Will little note nor long remember what George...


February 02, 1991|By THEO LIPPMAN

THE WORLD will little note nor long remember what George Bush said in his State of the Union message Tuesday.

At least that's my guess, but you never know. History has not been kind to many of these speeches, but history can surprise even the best speech writers.

The first presidential report to the Congress did leave us with a quote we all learned in American History. "To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace," George Washington said. That is familiar to you not only because you had to learn it in high school, but because so many subsequent presidents have quoted it.

Lincoln provided the quotation books with an enduring gem in his second annual message in 1862: "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present."

I'd say the best known language from a State of the Union speech was in Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1941 message: "We must look forward to a world based on four essential human freedoms. . . freedom of speech and expression. . . freedom to worship God. . . freedom from want. . . freedom from fear. . ."

Last Wednesday at a golden anniversary commemoration of thFour Freedoms speech in Statuary Hall in the Capitol, FDR's grand-daughter Anne Roosevelt pointedly reminded President Bush that opponents of his Persian Gulf policies were exercising the first of those freedoms.


I don't know how the Bush speech was put together. Sam Rosenman, FDR's principal ghost writer left an account of the preparation of the Four Freedoms speech.

The speech's theme was lend-lease, the arrangement whereby the neutral U.S. provided a broke Britain with war material. Adolph Berle of the State Department prepared a first draft. Rosenman, Harry Hopkins and Robert Sherwood of the White House staff and FDR, himself, rewrote it several times.

While they were working on the fourth draft, FDR suddenly said to stenographer Dorothy Brady, "Dorothy, take a law. 'We must look forward, etc. . . .' " He dictated the Four Freedoms section of the speech almost word for word as it would appear in the seventh and final draft of the speech.

(I assume the line, "take a law" was a play on the 1937 George M. Cohan musical comedy, "I'd Rather Be Right." At one point in that play, Cohan, playing FDR, says to his attorney general in a Cabinet meeting, "Cummings, take down a law!")

Here's what I mean about history surprising even speech writersFDR's didn't expect the "four freedoms" language to be a big hit. Their favorite was a line by Sherwood, a Pulitzer Prize winning dramatist. He wrote of American business interests who wanted to appease Hitler: "We must especially beware of that small group of selfish men who would clip the wings of the American eagle to feather their own nests."

Great line. Wonderful word play. Nobody paid any attention to it then or since.

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