The thoughts of Jimmy Carter, as channeled through George W. Bush

Even though I spent the last six months of Jimmy Carter's 1976 presidential campaign as his #2 speechwriter (after Patrick Anderson), and even though I then spent the first two years of his Administration as chief of his speechwriting office (before Hendrik Hertzberg), I had very little to do with his inaugural address in 1977. The shaping of that speech was left in the hands of people much closer to the President-elect -- and as with all his major speeches, the most important touches were applied by Carter's own very distinctive prose-styling hands.

I do remember, though, pushing hard for one idea about the speech:

that it begin with words of appreciation and respect for Gerald Ford. Especially in its final days, the campaign (like all presidential campaigns) had not been that friendly, but everyone realized that deep down Carter and the Democrats were running against Richard Nixon and his embittering legacy, not against the decent-seeming Ford himself. Whatever the exact genesis, Carter's address did begin this way:

For myself and for our Nation, I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land.


It was thus with a sense of surprise, respect, and weird deja vu that I saw this part of George W. Bush's statement immediately after Ford's death was announced:

With his quiet integrity, common sense, and kind instincts, President Ford helped heal our land...


Back in the olden days, speechwriters would leaf through volumes of presidential speeches, including those from opposing parties, to see how earlier administrations had solved rhetorical and political challenges that remained surprisingly similar through the ages. Presidential statements of regret on the death of august figures -- "croakers," we called them internally, being very young at the time -- are prepared long in advance. I like to imagine one of the current Bush speechwriters, having been assigned the Ford statement, taking down the volume of Carter presidential speeches and looking through it -- discreetly.