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NATIONAL PERSPECTIVE

Wisdom in the words left unspoken

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Americans often reflect on Robert Frost's meditation on roads not taken. Today, we might reflect on speeches not given — and on truths unspoken. 

One was from 1963, when President John F. Kennedy planned to speak of "ignorance and misinformation" and characterized Americans as "watchmen on the walls of world freedom." He was killed an hour before the luncheon at the Dallas Trade Mart, but the slain president's words speak to us today. 

One was from 1969, when President Richard M. Nixon had at hand remarks to address the nation if the Apollo 11 astronauts were stranded on the moon, left to perish in the lonely lunar landscape. Speechwriter William Safire wrote for him, "the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace." The world breathed in relief that there was no need for these words to be spoken, and for that moment, humankind was united in a way unimaginable a half-century later. 

Now let us consider the remarks President Lyndon Johnson's speechwriter prepared for the commencement at the University of Michigan 58 years ago this weekend, some of which were cut — perhaps by Johnson, perhaps by itchy-fingered members of his staff — from the original version.  

That first draft of the 1964 speech set out the 36th president's ambition and vision for the Great Society. It was crafted by Richard Goodwin, the gifted speechwriter who wrote several of the most poignant speeches of the 1960s. He can be credited with Johnson's words before a joint session of Congress in support of voting rights, with its stirring opening ("I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy") and its unforgettable refrain that brought Martin Luther King Jr. to tears ("We shall overcome"). Goodwin is responsible for Robert F. Kennedy's fabled 1966 speech in South Africa ("Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope ..."). 

Goodwin's first draft of the Great Society speech — offered in the sixth month of the Johnson presidency and in many ways setting forth the great themes of the 1960s — came to light when his widow, the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, donated her own papers to the University of Texas along with her husband's. In that draft was a passage that never was uttered but that captures the purpose of the presidency with more precision than hundreds of pages of meditations on the presidency by commentators, former White House aides, political scientists and historians: 

The presidency is a relentless place. It is beset by the clamor of current crisis, the insistence of immediate issues, the demands of developing danger. To steer the nation through momentary pressure toward fixed purpose is one of the highest duties of my office. 

Goodwin wasn't finished with a three-sentence prescription for greatness in the presidency. He went on to speak of the challenges of the office, and the dividends provided when the president is infused with a sense of purpose -- and destiny: 

He must sense amid the welter of events and prophecies the shape of things to come. He must look beyond impending hazard to widening horizons, beyond today to tomorrow. And he must set his course so that, in decades to come, Americans will be the masters and not the victims of their times. 

There, in 97 words, is perhaps the best complement to the 320 words in Sections 2 and 3 of Article 2 of the Constitution, which sets out the responsibilities of the president in the American system. 

Almost none of our presidents in recent times have satisfied the requirements that Goodwin set out. Johnson tried, but his efforts were stymied by the Vietnam War, his own stubbornness, and the selfishness that was in constant conflict with his selflessness; in wanting so much — holding off the Communists in Southeast Asia while opening up the promise of American life for the poor, the striving and the members of minority groups — he won so little. Here the nostrum of former Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York might have been of assistance: A chief executive can do pretty much anything he wants, but he cannot do everything he wants. 

Other recent presidents have succeeded to the Goodwin standard, but only in part: Kennedy in his ambition in space, his summons to national sacrifice, and the vision of peace that he set out in a remarkable speech in June 1963 — but not in his reluctance to give a full embrace to the civil rights movement for the first two years of his presidency; Nixon in his (much-forgotten and under-praised) inaugural address of 1969 — but not in the conduct that led to his Watergate resignation; George W. Bush in his grit in the days after the 2001 terrorist attacks — but not in his adventure in Iraq; Barack Obama in his determination to win an overhaul of the health care system — but not in redeeming his repeated promise to change the direction and character of the country. 

Even Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the president against whom every other chief executive is weighed, comes up short. Consider what Henry A. Wallace, his vice president, wrote in his diary in 1943: "The president is certainly a water-man. He looks in one direction and rows in the other with the utmost skill." 

Even so, the Goodwin standard remains the gold standard, always sought, seldom reached. And so it is a shame that his prescription for greatness in the presidency was lost, unspoken and, alas, unattained. 

But it turns out that history, like the presidency, can be measured in part by what was not done. 

 

David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 

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