We all remember exactly where we were and...

IT IS A DAY

December 07, 1991|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

IT IS A DAY we all remember exactly where we were and exactly what we were doing when we heard the news.

was in the office of Rep. John Davis of Georgia in Washington. It was a slow Friday afternoon. We were gossiping about the looming civil rights bill fight. Suddenly his secretary rushed in and said she'd just heard on the radio that -- . . .

Uh, no, wait, that was the day John Kennedy was assassinated. Hmmm. Gee, I don't know where I was on Pearl Harbor Day.

I sort of remember listening to President Franklin D. Roosevelt ask a joint session of Congress for a declaration of war the next day. O'Keefe Junior High of Atlanta came to a halt for all to hear the radio broadcast. But I cannot tell you now if there was a public address system speaker in every classroom or if radios were brought in or if there was an assembly. On the other hand, I do recall in detail the day soon thereafter when my homeroom teacher reminisced at length about her nephew, Colin Kelly, the first great romantic hero of the war.

FDR's speech on Dec. 8 was a masterpiece. In a day when the phrase "sound bite" had not yet been coined, he created an enduring one. "Yesterday," the president began, "December, 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan."

Though he had excellent speech writers, including the playwright Robert E. Sherwood, FDR wrote that speech himself. There were at least three drafts. The first said "live in world history" instead of "in infamy" and "simultaneously" rather than "suddenly." FDR made the changes himself. Both changes improved the speech, making the Japanese seem even more treacherous and evil.

(Japan-bashing was okay that day. Why isn't it okay today? I mean, they did start the war, didn't they? Just once every 50 years can't we indulge in a little healthy bashing? Did you see the old Japanese pilots who had bombed Hawaii interviewed on ABC's Pearl Harbor show Thursday night? They were proud of having won the battle. As they should be. Why are so many Americans apologetic about having won the war?)

Back to the speech. Another thing unusual about it was its length. In those pre-sound bite days, politicians often droned on and on. Speaking slowly, FDR only went on for between six and seven minutes. His speech was only some 450-500 words, about the length of this column. It was his Gettysburg Address.

BStill another interesting thing about it is that it has become the most misquoted FDR speech. Most people, especially those who know when to use restrictive relative pronouns and when not to, unconsciously correct the FDR line to "a date that will live in infamy." Many also say "day" instead of "date," twice misquoting a 7-word phrase!

Will Kennedy Smith knows his relative pronouns. He said, "a date who will live in infamy."

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