Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Politics and Prose

In the seventy-one columns I've written for the Visual Thesaurus, I've stuck to writing on writing, examining the art's principles and its quirks. But now with the presidential debates growing hot as autumn grows cold, I'd like to say a few words about the role of writing and politics in our democracy.

This year I've been reading three fine books by Doris Kearns Goodwin: Team of Rivals, Abraham Lincoln leading his divided Civil War cabinet; The Bully Pulpit, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft living their up-and-down friendship at the turn of the last century; and No Ordinary Time, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt facing the endless crises of World War II.

These thick volumes, all 2600 pages of them, stand as shining monuments to the power of painstaking research. Goodwin (and her dedicated helpers) seem to have read every letter, every speech, every newspaper column, and every act of Congress written during the time period of each volume, and then, with the greatest sensitivity and insight, she's woven countless themes into tapestries as natural as life itself, creating sweeping narratives that compel belief.

Goodwin tells countless small stories in these three books, here, for example, Mary Todd Lincoln's delight in living in the White House:

"This is certainly a very charming spot," she wrote [to a friend]... "Every evening our Blue Room is filled with the elite of the land, last eve, we had about 40 to call in, to see us ladies, from Vice P. Breckinridge down.... I am beginning to feel so perfectly at home, and enjoy everything so much."

—here the anger of a World War II soldier fighting in North Africa when he hears that coal miners at home have gone on strike:

"While these American boys are over here sweating, bleeding and dying to protect America and even the right to strike, these people back there have the gall to quit their jobs."

—and she shows how from such little seeds big stories grow. On the Fourth of July, 1863, just having heard the news of the Union's bloody victory at Gettysburg, Lincoln spoke to a cheering crowd at the White House:

"How long is it—eighty odd years—since on the Fourth of July for the first time in history, a nation, by its representatives, assembled and declared as self-evident that ‘all men are created equal.'"

—which sentence, though months of mulling, grew into the Gettysburg Address, one of the most powerful speeches in the history of rhetoric:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all humans are created equal.

William Howard Taft was a judge before he became president, and Goodwin gives ample space to his 1894 pro-union decision in In re Phelan. Workers, he argued:

...Had the right to organize into or to join a labor union which should take joint action as to their terms of employment... It is of benefit to them and to the public that laborers should unite in their common interest...[because] if they stand together, they are often able to command better prices for their labor than dealing singly with rich employers.

Eleanor Roosevelt, before, during, and after being First Lady, wrote "My Day," a syndicated newspaper column in which she spoke up again and again on her faith in:

the strength and capacity of the average human being. Justice for all, security in certain living standards, a recognition of the dignity and the right of an individual human being without regard to his race, creed, or color—these are things for which vast numbers of our citizens will willingly sacrifice themselves.

Not everyone agreed with Mrs. Roosevelt. As America geared up for war in the months before Pearl Harbor, many armament companies refused to hire African-Americans as factory workers:

"Negroes will be considered only as janitors," the general manager of North American Aviation publicly asserted. "It is the company policy not to employ them as mechanics and aircraft workers. In Kansas City Standard Steel told the Urban League, "We have not had a Negro working in 25 years and do not plan to start now."

Despite such ugly themes in our American past and present, one huge story looms over these three books: our democracy lives on the energy generated by people of every kind and color, and from our country's every corner, speaking their minds with a forthright confidence in the "freedom of speech" guaranteed by the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Again and again Goodwin shows political disputes being worked out by proponents and opponents trumpeting their views on each issue's every angle in newspaper columns, radio shows, and letters to the editor, in parlors and over backyard fences: Lincoln crafting the strategies that won him the presidency; crusading journalists inspiring Teddy Roosevelt to push for the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act; Eleanor Roosevelt encouraging Franklin to make corporate executives integrate women into the burgeoning defense industry.

As one example of democracy's endless pull and tug: in the summer of 1940 Roosevelt agreed with Winston Churchill to trade fifty American destroyers for the United States's long-term use of many British naval bases. The president knew the deal needed Congress's approval, but by September, with Nazi bombers nightly pounding London, he decided to go ahead on his own authority, even as he predicted that "Congress is going to raise hell over this."

He was right. "If Mr. Roosevelt can do what he likes with our destroyers without consulting Congress," thundered one representative, "and we give him our boys, God alone knows what he will do with them"; the House gave the speech a standing ovation. Presidential hopeful Wendell Willkie called FDR "the most arbitrary President in the history of the US," and many newspapers chimed in, the St. Louis Post Dispatch calling him "America's first dictator." Some papers, however saw, canny wisdom in FDR's boldness. "We haven't had a better bargain," wrote the Louisville Courier Journal, "since the Indians sold Manhattan Island for twenty-four dollars in wampum." Opinion polls soon showed that the country supported Roosevelt, and Congress approved the deal.

For me the lesson of this and so many of Goodwin's stories is: learn all you can, then speak up! Write up! Use your skill with words to tell your friends, your neighbors in your town, your state, our country, and the world we all share, how you feel about any issue that interests you, that stirs your emotions. You may be wrong, you may be right, you may be a mixture of both; that, I think, is far less important than raising your voice in the national debate whether you are right or wrong. Patrick Henry's bold "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" may by now be a time-worn cliché, but it's still a foundation stone bequeathed to us as a most fortunate inheritance. So in coming months and in the new year, let's all put in our two cents worth—they may be more valuable than we think!

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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

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Comments from our users:

Monday October 26th 2015, 8:27 AM
Comment by: Rose K.
Terrific post, Michael. Sign me up for speaking up!
Monday October 26th 2015, 11:17 AM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
Bravo, Michael! A wonderful post. I speak up too.
Monday October 26th 2015, 5:09 PM
Comment by: James S.
Oh boy! Another good one from Michael. Thanks too for reprinting all 17 of your works. Now I can read them all again.
Monday October 26th 2015, 5:10 PM
Comment by: James S.
Excuse me. That is 71.
Monday October 26th 2015, 6:02 PM
Comment by: Daniel B.
I always vocalized my opinions. Having read this informative post; I will-now speak and write my opinions. Think you
Tuesday October 27th 2015, 11:14 AM
Comment by: Greg C.
Why is it necessary to rewrite "one of the most powerful speeches in the history of rhetoric"?
Tuesday October 27th 2015, 2:04 PM
Comment by: Richard F. (San Diego, CA)
I agree with Greg C's concern. It's fine to write about what someone said, but not to alter or misquote what they said.
Wednesday November 4th 2015, 3:26 PM
Comment by: Ellen M.
To pile on with Greg and Richard "all humans"?
Is this a spell-check thing?
Has PC reached back into history and rewritten the Gettysburg Address? That's a bit 1984 for my taste.
Friday November 6th 2015, 1:39 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thank you for your comments. About my "rewriting" the Gettysburg Address, that was a mistake, good old human error that I hope you'll excuse!! I have no plans or hopes to rewrite Abraham Lincoln!

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