work of a year or two. It "doesn't come to fruition overnight," warned White House spokesman Dan Bartlett. "It will move at different speeds and different paces in different countries." All Bush meant to do, added Bartlett, was "cast an anchor out into the future."

Imagine for a moment what might have happened if great historical figures had felt obligated to issue morning-after clarifications:

"We did talk. But the Lord our God did not specify what he meant by 'covenant.' He did not say whether you had to follow one or five or all 10. He could have meant it more like a list of suggestions."

-- Moses, 1250 B.C.

"No one needs to go turning over their inheritance to the meek tomorrow morning. This is a generational process, not the work of a couple of years."

-- Jesus, circa A.D. 33

" 'Liberty' or 'death' were just the two choices I happened to mention, but of course there are others."

-- Patrick Henry, 1775

"So maybe there are a few other things to fear. Wolves, snakes, heights. I myself have been known to shriek at the sight of a spider."

-- Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1933

"Okay, so not quite an 'Iron Curtain.' I meant more like pewter."

-- Winston Churchill, 1946

"In response to many of your anxious queries, I would like to assure you that we will still be taking complaints, requests, demands relating to what this country, and my administration in particular, can do for you. In fact, today I would like to announce a new toll-free line, 1-800-MY-NEEDS, to be up and operational by next week."

-- John F. Kennedy, 1961

"Well, it wasn't really a dream. More like a daydream."

-- Martin Luther King Jr., 1963


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