Beyond Words: Writing for the President

—but what is heroic death compared to eternal watching

—Zbigniew Herbert, “Elegy of Fortinbras”

In 1965 one could still feel John Kennedy’s presence in the White House. I walked out of the mansion one cold, starry night, headed for my office in the West Wing, and imagined I saw that lithe figure standing in the Oval Office, his back to the window; but it was only an aide.

I missed his wry humor, his detachment about himself, his rejection of all that was mawkish and banal in politics. If he had not generated widespread public sentiment for social change, he had helped the nation to gain a perspective on its problems in which reason played a greater part than passion. One of the many terrible ironies of the sixties was that the shock of Kennedy’s death was a more powerful stimulus to congressional action than was his presidency.

Another irony lay in the response many of his partisans made to Lyndon Johnson. To the most passionate of these, Johnson was simply a usurper. The presidency had passed from Hyperion to a satyr. To others Johnson was a parvenu, and always would be. His accent was the occasion for scorn among people who had regarded Kennedy’s way of saying “Cuber" as picturesque.

A distinguished reporter told me, “I don’t hate Johnson. I just hate the fact that all the grace and wit has gone from what the American President says.”I said that I found it difficult, reading his commentary, to make the distinction. I did not say that I could understand how reporters might have enjoyed Kennedy’s deft banter more than three hours of self-justifying stream of consciousness by Johnson. It was hard to be fair in a climate spoiled by hurt feelings.

“If we stand passively by, while the center of each city becomes a hive of deprivation, crime and hopelessness . . . if we become two people, the suburban affluent and the urban poor, each filled with mistrust and fear for the other ... if this is our desire and policy as a people, then we shall effectively cripple each generation to come.”

Thus began the first presidential message on which I worked. What followed were the nuts and bolts: “special grants amounting to 80% of the non-Federal cost of our grant-in-aid programs,” “planning funds for the coordinated treatment of the regional transportation network,” and so on. They were the substance of the program. The rhetoric would last only a day or two; whether the cities would be helped depended on how well the “Urban Problems Task Force” had foreseen real-life problems and designed a practical structure to meet them which the President could persuade Congress to adopt.

Since Kennedy had promised to get us moving again, Democratic speech-writers had forced the pace of everything the President for whom they worked said. Nothing was too small to be termed “urgent.” The consequences of inaction were never less than drastic; action would always bring redemption, prosperity, or civil peace. Sometimes the problem was described so severely that the program seemed feeble by comparison.

I speculated that writers for conservative Presidents did not have such problems. Their guiding principle was good management, where ours was social change. Good management was an end in itself. Social change, on the other hand, was a process—involving the recognition of legitimate needs, the arousal of expectations that they should and could be met, the creation of laws and bureaucracies, and a payoff—money, health care, the right to vote and get a job, better schools. The process could fail at any point—most often at the payoff. It could not even be started unless the needs were recognized and the expectations aroused. To do that, a leader had to raise his voice. He could not engage in an academic debate; he could not take a long view of history, in which crowded cities and poverty seemed in retrospect the benevolent engines of progress; he could not say, “Perhaps it would be wise”; he had to say, “We must.”

In pressing hard for change Johnson took great risks, both for himself and for the country. He had to convey not only a poignant sense of the misery to be relieved but also confidence that money and organization and skill could relieve it. Otherwise men would do nothing.

If he proposed a law prohibiting certain malign practices—such as excluding blacks from restaurants and voting booths—he was relatively sure that he could effect the change he sought if the law was passed. If his goal was to provide medical care for the aged and needy, or a college education for poor youth, that required considerably more administration—the resolution of disputes with hospitals, universities, and so forth. Still, as checks could be delivered, so could doctors and teachers. But if he proposed to “rebuild the core of our cities,” “give men new skills, and thus new hope,” or “give the poor control over their own lives,” that was another matter. A labyrinth of bureaucratic controls, social workers, planners, deputy assistants, consultants, and acronyms came into being; governors and mayors became at once acquisitive and suspicious; groups of militants, each with a voluble spokesman, formed overnight; Congress, which might have been sympathetic enough to pass the enabling bill, became tightfisted when it was asked to appropriate money for it; war and other demands elbowed for priority attention; and soon the newspapers, which had faulted the President for “insufficient vision” the last time around, began to ask whether he had promised more than he could produce. The beneficiaries of the programs grew restive, and then angry, when the gap between goals and reality remained as wide as ever. In an age that exalted instant gratification, in a country that gloried in its standing as “the richest, the most powerful in the world,” there could be no excuse for failure to deliver swift social change, not when the President had called for it and the Congress had apparently agreed to it.

The Johnson Administration could have used more restraint. It could have aimed only at those social and economic injustices which would yield to the ready application of public resources. Instead of training, advising, and seeking to engage the poor, it could have written a monthly check and said it’s up to them.

But a new philosophy of government had emerged since New Deal days. In essence it held that our problems were more of the spirit than of the flesh. People were suffering from a sense of alienation from one another, of anomie, of powerlessness. This affected the well-to-do as much as it did the poor. Middle-class women, bored and friendless in the suburban afternoons; fathers, working at “meaningless” jobs, or slumped before the television set; sons and daughters desperate for “relevance”—all were in need of community, beauty, and purpose, all were guilty because so many others were deprived while they, rich beyond their ancestors’ dreams, were depressed. What would change all this was a creative public effort: for the middle class, new parks, conservation, the removal of billboards and junk, adult education, consumer protection, better television, aid to the arts; for the poor, jobs, training, Head Start, decent housing, medical care, civil rights; for both, and for bridging the gap between them, VISTA, the Teacher Corps, the community action agencies, mass transportation, Model Cities.

It was a magnificent design. It would make America the Great Society, where, in the President’s words, “the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor.” It would make, of Kafka’s despairing “K,” Whitman’s robust “I.” It would satisfy the philosophers and social scientists, the political bosses and the independents, the moderate Republicans and union Democrats, two thirds of the voters, and nearly all the papers.

If it could be done. If government programs could overcome their own inertia, and the limitations of those who ran them.

In 1969, at the end of our time in the White House, I winced at the striving rhetoric I had written at the beginning. By then Richard Nixon and Pat Moynihan and others had all decried the dangers of raising more hopes than one could satisfy. Because the Johnson Administration had done so, they said, it had contributed to violence and disrespect for authority. The implication was that it was better to let sleeping dogs lie unless one had something to feed them.

I thought we might have been more cautious in claiming what we did for our programs. But that we should not have tried to awaken the country to its needs and dangers, and to suggest the means of responding to them, seemed a cold judgment. I would have removed many dramatic phrases from those early messages; I would have warned that whatever we attempted might fail, or take many years to succeed; I would have wished to concentrate on more conventional goals, and to have avoided such concepts as “community” and “meaning.” I might have written as urgently of the need to restrain the worst in man as of the need to help him become “the best that is within him to become.” But I would not have traded Johnson’s vast hopes and intentions for another man’s bookkeeping prudence.

With the possible exception of King Ibn Saud, no other national leader traveled abroad with such a retinue as the American President. Baggage-handlers, communications experts, Secret Service agents, secretaries, reporters, press officers, foreign policy specialists, military aides, a protocol chief, pilots and stewards, valets, advance men, and speech-writers—all crowded into Air Force One or the “backup” planes and took off for the world, ready for anything.

In the early fall of 1966, presidential aides Bill Moyers, John Roche, Jim Symington—the Chief of Protocol—and I led a party around the rim of the Western Pacific, preparing the way for Johnson. We flew to Samoa, Wellington, Canberra, Manila, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Seoul, and back to Washington in eight days. Moyers arranged facilities for the press at each stop, Symington got the dignitaries straight and found quarters for the President, Roche and I talked politics with local scholars and journalists, and a remarkable man named Marty Underwood made sure there would be enthusiastic crowds along the route. Underwood was a broad-faced, genial politician who remembered everything, and got his way— rather, the President’s way—more often by ingenuity than by threat. (Once in Mexico City, desperate to produce a great reception for Johnson on two days’ notice, he persuaded an official to snarl the transportation system at the rush hour shortly before Johnson arrived, and so created a massive captive audience in the center of the city.) In much of Asia, his talents were unnecessary to produce a crowd; the Asians saw to that. His job was to get Johnson through the waving multitudes in time to meet a king or a president.

Thirty-six hours after we returned home, we left again with Johnson. From notes along the way:

SAMOA: Hot. Reception line of a hundred local leaders and their wives. Average weight two hundred fifty pounds. Each couple places leis of flowers and shells around the Johnsons’ necks, which midway through line begin to sag. Our advance man (whom Moyers’ plane had dropped off on previous trip), perspiring happily, says Samoan mothers teach their daughters one hundred positions for making love, called ami-ami. Men do not need to move unless they feel like it.

Johnson makes a speech, written on the plane. Follows classic pattern: You have reduced (measles, illiteracy, dependence on us), you are doubling (GNP, use of fertilizer, dependence on us), you have built (factories, classrooms, new society), you have stood fast against (Communism, tides of despair, voices that say). Eyes of the world are upon you. Samoans listen respectfully, thinking about that. Johnsons go off to see educational television experiment. I stay to watch native dances, thinking about ami-ami. Two hours later the Great White Chief gathers up his assistants and boards a plane on whose sides are the words UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. Jim Cross, the pilot, turns on full power and we start to climb out over the blue-green bay, our obese, happy wards still waving on the strip below.

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND: We come down over a windy harbor and find Governor-General Sir Bernard Fergusson, wearing a monocle, and Prime Minister Keith Holyoake waiting for us. Big bands, a ceremonial guard, thousands of people making thumbs-up signs along fence. Johnson delivers shoulder-to-shoulder speech: we were together in World War I, World War II (recounts own wartime experiences: flew with zero visibility into Auckland Bay, became ill in New Guinea, was cared for by New Zealanders on Fiji). Doesn’t mention Vietnam—we have word that several hundred demonstrators are waiting for us downtown. The following day, as he is on his way to Parliament, demonstrators push through great friendly crowd to hold up banners reading STOP THE WAR. They chant—something firm but respectful, none of that Hey, Hey, LBJ stuff—and while officials make nervous apologetic sounds, Johnson turns around on the steps outside Parliament House and makes a “V” sign. Crowd behind the demonstrators roars. That’s the stuff.

Next morning at five, shaving in a bathroom I share with Underwood, I hear a woman’s voice in his room. “Oh, sir, that’s really too nice.” Underwood: “Well, you’ve been so good to me, I want you to have it.” Woman: “I’ll always treasure it, sir.”Underwood: “Now maybe you’ll take care of my friend Mr. McPherson next door.” “Oh, indeed I will, sir.” Criminy. Five in the morning, maybe three hours before we get breakfast on the plane, and Underwood’s sending . . . There is a knock at the door. I open it and find a big plain girl in a maid’s uniform holding out a silver tray with muffins, jam, and tea upon it. I take it gratefully and notice that her right hand is firmly clasped about an LBJ ball-point pen.

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA: Are all planned capitals handsome and dull? I hear Brasília is; Washington was at the beginning and for a long time thereafter. Canberra’s streets are wide and empty. Its shrubs are clipped. Its vistas are logical (“You see, the war memorial is the apex of a triangle that begins at Parliament . . .”). It is spacious and sane and altogether as exciting as a size twenty flowered print dress—of which there are many in evidence.

Johnson draws a big crowd in Sydney. A few demonstrators break through to throw paint on his car. That becomes the news of the Australian trip; not the tens of thousands yelling, “Good on you, Lyndon!” but the red paint exploding on the car and on millions of television screens and retinas, spreading out until nothing else can register.

He makes a good many extemporaneous speeches, which become progressively richer with the imagery of World War II. You stood fast! . . . while just across the Owen-Stanley Range in New Guinea the enemy waited to give the knockout blow. (Listening,

I remember the face of the Zero pilot in the movies, fiendishly grinning to his wingman and pointing downward to where the big red cross marked the hospital.) The survivors of that thwarted Japanese Army are now our best trading partners and the Bulwark of Asian Democracy. Glad we aren’t stopping there.

Night at Brisbane Airport. Johnson takes a speech I wrote on the plane and mounts a floodlit platform. Our local consul, reading a copy, chokes with horror. Johnson is to say, “I am told that something like a million Americans passed through Brisbane during World War II.” That has a special libidinal meaning for Australians. It is certain to provoke knowing laughter among the women and grinding of teeth among the men. I alert Moyers, who runs up to cross out the sentence just in time.

MANILA: We are escorted over Manila Bay by a squadron of Philippine Air Force F-4’s, flying terrifyingly close to our wing tips. You can see the pilots’ faces. I think of all those speeches about how Asians can take responsibility for their own defense, if we only give them the means. Well, there they are, about to knock off one of our wings with the means we gave them. One must have faith. Men of all races can fly F-4’s thirty yards from your wing tips. At last they peel off and we land. Better to talk about Asia’s defense on the ground.

The humidity is oppressive. How can anyone work here? Broad faces, the smell of poverty, stucco peeling from the buildings along the bay. The country is sinking under the weight of graft and official corruption and wet air. The murder rate is so high that customers in the bars are asked to check their guns before entering. In a hotel elevator, I stand next to a wispy man under whose shiny black suit bulges a small automatic. I suppose the Secret Service agents, Clint Hill and Rufus Youngblood, can handle him, or anybody else; but he is part of an atmosphere of simmering violence that makes me nervous and ill tempered. It affects others in our party. One of them, drunk and enraged by a crowd of leftist students picketing our hotel, drops a water bomb out the window. Like the offshore cannon shot into Africa in Heart of Darkness. Johnson is sore when he hears about it and has somebody admonish the aide.

At sunset I talk to several Filipino scholars who’ve been invited to the embassy. One says his people have no identity. The Spanish made them Catholic and antimaterialist, and we made them democratic and venal. We should not have left until we showed them how to prosper and run a good government. Another says we should never have come. Better to have left them untouched by Western values, another Sarawak or Borneo. I look out through the grill of a French window onto Manila Bay. Horizon and distance are indistinguishable in the glowing saffron light. I can just make out the silhouette of a freighter, weightlessly at anchor in the bay. A launch moves slowly toward it. Maybe to loot it, with the cooperation of its crew. Hundreds of millions of dollars in goods are expropriated out there each year. An informal aid program, with a highly restricted list of beneficiaries.

BANGKOK: Early one evening, I take a speech to Johnson’s quarters in the Palace. He is asleep. I wait in an elegant parlor outside. French provincial furniture beneath a high domed ceiling. Maybe Anna slept here, between classes for the king’s children. I’d like to. I am tired and rumpled from a month of travel.

Johnson wakes up and goes in to shave. In the center of the bathroom is a sunken bath, four feet deep and ten feet long. The spigot is a water-buffalo head in silver. I tell him that would go well in Texas. Hmmph, he says. We sit down with the speech. It is speech-writer Ben Wattenberg’s draft for the university next day. Johnson is easy and patient, trying to be interested in one more collection of words to be spoken before another foreign audience. Mrs. Johnson comes in and gently reminds him that the state dinner is at eight, ten minutes from now. He thanks her and returns to the speech. She comes back in ten minutes, growing more concerned. The king and queen will be waiting at the foot of the stairs below. He looks at her for a long time. Then he asks, “What are they going to do?” Good question. At length he stands up and is zipped into his formal clothes by his valet. There’s one good reason for being President. I start to leave, but he has more to say about the speech, and the three of us go out toward the stairs. The young king and his pretty wife wait pleasantly below. We start down the steps between rigid guardsat-arms. Halfway down, Johnson turns and hands me the speech. Then King and President meet warmly and walk toward a receiving line. In my wrinkled suit I stand between the drawn swords and marbled eyes of the guards, feeling that I should issue an order.

Stag dinner next night. I sit across from a prince who had parachuted into Thailand with a CIA team during the Japanese occupation. Tough old bird. He thinks Thailand ought to send many more troops to Vietnam. What do the Thai people think about that? He asks me to repeat the question. When I do, he looks at me quizzically, as if the idea had not occurred to him.

“The Thais accommodate,” says a man in our embassy. “To the French, the British, the Japanese, and if necessary to the North Vietnamese and the Chinese. They don’t think the last is necessary now, so long as we are willing to supply arms to them and treat them as protected property under SEATO. They haven’t been anybody’s colonial possession for a thousand years, but they’ve accommodated.”

So much for history. I have a toast to write. “Tonight we stand as allies in a common cause. At this very moment, Thai forces are assisting the South Vietnamese in their struggle against armed aggression alongside the forces of the United States of America.”

Next day we leave Bangkok. The streets are lined with Chinese lingerie shops, Honda agencies, and gigantic movie ads—in one of which a looming black-shirted hero, gun in each hand, looks very much like Marvin Watson. We hustle along the AID-built highway toward the airport. Water buffalo—live ones this time—stand knee-deep in the rice paddies. Frail children look up beside them, open-mouthed as ten great limousines rush by at seventy miles an hour. And then go back to switching the buffalo. There is another world out there, beyond the Palace and the imaginary garden of my speeches.

Presidents are called upon to speak too often, manufacturing words of no lasting significance for gatherings of little consequence to them. There is a Gresham’s Law of Presidential Rhetoric, that too much of it spoils the effect of all of it. In defiance of that law, wherever the President moved, microphones were set up, crowds invited, the press alerted, and a speech-writer assigned to produce appropriate language. Even if the speech was tolerably good, it was quickly forgotten; the President climbed back into his plane, the press boarded its own, and his words and audience vanished quickly.

I went with Johnson to Bonn for Adenauer’s funeral, and wrote not a word. That was a ceremonial gathering of the Western chiefs, and the somber drama of their rites—the Mass in Cologne Cathedral; the flotilla of ships, one bearing Adenauer’s body, heading south against the Rhine’s current, their red, black, and yellow streamers clear in the twilightmade presidential prose inadequate.

Perhaps it always was before a foreign audience, unless one could call on a magic phrase—like Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner”—to convey something deeper than an idea, something that touched the immediate interests and emotions of the crowd. In El Salvador in 1968, Johnson spoke at a teachers’ school out in the country. I had visited the school the day before and talked with several students, none of them older than twenty, who would soon be leaving to teach in the mountain villages. I tried to reflect what I heard from them in the speech. “The starvation of education—with its third-class citizenship for teachers, its narrow circle of students, its dull, mechanical drilling of facts into young minds . . . [it] was never good enough. It is a prescription for disaster today.” The new teachers were going to use educational television, and so they would not be cut off from the intellectual resources in the capital and elsewhere in Central America. But the teachers themselves were the indispensable elements, the liberators; as the Salvadoran anthem had it, “In each man there is an immortal hero,” and it was their task to release the hero in each village child.

As the speech went on, the students became restive-still polite up front, talkative and boisterous toward the back, Johnson’s words and the rapid flat translation falling upon them like annoying motes in the sultry air. I walked out and looked at the black earth and the ring of mountains about us, and wondered what I might have written that would have interested them; that would have bridged the chasm between young Central Americans headed for a life of respectable poverty in the villages and the American President, whose cars and agents stood waiting to speed him away to Washington.

Maybe words could not do that. John Kennedy might have done it through personality: young, elegant, Catholic, liberal, he was what they dreamed of being. Robert Kennedy, by identifying with those who stood for change in Latin America—the dissident clergy, the intellectuals, the political opposition-expressed the students’ impatience with their society more effectively, and more safely, than they could themselves. But Presidents, unlike senators, could not take up the opposition’s cause during official visits abroad—if, indeed, they wished to. They were stuck with “appropriate” rhetoric, and that, unless it was infused with personal magnetism, did not translate to the foreign heart.

Many people find it disappointing that Presidents employ speech-writers. It disturbs them that they can never be sure whether the man whom the majority elected, or some faceless assistant known but to God and his associates, has composed a famous presidential metaphor. But (1) if Presidents wrote the drafts of all that they were required to say, they would have little time left for the main business of their office—that is, governing; (2) Presidents do not ordinarily speak, or write, presidentialese—that exalted language in which, custom has it, great public issues should be discussed; (3) speech-writers do not last unless they have a good idea of what their Presidents wish to say; (4) when it counts—when the President is preparing a major address—the final product usually belongs more to him than to his writers.

It was part of the speech-writer’s code that he should not assert his authorship of what the President said. A knowing shrug was permissible, but only just. When John Kenneth Galbraith and several other contributors to President Kennedy’s speeches began to claim credit for particular lines in them, Art Buchwald wrote an urgent message to the director of the National Parks. Watch out for a tall, thin man with a chisel in his hand, Buchwald warned, especially if he gets near the Kennedy gravesite. The clear implication was that “Ask not what your country can do for you" might soon be followed by “J. K. Galbraith, 1961.”

But it was impossible for some presidential writers to conceal themselves behind a screen of anonymity. Richard Goodwin, who was probably the best writer to serve a President since Roosevelt’s day, did not bother to try. He saw his role as far more than that of a creative amanuensis; he meant to influence the direction of government. His advice to me, before he left the White House, was to wait until the last possible moment before submitting a draft to the President and the bureaucracy. In that way, he said, you can make your ideas almost a fait accompli; there will be no time for them to secure an alternative draft, and they must bargain with you to temper what you’ve written—instead of your arguing at the end for a bold variance from accepted policy. By the time I became Johnson’s principal speech-writer, there was little range for striking initiatives. My job was to make staying with it in Vietnam and in the ghettos sound compelling and necessary.

I drew on many sources for speech drafts, chiefly on material supplied by the departments. There, buried in language that human beings never use except in communicating between large institutions, were the outlines of policy. I tried to turn them into presidentialese.

That was a strange dialect, meant to fix in the listeners’ minds the impression that something profound and memorable had just been said. It made heavy use of alliteration to catch their attention. Two examples, neither of them mine: “[The Dominican people] want, as we do, an end to slaughter in the streets and brutality in the barrios.” Second, about the Middle East: “This is a time not for malice, but for magnanimity; not for propaganda, but for patience; not for vituperation, but for vision.” I was told that Johnson admired this sort of thing; I thought it put up a wall between him and his audience, and made him—already the artful politician— seem the more contrived.

Roosevelt could explain a complicated question of economics by telling a simple story. Johnson, trying to simplify, was often painfully artificial: “I have talked to you about a six-point program . . . Food— that is ‘F.’ Recreation—that is ‘R.’ Jobs and wages and income—that is ‘I.’ Education—that is ‘E.’ Increased social security, Medicare, and nursing homes for older folks—that is ‘N.’ And a strong nation that will defend us and help us get peace—defense—that is ‘D’ . . . that spells ‘friend.’ ”

Still, he was often at his best when extemporizing. Nothing Goodwin or I ever wrote for him compared with a talk I heard Johnson make one morning years before in Abilene, Texas, to a group of REA district managers. While he ate a bowl of oatmeal, they told him about their problems with the banks and the Department of Agriculture. Johnson finished his breakfast, and in a low, compelling voice, advised them that they should join with the unions, the home builders, and all others who needed low interest rates. Separately their power was inadequate; together they would force the government into lowering the rates. The idea of uniting with Walter Reuther and David Dubinsky, as Johnson recommended, must have seemed strange to those West Texas farmer-managers, but they cheered him vigorously.

Most of what Presidents say passes unremarked into the obscurity of the archives. Unless the occasion itself is momentous, hardly a paragraph survives a copy editor’s desk. For a speech-writer, the trick is to find an arresting phrase, something that is “news” in itself and will not embarrass the President later on. Some writers can do that almost automatically, whatever the subject. I needed to care; autointoxication did not work for me: I had to hate somebody, some idea or condition, and hope that a compelling phrase would suddenly appear on the page without design. Writing about the death of Mrs. Liuzzo at the hands of the Klan, I put down “hooded band of bigots" almost before I knew it, the words squeezing out of rage and contempt; that afternoon they were across every front page. The same emotions produced headlines for an election-eve statement in 1966: “White backlash is dangerous because it threatens to vest power in the hands of second-rate men whose only qualification is their ability to pander to other men’s fears.”In an AFL-CIO speech in 1967, “wooden soldiers of the status quo,” referring to Republicans in Congress, caused a stir. Maybe the lesson was not so much that rhetorical art came from real feelings as that attacking anyone from a presidential platform was guaranteed coverage in the press.

Writing a political speech is hard work. Television spots are reducing political issues to subliminal clichés, but there are still fund-raising events where Presidents are expected to ring the familiar changes. The pressure is on the writer—so he thinks—to produce classic effects. The models for Democrats are Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech, Roosevelt’s “Rendezvous With Destiny,” Truman’s giving ‘em hell.

In fact, speeches before Democratic dinners were often little more than recitations of achievements before a dazed crowd of party-goers. I remember a dinner in the late fifties, at the Washington Armory, as the nadir of political communication. There was supposed to be one principal speaker. Five other men were to make brief remarks. As it happened there were six speeches, each half an hour long. By midnight, the audience had dwindled to a few hundred. Garbage trucks drove onto the floor at both ends of the cavernous hall, and waiters, many of them staggering from leftover booze, began tossing plates, glasses, and food onto the truck beds. Majority Leader John McCormack chose that moment to survey the Republican legislative record during the Eighty-sixth Congress. “On the farm bill,” he said, in his flat Boston voice, “one hundred fifty Republicans voted to recommit, while only thirty-six . . .” From a table of South Carolinians directly in front of McCormack, a tall man in a summer tux swayed to his feet, tucked a bottle under his arm, and shouted. “Jee-sus Chrahst!

Democratic politicians traditionally broke the bonds, struck the shackles, lifted up, gave new hope, made possible. “They”—the Republicans and other skeptics—thought we would fail, fold, give up, but “they” had another think coming. We had not come this far to quit in sight of our goal. Answer the following rhetorical question: Shall we quit trying to feed the poor, train the uneducated, heal the sick, just because it is hard and costly? (One hoped for a chorus of “No’s,” but usually there was only silence. By 1967, one was satisfied if no one yelled “Yes!”) Of course it was hard; but we would win because the people loved us for what we had tried to do. In the great tradition of Franklin D. Roosevelt! Harry S. Truman! And so on.

Johnson stumping was the best of all—when he was good. He made a political speech in Morgantown, West Virginia, shortly before the 1968 election. He had a brief text, but his juices were flowing and the audience was appreciative, so he spoke for more than an hour, flavoring politics with country tales. “We like this democracy so much, this freedom so much, we want everybody to have a little taste of it. It is like the fellow who had a few too many drinks. He came home, and he got to sleep and woke up in the middle of the night. His mouth was burning and he said to his wife, ‘Get me some ice water.’ And she got the pitcher of ice water and brought it to him and he took a drink. Then he said, ‘Honey, this is so good, go wake up the kids and give them some of it.’”

That kind of story might not travel well. Certainly it was not meant for national television. But it had the color and smell of life, in a way that prepared rhetoric did not. It came very close to representing the man himself, and that, after all, was what people wanted to see, whether they supported or hated him.

Political speech-writing is never good enough. It never matches what a good politician can do with the right metabolism, the right relationship between himself and an audience. But it is usually necessary— not just to give the politician a frame to build on, but to lay out what he thinks or hopes his people believe.

Somewhere in every serious political speech are the markers by which a party defines its course. Their colors run back to Jefferson and Hamilton, to Rousseau and Hobbes and the old debates over man’s capacity for sensible judgment. They are cast in either/or terms: crime results either from murderous living conditions or from the society’s unwillingness to impose firm sanctions on antisocial behavior; poverty is either a social crime of the rich or a psychological failure of the poor; prosperity should trickle down or bubble up.

Inevitably the distinctions that bring the loudest cheers at political dinners seem the most inadequate and simplistic the next morning. Sober, thinking people do not see the world in either/or terms. Everything is true in life; energetic choices are made in a storm of contradictions. Political words offer a rationale for otherwise chaotic events. They help to unite people of very different sensibilities behind common policies, and thus they help government to function. But they rarely give an accurate reflection of reality. Their writers, joining in (and sometimes leading) the applause that follows their ringing phrases, can easily forget that. And communicating fairly and precisely is not the only question. Out beyond the convention centers and the Hilton hospitality rooms, beyond the cars pulling up with lobbyists and their clients, are citizens whose problems do not yield to any words at all. □