It is a custom of long standing among families that prize Jewish scholarship for the groom to deliver an original Talmudic insight at the engagement party. This essentially involves laying out some legal question and offering some novel approach to its adjudication. Since only about 30 percent of Yeshiva students ever reach that level of juridical creativity, a lot of frantic tutoring often precedes these events. (In recent years, a counter-custom has evolved, where the groom gets about two sentences out of his mouth and his friends drown him out by breaking into song. Then he sits down in mock resignation.)
Some 50 years ago, a friend of my father made his presentation flawlessly. The crowd at the party was abuzz. Everyone could recognize the excellence of style, while the scholarly types were also praising the content. Finally, his old Lithuanian Rabbi, no doubt suffering from years of being underappreciated by his congregation, began to "confess" to people that he had taught the material to the young man. The upshot was a familial humiliation that eventually drove the couple apart; the wedding was canceled.
The moral of the story is simple and I have lived by it through many projects as a ghost-writer. The operative slogan is: "I get the cash, he gets the credit." The speaker must be able to bank on his quote not being haunted by the ghost.
With this in mind, I was disturbed to read in the June 6 issue of U.S. News and World Report an excerpt from the new book by Douglas Brinkley, The Boys of Pointe du Hoc. It was all about the wonderful speech that Ronald Reagan delivered in 1984 on the 40th anniversary of the D-Day invasion at Normandy. It celebrated the heroic climb up the jagged rock face of Pointe du Hoc by 225 soldiers into the teeth of fierce resistance from guns the Germans had mounted at the peak. Ninety-nine men survived and won the skirmish to disable those guns, enabling reinforcements to land safely to reach the battlefields.
Of those, 62 were in attendance four decades later when Reagan proclaimed, with tears in his eyes: "These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. And these are the heroes who helped end a war."
There is no one outside direct family members and teachers who affected my life more deeply than Ronald Reagan. I have written a great deal about him in a number of venues including one essay that was read by Nancy Reagan, who asked a mutual friend to convey to me her appreciation. In that spirit, I was excited to see that Brinkley had written the book and that U.S. News was running the segment. I sat down to read with relish but to my dismay none of it was about Reagan. It was about Peggy Noonan, tracking her odyssey as a novice speechwriter going through laborious stages of penning this classic peroration.
Let me make one thing perfectly clear. That is not Peggy Noonan's speech. Nor did Theodore Sorensen say: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." Victor Gold did not say: "Extremism in the pursuit of liberty is no vice and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." And we love you, Peter Robinson, but it was not you who declared: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."
The orations of great men are theirs alone. They represent their ideas and express their dreams. They are the bridge between the vision of one person and the heart of a nation. No important leader ever uttered a public sentiment with conviction because he found it on a piece of paper that someone handed him in the office. "Write them on the slate of your heart," said the prophet, and the Ronald Reagans and John F. Kennedys and Barry Goldwaters heed that admonition.
The task of a speechwriter is a technical one. It is to help arrange a format for the passionate expressions of a person too busy to attend to every aspect. No President runs to John Updike to ask him to write speeches. Herman Wouk worked in the Nixon White House, but not in that capacity. Speechwriters are kids out of college with some literary facility whose job it is to be ciphers, to shrink their own persona into invisibility, to silence whatever poetry is in their soul and to be a bullhorn for the voice of the President, his intellect, his emotion, his vision, his program.
It was not a factotum or an amanuensis who stood at Pointe du Hoc that day. It was Ronald Wilson Reagan: he was the man who took the cliffs.
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