The Message of D-Day

A speechwriter who wrote Bill Clinton's address for the 50th anniversary of the invasion reflects on how such speeches are written and why they matter.
Mal Langsdon/Reuters

Twenty years ago, as a speechwriter for President Clinton, I traveled to Normandy for the 50th anniversary of D-Day. This week I’m returning for the first time, with my fellow former speechwriter Jeremy Rosner and our spouses, to be present for the 70th-anniversary commemoration. Preparing for this trip has led me to reflect on what’s timeless and what’s evanescent in politics and presidential leadership.

D-Day, of course, is too great a day full of too many consequential deeds to be reduced to mere politics. The Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, was a turning point in modern history. Had it failed, had Hitler been able to solidify his hold on France, I might now be writing this from a besieged American outpost of democracy in a totalitarian world. Or I might not be at all: Who’s to say whether my parents could have made their way from China to America, met, and raised a family here if the world still had a real Axis?

What we can be sure of is that D-Day occupies a powerful if shifting place in the American imagination: vivid and urgent, thanks to Saving Private Ryan and other cinematic depictions of the Greatest Generation at war; yet at the same time fuzzy and filtered, thanks to, well, time and the passing of that generation. Soon enough, D-Day will not be the lived experience of anyone living. It will be only history, in a country where we say “that’s history” to mean that something’s irrelevant.

That’s why D-Day + 50 infused me with such a sense of purpose back in 1994. Working on those speeches for Clinton was by far the most meaningful experience in my time at the White House. It wasn’t just that it was Clinton’s biggest moment on the world stage to that point, and one of the biggest global convocations since the end of the Cold War. It was personal for me. Here, after all, was a Generation X son of immigrants helping the nation’s first Baby Boom president to honor the GI Generation, and to thank them for winning a war that everyone could agree was “good.”

This telescopic view gave me proper perspective: I was a second-generation American and a third-generation legatee of D-Day who had had to do precious little to earn the bounty around him and who now felt that truly the least he could do would be to help kindle a nation’s memory.

To do that, I did more research than I’d ever done before. This was before the Web, though we did have the Library of Congress at our disposal and could get pretty much anyone to return a call from the White House. So for months in advance, Jeremy and I and our colleague Don Baer embarked on an amateur historian’s dream journey. We read every book we could about D-Day. We read letters sent by soldiers on the eve of invasion. We talked to veterans, listened to oral histories. We talked to Stephen Ambrose and other historians.

We also steeped ourselves in classic war-memorial speeches. The Gettysburg Address, of course, but also lesser-known speeches, like Daniel Webster’s 1825 address to mark the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill. Or Woodrow Wilson’s July 4, 1913 speech for the 50th anniversary of Gettysburg.

Presented by

Eric Liu is a correspondent for The Atlantic. He is the author of A Chinaman's Chance, co-author of The Gardens of Democracy, and the creator of Citizen University. He was a speechwriter and deputy domestic-policy adviser for President Bill Clinton.

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