Presidential speech exhibit worth the trek to Rochester

By Neil Hrab, Rhetoric Editor, Vital Speeches of the Day

Kudos to former George H.W. Bush speechwriter Curt Smith for his work on A Presidential Voice. This 50-item exhibition of materials and artifacts related to presidential speechwriting is currently on display at the University of Rochester’s Rush Rhees Library. The free exhibit is co-curated by Smith and Lori Birrell, a manuscript librarian in the University’s Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. 

Fifty items may not sound like many, but together, they represent much more than the sum of their parts—if not to members of public, then certainly to other speechwriters and those interested in the work of speechwriting (and therefore likely to VSOTD readers). 

I visited the exhibit on President’s Day weekend. Some will enjoy the chance to see an autographed copy of JFK’s inaugural speech. Others will enjoy the factoids scattered throughout the exhibit (e.g., President Lincoln’s 2nd inaugural speech is just 703 words, and 505 of those words are one syllable long). 

Some visitors will be interested by the mementos on display of Smith’s own time in the White House, such as the photo of him shaking hands with Margaret Thatcher. The references in the exhibit to technological changes, such as the introduction of radio and Teleprompters, are also of note. 

For me, the most interesting item was Smith’s account of his part in a July 1989 speech in Hungary that President Bush, Sr. did not deliver as planned, due to inclement weather.  

To summarize: Speechwriter Smith worked hard on a major foreign policy address for the President. Upon arriving at the speech venue in Budapest, it was clear that the skies would not cooperate, as a steady rain poured down on the assembled crowd.

And now to the punch-line: President Bush opened the event as follows, according to the official transcript:

Is somebody going to translate this [speech]? I’m going to take this speech, and I’m going to tear it up. You’ve been out here too long.

The President then spoke off the cuff for a couple of minutes, promising that “you’ll have to listen to me tomorrow, I’m sure, at some drier time and drier place.”

Curt Smith is to be commended for including this item in the exhibition (even though it was likely does not represent the most professionally satisfying moment of his years at President Bush’s side). The Budapest incident combines the unpredictable, topsy-turvy aspect of political speechwriting with a gentle reminder that speaker and speechwriter alike must keep in mind a sense of proportion about their efforts. That sense of proportion will make it easier for both to laugh off the occasional misfortune, such as having to throw out a speech at the last minute.

A Presidential Voice is open until Friday, March 8.

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