Jewish World Review Sept. 5, 2002 / 28 Elul, 5762

Richard Lederer

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A celebration of
presidential prose | "Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg address while traveling from Washington to Gettysburg on the back of an envelope," once wrote a student. In one fell swoop -- and one swell foop -- that young scholar managed to misplace a modifier and perpetuate an inaccurate myth.

In his Pulitzer prize-winning "Lincoln at Gettysburg," Gary Wills dulls the old saw that claims Lincoln, divinely inspired, dashed off his speech during a brief train ride: "These mythical accounts are badly out of character for Lincoln, who composed his speeches thoughtfully. His law partner, William Herndon, observing Lincoln's careful preparation of cases, records that he was a slow writer, who liked to sort out his points and tighten his logic and his phrasing. That is the process vouched for in every other case of Lincoln's memorable public statements. It is impossible to imagine him leaving his speech at Gettysburg to the last moment."

Most Americans have forgotten, or never knew, that the real Gettysburg Address was delivered that day, November 19, 1863, by the featured speaker on the program, the famous orator Edward Everett. Lincoln's speech was listed as "Dedicatory Remarks by the President of the United States" and was intended as a brief and formal follow-up to Everett's two-hour address dedicating the opening of a new Civil War cemetery at Gettysburg.

The story's headline in The New York Times makes clear who was the designated declaimer of the day:

Oration By Hon. Edward Everett
Speeches of President Lincoln,
Mr. Seward and Governor Seymour

What happened at Gettysburg was that with 272 fateful words and but 10 sentences, Abraham Lincoln articulated "a new birth of freedom." In three minutes, a weary President gave a young nation a voice to sing of itself.

The IRS Form 1040 EZ contains 418 words and the back of a Lay's Potato Chips 401. In the brief compass of 272 words, President Lincoln transformed a gruesome battle into the raison d'etre of a truly United States that for the first time in its history became a union. Before Lincoln, people used "the United States" as a plural: "The United States are ---. . . ." Ever after it would be "The United States is . . . ."

How astutely can you recognize the prose of other presidents? In the quiz that follows, swatches of famous prose are represented by the first letter of each word. Identify the chief executive who uttered or wrote each immortal statement or phrase.

Example ANWYCCDFY = John F. Kennedy ("Ask not what your country can do for you.") Answer can be found below.







7. TM-IC

1. Franklin Delano Roosevelt ("The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.") 2. Thomas Jefferson ("All men are created equal.") 3. Theodore Roosevelt (Speak softly and carry a big stick.") 4. Woodrow Wilson ("The world must be made safe for democracy.") 5. Richard Nixon ("I am not a crook.") 6. George Bush ("a thousand points of light") 7. Dwight David Eisenhower ("the military-industrial complex").

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JWR contributor Richard Lederer is a language maven. More than a million of his books, which have been Book-of-the-Month Club and Literary Guild alternate selections, are in print. He is the host of "A Way With Words," on KPBS, San Diego Public Radio, and a regular guest on weekend "All Things Considered." He was awarded the Golden Gavel for 2002 by Toastmasters International. Comment by clicking here.


08/29/02: Food for thought
08/22/02: Jest for the pun of it
08/08/02: Hop up to the kangaroo words
08/01/02: A pouchful of synonyms
07/11/02: Poli-Tickle Speeches
06/27/02: Suppository questions
06/20/02: George Orwell is looking at you
06/06/02: Jest for the health of it
05/30/02: It is truly astonishing what havoc students can wreak on the chronicles of the human race
05/16/02: A bilingual pun is twice the fun!
05/09/02: What's in a president's name?
05/03/02: Slang as it is slung
04/25/02: Abstemious words
04/19/02: This Riddle Isn't Letter-Perfect

© 2002, Richard Lederer