A hack like me…

The Wall Street Journal today has an article about the five greatest inaugural speeches of all time. I’ve been writing professionally for almost 20 years, but have only written a couple speeches.

I found it a humbling experience. Writing for speaking is quite different from writing for reading — and probably the ultimate form of writing by ear. Paying attention to word choice, how words work together, word length, sentence length, overall speech length, and still getting your point across — and a stirring point at that — is a skill I certainly haven’t mastered and will always be intimidated by. At my first writing job, the firm sometimes engaged the services of an older/wiser/ better writer who used to write speeches for President Gerald Ford. So the initimidation factor goes way back.

Imagine my surprise and delight, then, when I honed in on this little gem from the WSJ article, referring to the inaugural speech it ranked #1: FDR’s in 1933:

In his opening, FDR spoke the line that everyone today knows: his assertion of his “firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Much like Kennedy’s “ask not” dictum a generation later, the aphorism was not original; Roosevelt’s was inserted by his aide Louis Howe, who is believed to have seen it in a department-store advertisement.

So, one of the most memorable lines from any speech ever delivered was likely penned by a hack like me, earning his living writing copy for a department store. (Can you imagine a department store with such an ad today? Times were clearly different!) And as ever in the long tradition of copywriting, where writers pen memorable lines for their clients every day, we’ll likely never know who he was, and he’ll never get the credit.

But he wrote it, and he knows.

It does a hack’s heart good — my very own “message of hope” on today, the inaugural of the 44th U.S. president.

When a thing has been said, and well said,
have no scruple: take it and copy it.
                                                 ~ Anatole France

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