My last official act before leaving the Carter speech-writing team late last summer was to retrieve something called the "cliche bank" from the office computer. Put together, at my instigation, during the dog days of the summer of Jimmy Carter's discontent, the cliche bank was a 29-item compendium of some of the hackneyed words, phrases and concepts that provided the glue that held a Carter speech together.
For example, references to the Camp David Accords always began, "Two courageous leaders, Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin . . ." Then there were the safe, pedestrian adjectives that Carter favored, like "competent," "effective," "fair," "inherent" and "innate." Last, there was a list of verboten expressions like "ethnic purity" and "I expect my cabinet to serve a full four years."
There was nothing sinister or disloyal about the cliche bank. Since most political speech-writing is nothing more than stringing together familar phrases in a soothing rhythm, every team of writers has to take some time off to mock the burden of cliches under which they must labor. Regardless of party or candidate, all speech-writers must draw on the same stock of rhetorical constructions, historical analogies, apt quotations and vivid metaphors.
Take what happens when the president announces a new domestic initiative. Speech-writers for opposition candidates immediately face the choice of whether to dismiss it as a "mere fig leaf" or to denounce it as "nothing more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic." The energy crisis has been a boon for the collectors of instant cliches. In his Georgetown University speech in late January, Sen. Edward Kennedy warned of "our addiction to foreign oil." I recognized that one immediately. During the 1979 windfall profits season, I routinely alternated it with that other standby: "our insatiable thirst for foreign oil."
The possibility for originality in foreign policy rhetoric is even more limited, especially since it is now frowned upon to compare current presidents to Neville Chamberlain. Instead, everyone talks in code about "projecting force in the Indian Ocean." Before President Carter went to Vienna to sign the ill-fated SALT II agreement, I had the chore of reading what former presidents had said on similar occasions. For the last 20 years, every agreement with the Soviet Union has been described as "just a small step down the long road toward peace."
The Kennedy speech at Georgetown ended with the Massachusetts senator taking six paragraphs to paint his vision of America's future.He began each paragraph with the catch phrase, "And I am committed to an America where . . ."
You can find that construction on page 341 of the current edition of Safire's Political Dictionary. Safire calls it the "I see" construction and traces it back to Republican James G. Blaine who told audiences in 1876: "I see our country filled with happy homes . . . I see a world where thrones have crumbled . . ." Martin Luther King updated this hoary construction in his famous "I have a dream" speech.
Try as you will to escape it, it is almost impossible for any candidate to discuss the 1980s without resorting to some form of the "I see" construction. In his State of the Union message, President Carter used it in talking about his "bright vision of the America we want." He then specified the ingredients in his dream: "An America strong and free. An America at peace. An America with equal rights for women . . ."
Also tricky are quotations, particularly those from former presidents. Richard Nixon and, to a lesser extent, Lyndon Johnson remain beyond the pale. When Carter was plummeting in the polls, there was a run on the Harry Truman quote books in the White House library. Underdogs in both parties are allowed to quote Truman, but Democrats can only praise two Republican presidents, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. Predictably enough, in his Georgetown speech, Kennedy appropriated Roosevelt.
Then there is the problem of sexist terminology in familiar quotations. When Kennedy declared his candidacy, he dropped "men" from a quote from Thomas Wolfe and updated it to read, "So then to all persons . . ." In 1977, Carter speechwriters, in a puckish gesture, celebrated the anniversary of Leif Ericsson's discovery of America by referring to him as a "gallant Norseperson" in an official proclamation. Reportedly President Carter, who acutally issued this proclamation, was not amused.
For a speech-writer, nothing is worse than misattributing a quotation. In his State of the Union message, Carter used a famous quotation from Walter Lippmann beginning "You took the good things for granted," and ending "There is nothing for nothing any longer." The quote, found on page 535 of The Essential Lippmann, is part of a complex reference to Governor Morris quoting George Washington. In all the drafts prepared for the president, credit was given to Lippmann. But in the advance text, some sinister force changed it to "It is written that George Washington once reminded us . . ." That didn't last long and in the actual speech Carter gave the appropriate citation to Lippmann.
I know how embarrassing such snafus can be. Last summer I wrote Carter's remarks when he unveiled a solar heater on the roof of the White House. In an elaborate historical analogy, I likened this symbolic event to the moment in 1891 when President Benjamin Harrison brought electricity to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. There was only one problem. In writing the speech, I somehow got my Harrisons confused and praised William Henry Harrison for this epic breakthrough. This would have been quite remarkable since the elder Harrison died six years before the birth of Thomas Edison. Although my speech draft was approved by five levels of the White House bureaucracy, there was President Carter on the roof of the White House boasting about the technological vision of William Henry Harrison.
Had this happened when Lyndon Johnson was president, I suspect I would have been summarily hauled to the White House roof and impaled upon the solar collector. But the passage of OSHA has improved working conditions for White House speechwriters. Not only was I not fired, but no one in the Carter White House even called to complain about the error. I guess they assumed that William Henry Harrison helped Benjamin Franklin fly his kite.