Your RDA of Irony

A Profession of Martyrs

The speechwriter is a hostage to the speaker. In the best of circumstances, we might like our speakers and agree with their opinions. (Josef Goebbels was lucky that way.) Of course, most of us are never so consistently fortunate. We will be confronted with a speaker who is an ogre, a bore or an idiot. What can we do? Endure and write the damn speech. We must embellish the speaker’s thoughts, fulfill his whims and indulge his vanity. If the speaker is determined to make a fool of himself, then we must ghostwrite the suicide note.

Most of us have the consolation of obscurity. Our hare-brained speaker will do no worse than ruin a Rotarian lunch. Unfortunately, some speakers will command a national audience, and their rhetorical binge would be a public disaster. Yet, if that is the speaker’s intent, then we must resign ourselves to the ensuing notoriety. In the history of speechwriters, perhaps our most hapless martyrs were Theodore Joslin, French Strother and Gertrude Lane. During Prohibition, when this masochistic trio could have used a drink, they wrote speeches for President Hoover.

Herbert Hoover was a remarkable man, whose life proves that there is no correlation between intelligence and common sense. He was an accomplished engineer, a brilliant administrator and an incredible buffoon. History has blamed him for the Great Depression; that seems unfair since he barely noticed it. As a speaker, he was never content simply to be inane, callous and offensive. He instinctively chose the worst time to say the worst thing.

As the nation plunged into Depression, we had a President who expressed this heartfelt conviction: “If a man has not made a million dollars by the time he is forty, he is not worth much.”  When twenty-five percent of the workforce was unemployed, Hoover offered this distinctly optimistic view.   “Many people have left their jobs for the more profitable one of selling apples.”  By October 1932, President Hoover finally acknowledged a Depression: his own. He knew that he was about to be voted out of office, and in a speech at Ft. Wayne, Indiana, he upbraided the public for its ingratitude and insensitivity.

“I shall say now the only harsh word that I have uttered in public office. I hope that it will be the last I shall have to say. When you are told that the President of the United States, who by the most sacred trust of our nation is the President of all the people, a man of your own blood and upbringing, has sat in the White House for the last three years of your misfortune without troubling to know your burdens, without heartaches over your miseries and casualties, without summoning every avenue of skillful assistance irrespective of party or view, without using every ounce of his strength and straining his every nerve to protect and help, without putting aside personal ambition and humbling his pride of opinion, if that would serve–then I say to you that such statements are deliberate, intolerable falsehoods.”

One can only imagine his tantrum before his speechwriters polished it. Indeed, despite the writers’ efforts, the speech remains an embarrassment. It is petulant, pompous and oblivious to the public; but that might be a fitting description of the Hoover presidency. The speech certainly was an accurate representation of the speaker; and what more could his writers do? It is not the writer’s responsibility to save the speaker from himself; we can only guarantee that the self-destruction is grammatical.

There are times when speechwriters and mercenaries seem to have the same job description; and A.E. Houseman wrote an epitaph suitable for either profession.

These, in the day when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling
And took their wages and are dead.
What God abandoned, these defended….

  1. Dave Traini asked me to transmit this. (That would make me the Typhoid Mary of puns.)

    From the Shameless Mr. Traini:

    Herbert Hoover was certainly a controversial and contradictory figure. On the one hand, he was a brilliant engineer and classics scholar who masterminded the Belgian Release effort after Dubya Dubya I; on the other hand, he was a tortured soul who had some rather unpleasant personal habits that were out of sync with his public persona. A deeply religious person, Hoover was seen by many to be the paragon of rectitude. He was such an upstanding, moral exemplar, that the first commercially produced vacuum cleaner was named in his honor: the Hoover Upright. On the darker side, Herbert, like Robert E Lee, had a violent temper that he constantly strove to control. He was particularly habituated to the use of the “D” word. In light of his engineering background and ties to the engineering school at Stanford, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers named its most spectacular accomplishment after this personality flaw: the Hoover Damn. Finally, Herbert was an inveterate prevaricator. Mrs. Hoover euphemistically referred to this moral failing as the “Hoover FIB.” Due to a transcription error by a White House stenographer, it becam known as the “Hoover FBI.” The name stuck, and the rest, as the bromide goes, is history!

  2. Hal Gordon says:

    Eugene — You omitted all but the last line of the second stanza of this poem, which reads:

    “Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
    They stood, and earth’s foundation’s stay;
    What God abandoned, these defended,
    And saved the sum of things for pay.”

    But I agree: this describes what mercenaries — and speechwriters — do.

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