Tuesday, January 9

Crypto Opera Buff

If memory serves I bought exactly two hardback books in 2006, excluding gifts--the third volume of Taylor Branch's M.L. King-centered history in January, and Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Imperial Life in the Emerald City last month. That's partly because I'm cheap (which is relative, anyway: 12-year-old car and retied shoelaces meet $80 bottles of wine at dinner) and partly because in a three-bedroom suburban dream there's roughly 2-1/2 bedrooms of books, shelved, unshelved, piled on nightstands, queued in the 'loo. Trade paperbacks are at least compressible.

So the Times Book Review gets the short shrift from me much of the time, but if I find myself with time to kill I may go through it with an intensity somewhere between window shopper and toy collecting geek who's just found a Hot Wheels catalogue from 1965.

Sunday was more on the former end of the scale, and I'd seen nothing to change that, although there was this line in Dave Itzkoff's review of Next:
...surely history should reserve a special place for the day in 2005 when Michael Crichton was invited to the White House to meet with George W. Bush. Imagine: the modern era’s leading purveyor of alarmist fiction, seated side by side with Michael Crichton.

And I was about 3/4 of the way through when I turned the page and found myself looking at an improbably young Martin (he was not yet forty when that bullet found him) in 1960, and I looked up to find it was a review of the two volumes of American Speeches, and I looked down and saw the review was written by one William F. Buckley, Jr.

Buckley's Latinate stuffing has always convinced some people his ear was gold rather than brass-plated tin, and I suppose the Review's editors are all too young to remember the sort of things that slithered across the pages of the National Review while King was still alive (and long after he wasn't anymore). I kept reading, knowing that something was going to turn up. It took two paragraphs:
You can read the enormously influential speech of Ronald Reagan paying tribute to the candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964, but you would need to be told by Grandpa, or your history book, that the speech catapulted Reagan from Hollywood to the White House.

Sixteen years later. Wow, that's some catapult.

Buckley seems to have two things to add to the subject. The first is that kids today would prefer to play video games than listen to a two-hour oration. (As such we have to wonder what reader of two volumes of speeches needs his Grandpa to explain Ronald Reagan's career to him, or, needing him, would actually find him still breathing.)

The second is that speechifiers don't always write their own speeches! As exemplified by--wait, I have the note here somewhere--Bill Clinton.
And who (who-all) actually wrote the speech delivered by President Clinton? Parts of it were manifestly in his native tongue: “Folks, in 1957 I was 11 years old, living 50 miles away in Hot Springs. ...” That was Clinton speaking, but changes in gait and style come along a few pages later — at whose prompting?

At least the man gets credit for being to ad lib his own biography.
Reading backward on the contents page of Volume 2, you need at least several decades before you feel safe with your own conjectures. Obviously William Faulkner wrote his own speech when he accepted the Nobel Prize . But Jesse Jackson ’s speech to the Democratic National Convention in 1984 — who did that? And there are modest questions about a score of others. Robert Kennedy, Carter, Nixon, Johnson, Mario Savio, Goldwater, Malcolm X , MacArthur, Margaret Chase Smith, Truman, Oppenheimer, Patton, Huey Long.

Uh, Ronald Reagan? Again, isn't anyone who picks up one of these volumes likely to know that 20th century politicians didn't write every last word of the speeches they gave?
You get to Herbert Hoover, speaking in 1928 on the subject of “rugged individualism,” and you can be confident that the words you are reading are those of the speaker. Hoover was a man of great learning and zero eloquence, here confirmed.

So I'm supposed to know this about Hoover, but how Reagan went from playing cowboy on Death Valley Days to playing one in the White House is lost in the mists of time?

It's allowed as how Martin rolled his own, though, and delivered with flair:
Martin Luther King was grand opera. He deployed his hortatory words to full emotional effect. “Now I’m just happy that God has allowed me to live in this period, to see what is unfolding. And I’m happy that he’s allowed me to be in Memphis” — where, one day later, he was assassinated. “I can remember [Applause]... when Negroes were just going around, as Ralph [Abernathy] has said so often, scratching where they didn’t itch and laughing when they were not tickled. [ Laughter, applause ] But that day is all over. (Yeah) [Applause]”

I interrupt myself and Dr. King to observe, You can hear his voice, can’t you? (Yeah)

And I interrupt to observe, He must mean on tape, 'cause he sure didn't listen to Martin when he was alive. (Right)

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