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Wayne Fields
Wayne Fields
Union of Words:  A History of Presidential Eloquence
ISBN: 0684822857
Union of Words: A History of Presidential Eloquence
Mr. Fields talked about his recent book, Union of Words: A History of Presidential Eloquence, published by The Free Press. He talked about how American presidents use acceptance speeches, inaugurals and State of the Union speeches to define their administration's agenda. He described various ways U.S. presidents have spoken about the U.S. commitment to "a more perfect union" enshrined in the preamble to the Constitution. He also compared and contrasted the different rhetorical patterns of various presidents.
Union of Words: A History of Presidential Eloquence
Program Air Date: April 14, 1996

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Wayne Fields, author of "Union of Words," one of the things you learn in the back of the book is you had your whole family involved in this project. How?
Professor WAYNE FIELDS, AUTHOR, "UNION OF FIELDS": Sooner or later, almost everybody gets involved in your work when you're dealing with this kind of project. My kids wound up doing everything from copying text of things I had to get out of The New York Times to proofreading; and my oldest daughter has a law degree, and she wound up criticizing all my footnotes and what I hadn't--hadn't done to properly expand in the footnotes on my sources and places to find the material.
LAMB: Did--when they started working with you, did they know much about presidents and what they had said over the years?
Prof. FIELDS:More than they wanted, because they had grown up in a household where I'd paid a lot of attention to it. But, no, I think that my second daughter, especially, found looking up speeches in The New York Times--because I was interested in seeing what happened to the speech when you read it in the context of the news of the day--she found that, I think, very exciting, an important part of her education, got a little tired of doing it after a while, but...
LAMB: Give us a quick overview of what this "Union of Words" book is all about.
Prof. FIELDS:Well, first I th--and foremost I think it's about union. It's about the story of union, which has always interested me. It's a--a kind of commitment, for such a practical and individualistic people as we are, to make so prominently and--and so proudly. That is one of the most demanding things a nation can--can seek and conserve. And this idea that we are to dedicate ourselves to a more perfect union is a fairly remarkable thing, it seems to me. So first, that's the story, and then it seems to me that the test of the presidency is how well that office serves union, that it's the presidents who make us think of our collective life, our--the `we' of our--of our exp--our national experience.
LAMB: If someone buys the book, what do they get?
Prof. FIELDS:Well, they get a lot of presidential quotations, for one thing. I think that's probably the best of it, the l--the different kinds of things that presidents have said in this effort to serve union, since George Washington on. But I think what they get basically is the presidential version of the story of union with all of the sort of anecdotal and immediate things that happened to individuals on an unexpected basis, both in terms of their personal lives sometimes, and in terms of the national life, the events they couldn't have--have anticipated.
LAMB: Where do you live?
Prof. FIELDS:I live in St. Louis, Missouri, right at the heart of the union, so...
LAMB: Doing what?
Prof. FIELDS:I teach at Washington University.
LAMB: How long have you been there?
Prof. FIELDS:I've been there 28 years now.
LAMB: Which book is this for you?
Prof. FIELDS:This is my third.
LAMB: You know, in the--also in the acknowledgements you say--one of then first people that you acknowledge is Aristotle.
Prof. FIELDS:Well, my--my education be--my graduate education, whereas my thinking about rhetoric began, was in the English department at the University of Chicago, and we started with Aristotle. They assumed that--that we had to learn how to learn, and that Aristotle was the place to begin, and it's Aristotle that gives me the simplest questions to ask about speeches that turned out to be the most useful: Who is it that this person thinks they are? Who do they think they're speaking to? And what is it that they're trying to say? And I don't think the issues have changed much since Aristotle put those questions down.
LAMB: You wrote early on--well, Page 114--that `an inaugural--an inaugural address, particularly one that marks a change in administration, is the most carefully written and elaborately rehearsed speech of any president's career, and it provides a remarkably reliable indication of what matters to a new president and how he wants to be perceived.'
Prof. FIELDS:Well, presidents have time to work on that speech. I mean, for one thing, that's why I--I distinguished first inaugurals from--from second inaugurals, that that's the one that they've got the most sort of preparation time for. They know it's coming up, they know the basic terms of the event, and they've got the months between the election and the inauguration to work on it. It's also the time where they are first going to speak with the presidential voice. It's a unique voice. Nobody ever quite has the--the training for that, that they've spoken for narrower interests all the rest of their career, and now to transcend those interests, to--to rise above that and find the people's voice is--is one of the great challenges and one that they s--I think, struggle with most diligently.
LAMB: Was there ever a president who wrote every word of his inaugural?
Prof. FIELDS:It's very difficult to say. I mean, we never know for sure, even when we're writing things down, who we're echoing or where we heard these things before, but it seems to me that the president who probably authored more of his material than anybody else, the one that I feel most confident in saying that is Lincoln, simply because he wrote better than anybody around him. And it seems difficult to imagine that those words are somebody else. But even there, he tried things out on other people, circulated speeches, changed phrases in response to advisers.
LAMB: Did you ever total up the number of inaugurals?
Prof. FIELDS:I did once, but I didn't bother to remember it very long.
LAMB: Maybe a better question is if you had to s--if you were able to sit and listen to your favorite inaugural, where would we find you? What year? What president?
Prof. FIELDS:It would be Lincoln. It would be Lincoln.
LAMB: First or second?
Prof. FIELDS:That's difficult, but I think the second.
LAMB: How did you wade into all this? In other words, how--how did you determine whether somebody was good or bad or up or down, or--you know, I mean, you've got so many--how many--do you have an idea how many total speeches you've analyzed?
Prof. FIELDS:No, I--I--I've lost count a long time ago, but hundreds. I think--well, I began, because I'm an Americanist; I teach American literature. And one of the things that drew me into that field was this whole idea of who we are as a people and all the sort of contradictions and conflicts that we contain as a people, and then the idea that we elect hundreds of people to represent our differences, all these legislators that we choose to be as small-minded as we are in our individual identities, and then we only have one office that really represents us collectively. So I think it was both an attraction to the idea that somehow there is a possibility of wholeness, of union, and yet the skepticism about how that can be realized when our differences are so obvious, when my own conflicted nature is so clear to me.
LAMB: Do you come into this at a--with a personal bias about liking one side or the other?
Prof. FIELDS:I suspect I have lots of biases. It's sometimes difficult for me to f--to identify them. One of the things that has struck me in retrospect is how many presidents I really didn't have much regard for before I looked at them, where my attitude towards at least their struggle with the office changed that perception. There are speeches by m--by presidents who I've never thought of as particularly eloquent but, in retrospect, seemed really dramatic moments.

I was thinking of Gerry Ford, for instance, in recent history, who never--no one ever really thought of as a terribly articulate man or eloquent speaker, and yet when we listened to that speech that he gave after he had taken the oath of office and just after the dramatic departure of Nixon from--from Washington, he starts out by asking the country to pray for him, and then at the end he says, `Now I want you to pray for Richard Nixon and his family.' And his voice breaks at that moment, and then he continues, his voice breaking a couple of more times, to say, `May the man who helped bring peace to millions find peace himself.'

And the sincerity of that emotion, the whole sense that in this moment of his own sort of ascent into the--into the highest office, he was capable of this kind of empathy, this kind of concern, and that in a way was what we didn't feel during the Nixon years. What we had not felt, especially in the--the latter stage, was that the president was capable of thinking of much beyond himself in terms of the crisis. And so it was a kind of--of--of important emotional moment for the country, I think, to have a president who was empathizing with this pain instead of simply going on with his own celebratory role that day as a newly inaugurated president.
LAMB: Where'd you get the idea for this?
Prof. FIELDS:A combination of things. One is I started with Lincoln. I started with the whole crisis of a president who is committed to holding the union together, being the cause of the union coming apart before he'd ever taken the oath of office, and then, in an era of secession, having to establish the foundation for a rebirth of that union, because every president before Lincoln had said, as a means of holding the union together, `If it ever comes apart, it can't be--it can't be restored.' And so he had to go against that logic of all those generations of presidents before. So I started with that problem, really, and how he managed that and the brilliance of--of how he'd handled that, and then it just sort of spread from there.
LAMB: What year did you start this?
Prof. FIELDS:Well, I did--actually did my doctoral dissertation back in the late '60s on Lincoln. I think that's where I began thinking about these issues.
LAMB: Where'd you go to school?
Prof. FIELDS:Then I was at the University of Chicago.
LAMB: What do you want this book to do?
Prof. FIELDS:I want it to--to tell our story. I think the American story is about as exciting, in psychological as well as--as sort of plot terms, as--as any national story could be. I think the grandiose commitments we made as a people in our struggle to--which we didn't understand at the beginning and still don't understand in their entirety--and our struggle to make good on those. I mean, when we have a phrase in the Constitution like `more perfect union,' that in a way can be a terrific burden for a people to bear. And yet, despite all of our failures, in one way or another over time, we've come to take that task seriously in different ways, different kinds of inclusion.
LAMB: Who was the first president to actually deliver an inaugural address?
Prof. FIELDS:George Washington.
LAMB: To an audience?
Prof. FIELDS:Yes. It was mostly an aud--an audience of--of congressman, but the beginning is Washington, and almost all of our conception of the office is rooted in that beginning. It's Washington who tells us what the presidency is all about.
LAMB: Who was the first to deliver to a large audience of non-Congress people?
Prof. FIELDS:Well, the audiences start to expand very early, but the person I think who was most responsible for really enlarging it was Andrew Jackson.
LAMB: And where was that?
Prof. FIELDS:It was in--in--it was in Washington, DC. That is...
LAMB: Was it at the Capitol like...
Prof. FIELDS:Yes, yeah, and we--at that point, we start thinking of the Capitol really in a much more dramatic way as a center for the people. I mean, Jackson had people coming in and out of the White House all the time, just drifting in to see the president. It opened the--the sense of government up, and the--the inaugural was extended that way. But from the very beginning there was a sense that this was a--this was a public message, even though most of the public would see it in print and not hear it.
LAMB: Who was the first president to deliver the inaugural speech on radio?
Prof. FIELDS:The first--I think--I think it was Hoover's who was broadcast. It's possible, I'm not sure about Coolidge's. Coolidge was broad--was broadcast a time or two, but most of the recordings we have of Coolidge are studio recordings that he made. The first president to really be aware of the broadcast possibility, I think, was Hoover, who wasn't very good at using it, but understood that it was important, that this was really changing the nature of the office. And then the person who, of course, changed the office in response to that most effect--effectively was FDR.
LAMB: I don't know--I don't remember reading about this in the book, but do you know the first president to speak through amplification?
Prof. FIELDS:That's a good question. I don't. I tried to figure that out at some point, but I don't know for sure who that was.
LAMB: First president to speak on television, for the inaugural--at the inaugural?
Prof. FIELDS:Well, Truman is--is televised, but remember that what happened--there's a very difference--different between actually having the technology there and having many Americans see it; that it seems to me that television becomes important with Eisenhower, and it's Eisenhower who is our first real television president.
LAMB: Now when you go through your archival search, which president can--which is the first president's voice you can listen to today?
Prof. FIELDS:And--we can hear Teddy Roosevelt. There is a--a collectio n that's now available for sale that the Library of Congress put together, and gain, there're some studio recordings of Roosevelt. They follow his presidency. I think they come from the 1912 campaign, where we actually hear him giving other speeches. We have some of--of Harding and Coolidge, but again, we've got presidents who primarily think of themselves as speaking on the platform, unless they're actually in a studio, and even there they sound like they're on a platform. They're still overly oratoricalists--not till the `fireside chats' that we get away from that.
LAMB: If you became president automatically, either through death or assassination, do you give an inaugural?
Prof. FIELDS:Well, usually there is some kind of--of message after the oath of office is taken. It's--it's an inaugural in the sense that this is the initial message of the new president. It is rarely a public display of the sort of celebration that--well, it's never a public celebration of the--of--of the sort that a--a regular inaugural is because there's some kind of tragedy that's--that's produced this or there's some kind of national crisis, like the Nixon resignation, that's produced this.
LAMB: The longest inaugural?
Prof. FIELDS:Harrison, the first Harrison, spoke, I think it was--must have run about an hour and a half.
LAMB: William Henry?
Prof. FIELDS:Yep, and it was an important speech because it's almost longer than his presidency. He died within the month. So--and th--there are lots of people who think he died because he was outside too long giving that speech.
LAMB: The shortest?
Prof. FIELDS:The shortest is probably the--the last FDR. But--with the third and fourth inaugurations, Franklin Roosevelt shortened his speeches considerably, and the fourth, he's in bad health, and so it's a--it's a different kind of occasion.
LAMB: The most colloquial--in other words, the most conversational, the most, you know--the--the least formal?
Prof. FIELDS:I think that's probably Truman, just because the voice is least comfortable with really formal kinds of address. It has its own kind of eloquence; there's something very moving about Truman's speech, but it is not like John F. Kennedy. What we get after Franklin Roosevelt in other forms of discourse--inaugurals tend to be different from those--is a lessening of the distance between the speaker and the audience. The president sounds more and more like the audience in his formal address. Ronald Reagan was very good at that, so that his language sounded like our language, his talk sounded like our talk, even though it was much better talk than most of us of give.
LAMB: You wrote this early in the book. You said, `Washington's finest rhetorical moments were often scripted by James Madison or Alexander Hamilton. President Monroe's most famous address was largely crafted by his secretary of state, John Quincy Adams. And Andrew Jackson's first inaugural included important contributions from his vice president, John C. Calhoun.' Jump 100, 200 years later. Could you ever write anything like that today?
Prof. FIELDS:Well, we know, actually, more about speechwriters and their effect on speeches now than we knew during the Franklin Roosevelt era, when they tried to remain relatively invisible. And Peggy Noonan has written about her own work as a speechwriter, and there are conferences now in which speechwriters appear and talk about their trade and refer to things that they've written in the past. So we've gotten away from the notion that they have to be anonymous and invisible, and you have to keep alive the illusion that they don't exist, that they really are ghosts. I think what they point to--the fact is more obvious now, maybe than it was even when we had Madison writing for Washington--is that the presidency is a collaborative office. It is a role. It's not just a single person. It is one that draws on lots of--of people's energy and talent, and has from the very beginning. The number has increased and we see them differently now because we--we have them speak to us in those roles the way speech--speechwriters now do.
LAMB: Do you have a favorite speaker that you like to listen to?
Prof. FIELDS:Kennedy is--is, I suspect, for--for single speeches, the person I like most to hear, but the--the speeches collectively that I'm most moved by, but you listen to hours of them, are the fireside chats.
LAMB: Have you listened to them?
Prof. FIELDS:Yes. Yeah.
LAMB: What?--is there three missing or something like that on--on the...
Prof. FIELDS:There are three, I think that--that we don't have the tapes for--at least the archives didn't have them.
LAMB: You write up the fireside chats, and you write up the--FDR's pattern of speaking. What's the point?
Prof. FIELDS:Well, one of the things that happens with broadcast is that what we think of as presidential eloquence now takes in all the other aspects of platform performance because people, first with radio, are actually hearing the voice in great numbers, and then they're actually seeing the person deliver it, and there's no way of separating what we see and what we hear from the words that are spoken. So the--the full persona becomes more a part of--of the performance than it would have been for, say, Thomas Jefferson, who didn't much like to speak anyway and preferred that people read him. So that the--the idiosyncrasies of speech, of a president who comes from upstate New York aristocracy or from Georgia, become a part of our sense of--of what they say and the--the relative eloquence of it.
LAMB: What--what are the different kinds of--of speeches that you covered?
Prof. FIELDS:Well, I tried to run through the basic outline of the presidential calendar, which in modern times really starts with the trying out of presidential voices with announcement speeches and acceptance speeches, but then I go to inaugurals, State of the Unions, and farewells, with the longest section, after the inaugurals, being a--a two-chapter section on special addresses, those that come up in response to particular events in the history of a presidency or in--in the history of the country--a particular crisis, a particular commemoration.
LAMB: Pick one.
Prof. FIELDS:I'm going to skip the Gettysburg Address because it's so obvious, and take Reagan at Normandy--that here's an occasion which, it was on the calendar, we knew it was going to come up, but it comes up only for Ronald Reagan. He's the only one who can speak to that, and it comes at a time when we are unsure how to measure ourselves, who we are.

Something very interesting came out when I was working with inaugural addresses that--that focus on that speech, too, I think. And that is that we tend for a couple of generations to measure ourselves against some great historical moment. So that it's the Revolution and George Washington; and then it's the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln; and then it's World War II and FDR. And then we go through a period, sort of at the end of that, where we're uncertain how to measure ourselves, what the test of our--of our Americanness is, what our m--our model of patriotism is, or of civic virtue is.

And for most of the people listening when Reagan was giving the speech at Normandy, World War II was something in a history book. It wasn't real in their experience, and what was real for an American war was Vietnam, a very different kind of experience. And what Reagan did in that moment at Normandy was to talk about the kind of service that those now old men in his audience had given there, the kinds of risks they had taken and the kinds of purposes they were serving. And especially, I think, for younger audiences who were far removed from that kind of clear historical moment and had the muddier notions of--of Vietnam in mind, there was something deeply moving about that. And Reagan handled it not by drawing lots of attention to himself, but to the specific acts of heroism of the men in front of him.
LAMB: Pick another one.
Prof. FIELDS:One of the things that--that I found very interesting with the--what I call the `Western swing of--of Teddy Roosevelt,' Roosevelt was the first president to really go out to the people to build the presidential case. Andrew Johnson had tried it in his conflicts with Congress. It hadn't worked well. People thought it was very unpresidential. But Roosevelt went on a several-week tour that took him all the way to the West Coast twice, stopping at lots of places like national parks, as well as at universities, and delivering his own progressive message about America's future.

This was at a time where his standing with his own party was shaky. He'd come to the presidency after the death of McKinley. He had not been somebody that most of the party leaders would have wanted to be president, and I think it wasn't clear in his own mind that they were going to nominate him to--to--to run again. And so what he was doing during this time was building support for himself, but he was also getting Americans to think of themselves in this new way which especially in the West incorporated lots of the progressive ideals that--that became important to his presidency.
LAMB: One of the speeches you write up is a George Bush speech, `I am a man,' and I wanted to ask you about the w--during this campaign we've heard a lot of third-person references. Bob Dole talks about Bob Dole. What--what have you seen over the years, and--and why did you do this on George Bush: `I am a man who as a Navy flier in World War II was shot down by the enemy. I am a man who in two years in Congress learned that democracy stays new by reinventing itself. I am a man who was chairman of a great political party. I am a man who was--as the head of CIA learned the world is full of danger for the descent. I am a man'--or the decent, I'm sorry. `I am a man who learned firsthand in seven years as vice president that a modern president must be many things.'
Prof. FIELDS:Well, remember that, among other people, Dole had accused Bush of having a resume instead of a record, and--and presented himself then, as he does now, as the man who had the record, who'd actually done this. And then there are people farther right than Bush who were accusing him of being a wimp. There had just been something--I think it was the cover issue of Newsweek, which focused on the wimp factor at that time, about a week before this s--this speech was given.

Here's a man who was a war hero, who had served his country in lots of different ways, who's having to defend himself as not just somebody who has knowledge of how government works, but as somehow being sufficiently macho to--to serve in the presidency. And in 1988 that was a--a very strong issue. There were lots of people out claiming sort of the manly position in all of this. And Bush, in having to do this, was in an awkward position. But it also notes a different aspect of what's happened in recent presidents, and that's where the president's own biography becomes more and more important than campaigning and running for office.

We do not have in acceptance speeches much before the '60s an emphasis upon who the president as a person is, what their family's like, what their origins are. But now it's much of what happens, so much so that the--that the press will often say--the commentators before an acceptance speech is made, `Now this is where the candidate is going to introduce himself to the American people.' And what we saw here was the kind of role biography increasingly is playing.

Now one of the things that Dole resisted during the early stages of this primary was talking very much about himself in terms of that biography. And part of what his---his handlers are convinced helped push him ahead was when he went back to actually doing that--talked about his war record, what had happened there; talked about Russell, Kansas, growing up poor as a farm kid. So biography plays a much different role now, in terms of the--of the speaker representing himself to--to the public, than it ever did in--in the last century, or even in the early decades of this century.
LAMB: When--you mentioned The New York Times early. When did The New York Times first begin publishing speeches for the record?
Prof. FIELDS:I'm not sure when it actually thought of itself as the record, but we've got from what we now call The New York Times, from before the Civil War, pretty reliable texts of--of major speeches.
LAMB: Is it easy to find them?
Prof. FIELDS:Yes. All of that's on microfilm and--and indexed. That's the easiest place to look. One of the kinds of speeches I had most difficulty finding, as I note in the book, were--were announcement speeches, because lots of people announce for the presidency, people that most of us never hear of, even when they're announcing; and The New York Times doesn't automatically run those the way it does other presidential speeches. So in retrospect, sorting out what were the speeches that actually serious candidates were giving us--giving was sometimes quite difficult. And you'd find them in--in regional papers like The Des Moines Register, where there were caucuses or primaries, and people are paying more attention to them.
LAMB: If somebody wanted to do what you've done and--and set out to read all of these speeches, the inaugural speeches and their acceptance speeches at the convention and--and others, wh--wh--where's the easiest place to find them?
Prof. FIELDS:Most of them are collected eith--well, they're either collected in the individual presidential papers or they are collected in--by genre. There are volumes--there's a volume of inaugural addresses that's constantly updated by the Government Printing Office. There's a collection of State of the Union addresses that runs up, I think, to 1968, so that you can look at them that way. Most of what is not there, I think you can find in--in The New York Times. But again, the issues of record begin with the presidency. So the presidential papers don't include announcement speeches either. They start with the inaugural address. And so sometimes earlier things, the sort of previewing of presidential candidates, is the hardest material to find.
LAMB: Do you speak much yourself?
Prof. FIELDS:Well, I'm a teacher, so I speak more than my students sometimes would like, but...
LAMB: You say in here that `politics and politicians were a constant source of discussion among the farmers and blue-collar workers who peopled my childhood.' Where was that?
Prof. FIELDS:Well, I grew up in the Midwest. My father--my--my grandparents were farmers, and my father, who didn't much care for farming, became a construction laborer and then a carpenter. So we went wherever there was work, and the one thing that the communities we were a part of had in common--usually we would join the lo--the local Baptist church even if it was a few--only a few weeks' or a few months' residence in that place--was their enthusiasm for talking about politics, often in terms of complaining about politicians and politics, but it was a subject that was a constant part of our life.
LAMB: What are the names of some of those towns?
Prof. FIELDS:Oh, little towns all over Iowa: Eagle Grove, New London, Gilmore City. And we lived in Salt Lake City, Utah. We lived in--in Texas, Jackson, Mississippi. And then we wound up settling down when I was about junior high school age in Rock Island, Illinois.
LAMB: And--and how did you get interested in this? I mean, was--did you--was your father politically savvy?
Prof. FIELDS:Yes, I--I...
LAMB: Is he alive, by the way?
Prof. FIELDS:Yes, and so--actually, so is his father, so that--who is perhaps the most politically intense of all of us, even though he's the quietest of us. I think it was not so much the political talk, in a way, that got me started on this. It was--one of my father's first jobs after he got out of the service, after World War II, was to sell insurance, and he worked for the Lincoln National Life Insurance Company and...
LAMB: In Ft. Wayne?
Prof. FIELDS:That's right. And they gave away Lincoln bust banks. So one of the first things that I remember being given by my father was this bust of Lincoln, which had a thing for my pennies in the top of it. I think as much as anything it was the beginning of--of sort of that mystique and my struggling with what Lincoln meant for the country and for me. Was--I think it was something that simple in some ways.
LAMB: Did you--did you live in Ft. Wayne?
Prof. FIELDS:No, no. He was--he tried to sell life insurance in a little rural community in the northeast part of Missouri where people didn't much care for life insurance, or there weren't enough people there to make a go of it, so I'm sure...
LAMB: And where did you go to college?
Prof. FIELDS:I went to Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois.
LAMB: Then where?
Prof. FIELDS:Then to graduate school at Chicago.
LAMB: And you got your PhD in, specifically, what was your...
Prof. FIELDS:My--the field is English, but I did work in my dissertation on the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
LAMB: Y--there's also here this sentence, `Hours, now years, of conversation with Kurt Olsen and Harry Martin have given me an opportunity to think through the application of literary techniques to political materials.' Who are those two gentlemen.
Prof. FIELDS:Well, Kurt Olsen is a medievalist who I went to graduate school with. And even though he's working with a completely different culture, we wound up in one way dealing with the same kind of literature. Medievalists, like Americanists, think of everything that's written down as--as something to be read as literature. So you're reading sermons and political tracts just as much as you're reading what now we tend to think of as literature, poems and--and plays and--and novels. And I learned an awful lot from the way in which he read the text he was dealing with about how I wanted to read mine.

Harry Martin was my office mate for a long time at Washington University and now teaches at Union College in Schenectady, New York, and was the kind of person, one, who would read everything I wrote and then would give it very careful critical approach, too, so that I was constantly rewriting, trying to answer questions that I hadn't much wanted to ask, but that Harry forced me to ask.
LAMB: It--I don't know if the word's `irony,' but is there any irony that University of Chicago, where Saul Bellow is, and his son is your publisher, Adam Bellow?
Prof. FIELDS:I suspect there are lots of ironies there. Adam actually is responsible in lots of ways for the book, because I had given a paper on inaugural addresses at a political science meeting, and Adam was still a kid starting out at--at Free Press, I think, and he had made the rounds of the sessions and thought this was an interesting paper, and said, `Would you like to do a book on presidential rhetoric sometime?' And eventually that's what led to this book. He stayed with it, and now he's the editor in chief at Free Press.
LAMB: You--you say that in 1988 you got inside the Paul Simon and Bob Dole campaigns?
Prof. FIELDS:Shows what an astute judge of--of the political temper I am. I had only read rhetoric from after the fact, so I knew how things turned out. I mean, it's very difficult to imagine what it would be like to read the first inaugural address and not know what's going to follow it, not know what happens historically, and there's no way in reading it that I can remove all the things that I know happened afterwards and the emotional power of that. So what I tried to do was to see what would happen if I watched the process of speechmaking without knowing how things were going to turn out, and so I looked for two candidates during the--the primary season that I could follow around that I thought might actually be nominated, and in '88 somehow I got it in my head that the candidates would be Dole and Simon. So I followed those camps around in the early stages to see how their speeches were constructed and how they handled the campaign.
LAMB: What did you learn from that?
Prof. FIELDS:I learned a lot about the--the writing process. The--I got to talk to people who were working with both candidates on their speeches. I also--I think the most important thing that I learned in terms of the popular sense now that these are people speaking other people's words, not somehow controlling the office themselves, is how difficult it is to write words for a presidential candidate if they aren't, in some sense, through empathy or--or just a thorough knowledge of the personality and type, that candidate's words; that Bob Dole would take speeches and start with them and go off on his own if it seemed more appropriate to him. He was constantly changing it.

And Paul Simon never, ever got around to hiring a speechwriter that he actually used during that campaign. He had people write speeches, and then would wind up writing his own version of it. An exhausting process, but he just found it impossible. So it--it does seem to me that the personality, the--the individual character of our presidential candidates, and certainly of our presidents, really do control the words they say, and not their writers.
LAMB: In one of your footnotes--I don't know which chapter is. I guess actually Chapter 1, you quote St. Augustine, and you say he wrote in the fifth century that--this is a quote--"There are men who can speak well, but cannot think of anything wise to say. If they take something eloquently and wisely written by others and offer it to the people on the person of the author, they do not do wickedly." Am I quoting that right?
Prof. FIELDS:That's--that's what Augustine was saying, primarily, about preachers at the time, not about presidents. And yet, I think the point is--is a valid one for us, too, to think about, that a part of the test of the presidency is how well the person who holds that office chooses the words that are going to be spoken, and those words may be crafted by someone else, but the really important thing is that the message be the appropriate--the right one. That's what I mean about the collaborative work.

And it would have been a mistake for Abraham Lincoln to rely on somebody other than himself, it seems to me, for most of his writing, because he's the one that knew those words. He was the one with the wisdom for that particular moment. On the other hand, I think the people who helped Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan craft their words were important extensions--extensions of the personality and goals of those partic--those particular presidents.
LAMB: Le--let me not put words in your mouth, but let me just make an observation.
Prof. FIELDS:Oh, please do.
LAMB: It seems to me, after reading this, that you had the most--I don't know if the word `fun' is correct, but you--you had the most interest in analyzing Richard Nixon. I mean, from the sense of all the personal...
Prof. FIELDS:Mm-hmm.
LAMB: ...psychological reasons why he said what he said.
Prof. FIELDS:Nixon was both the most problematic figure for me, and in some ways the most interesting, because if the office of the presidency is about holding us together, about union, then a part of what we want in the president is to seem together themselves in some important way. I mean, one of the things that the Adams family, who didn't much like Virginians, constantly said about their hero, George Washington, was that he seemed to be one thing, that he seemed to be always unified, together. And I think that's our notion of the presidency. We have this great monolith in the Washington Memorial that is the model for the presidency, and not just for George Washington, that singular obelisk that sort of declares just one thing.

On the other hand, what we saw in Richard Nixon was a kind of disintegration of--of--of the self of the president, not just of the country he was trying to hold together during that time. And so part of what interested me there was the way in which we remain committed to union when the servant of that union is, as the--I think the resignation speeches make clear, coming apart himself.
LAMB: Let me read some quotes. "We often hear it said," he wrote--this is, I guess, "Six Crises"--"We often hear it said that truly big men are at their best in handling big affairs, and that they falter and fail when confronted with petty irritations, with crises which are, in other words, essentially personal." Then you say, "No one who watched Nixon's political career could doubt his deep and abiding fear of being merely a small man."
Prof. FIELDS:I think that was the big personal obsession. I mean, one ofthe things that's--that's interesting about the presidency is that inevitably the individuals who hold that office are smaller than the office, and they're often driven by relatively petty ambitions or psychological needs tha--of a fairly complicated sort that don't match our notion of what the office represents, or even their notion of it. And one of the things that--that began to interest me was how they transcended their own limits, in some instances, to fill the office, but other times how they declared themselves.

And Nixon was desperate to be taken seriously. He's constantly saying things that invite you to correct him, of about not being very bright, about having struggled to get through the bar exam and things like that, when we know he was a good student. We know he was very bright. And yet this sense that everybody else is treating him as though he's insignificant and small and needing something to say, `No, he's--he's more than that.'
LAMB: This quote--this, I think was probably on August 9th, his farewell speech in the East Room, 1974 quote: "This isn't the biggest house"--you almost want to talk like he did.
Prof. FIELDS:Yes.
LAMB: "This isn't the finest house through compar--though--through comparison to the great houses of the world--older ones, housing prices, priceless." Well, I'm not doing well at this. "But," he concluded, "this is the best house, best because of the people who serve in it, the little people who are its great heart."
Prof. FIELDS:That's--that's when he's actually saying farewell to the staff at the White House, which was also televised, so it became a sort of extension of--of--of the previous address, the previous night's address as the farewell. And this business of who are little people and who are big people is--is constantly running through that. He talks about his father as a little man. Then he talks about his mother as a great woman. This--this uncertainty about what makes one small or large, great or--or--or conventional, runs all through those speeches with the kind of desperate need to sort of clarify it for himself. And, of course, ultimately in all this, he's got the fallback position that he can never wholly accept, that the first shall be last, that the greatness is in humility; and he can never quite make that sort of serve him in terms of--of--of reconciling him to his own uncertainty about things.
LAMB: Go back to the beginning of--of the country's life--political life. When was the first--when did the first person actually seek the presidency?
Prof. FIELDS:Well, I think it certainly happened as early as Jefferson, and I suspect John Adams was--was seeking it after--after Washington's second term just as much. Washington had warned constantly in his presidency--and it's the main thrust of his farewell address--against parties. And in a sense what he's--he's arguing against, too, there is this overly ambitious seeking of the office of the presidency. But Jefferson did represent a party, Adams did represent a party, and they wanted to take the presidency for those parties, so that--I think the first campaigns after Washington's presidency were driven by the ambitions of particular individuals and the parties that supported them to--to win that prize.
LAMB: But you--you talk all through your book about people dodging this whole thing...
Prof. FIELDS:Yeah.
LAMB: ...and not acting like they really want the presidency.
Prof. FIELDS:Well, we have this very peculiar thing in--in our culture, and that is a part of sh--what we think qualifies you for the office, if you're really sort of the ultimate president that we seek, is a disinterest in it; that a Cincinnatus' call from the plow, that it's something that people take on out of civic virtue, not--that they have this other life that they sort of give up reluctantly and then come to it. That's the way we think of--of Washington. That's the way Jefferson tried to portray himself, even though politics, in most ways, was his life.
LAMB: Who was--by the way, because it comes up all the time, who was Cincinnatus?
Prof. FIELDS:Cincinnatus is this Roman figure who is called to be general first and wins the wars, then goes back to his farm, is--is--is plowing in--in the mythology of Cincinnatus, when Rome is in a crisis, and then is called to lead it. And so we get--in the Capitol we have paintings of it--of Cincinnatus being there by his plow with the delegates from Rome asking him to come and--and--and take--take over the--the role of the leader.
LAMB: Did we have--ever have someone just like him?
Prof. FIELDS:Well, we've had people who've refused it. I mean, the most dramatically, we had Sherman, and we remember that rejection more than we do all the other people who sought it so--so eagerly. We remember Sherman saying that if nominated, he would not run; if elected, he would not serve. And people can still quote that who don't know much else about Sherman. But I think Washington is probably the closest we have to it. Part of the infatuation with generals is that they have sort of reached an e--an epitome of public service, reached a kind of peak that may be even higher in the case of Eisenhower or in the case of Washington. Some people thought that for Andrew Jackson.

And so it is not an upward movement so much as a kind of lateral movement, another kind of assignment. And part of our attraction to generals as candidates, if they are the sort of national saviors like Grant and the others, is that they're larger than the office already. And part of the enthusiasm for Colin Powell, it seems to me, which is not going to be diminished by his turning it down, is the idea that he doesn't really need it. It's not--he's not spending a lifetime seeking it.
LAMB: Who's the first nominee of a party to make a speech in the hall to the delegates?
Prof. FIELDS:Franklin Roosevelt. One of the things that we tried to do in the 19th century was to keep the--the nominee separate from the--the corrupt and wild process of nomination, so that the nominee is approached by the party after the nomination, even when the nominee's been following it the way Abraham Lincoln had, with sort of hourly telegraphs from the conven--telegrams from the convention hall. Then a party was sent to offer the nomination to--to the candidate, and the candidate accepted, usually with either a formal speech then or some informal remarks in a wri--in a written letter l--after that.

Franklin Roosevelt comes to the floor of the 1932 Democratic Convention and says, `You nominated me, and I know it. I accept, and you know that. Let's get on to it.' And it's the whole idea that we're going to cut through any kind of sham, any kind of empty pretense, and get at the work at hand; that we're in a kind of national crisis, and it would be a waste of time to pretend that we don't know what's gone on, and get on with our business.
LAMB: Anybody in modern times not go--well, since FDR--not go and give a speech at the convention?
Prof. FIELDS:No. No. The only people--again, Franklin Roosevelt, in the third and fourth campaigns, has a different kind of relationship with the process because nobody else had run then. Everybody had--had observed the--the Washington precedent of two terms and then--and then retirement, so that his relationship at those conventions was most distant. And one is a recorded message. It--but after--after that first presentation before a convention, every candidate realized how much political capital was to be gained by this appearance, how much more e--how much more effectively the party could be drawn together, and how much of a national audience such a speech could win.
LAMB: What's your sense: Speech is more important then or now?
Prof. FIELDS:Important in different ways, I think, and at--and at different times. I mean, we've gone through long periods when we've not had particularly articulate presidents, when there's very little, apart from the sort of drama of the times, that should interest us in the speeches they give. But we do know, from the effectiveness of the Reagan presidency, from the kind of emphasis, for instance, that was placed on Clinton's last State of the Union speech, that we do take what presidents say seriously, even though we sometimes are very cynical and skeptical about all of that. And that still plays a really important role.

But in this era of sound bites, of presidents making comments that can show up in the--in the short segment on the evening news, the concept of--of eloquence, I think, is--is--is changed. The idea of a whole argument in an elaborated speech is more in danger now, I think, than it used to be.
LAMB: One of things you read throughout your book is that people talked about special interests for over 200 years. They talk about being--this is a greedy country. Some of the same language...
Prof. FIELDS:Right.
LAMB: ...both for the left and the right, and there are Democrats, Republicans, and Whigs and all that. Did you find a thread there?
Prof. FIELDS:Yes. Yeah. And--and it's something we know from our own personal experience. We know it from ourselves. Most of what we know about the idea of union nationally, we know from the--from the--from our own efforts to sort of reconcile all of our conflicting natures and interests. So we haven't changed as a people, either individually or corporately, but on the one hand, we are very practical. We're very commonsensical. And that's where our suspicions of one another come from. That's where our emphasis upon individual rights and liberties come from. On the other, we are committed to this idea of community that we represent with the word `union.' It's not just a union of states; it becomes increasingly a union of people.

And these two things are very uncomfortable next to each other, but we are equally committed to both of them, it seems to me, and in each of our historical eras, different kinds of forces have been testing our ability to--to sustain these two commitments, to be both pluribus and unum, and we've responded in different ways, but that the basic struggle has always been the same.
LAMB: You have this line in--in the Articulating History chapter: `If Americans had come to associate the late president's wit and charm with a clipped Boston accent, Johnson's voting rights speech was crafted especially for his voice and the cadences of the Southern states in which anti-civil rights feelings was most vitriolic.' Can you get a sense, over the years, which ha--which--I mean, we--we have--there's so many we haven't heard them speak. How many of them had pronounced accents?
Prof. FIELDS:Well, Abraham Lincoln had an accent that was much mocked in--in Washington and places outside of Illinois, where lots of other people had that accent. It had a kind of--of rural quality to it, it was very twangy. And it wasn't just the folksy figures of speech he used. It was the way he pronounced words that seemed very provincial. And so there were lots of--of--of--of writers and politicians who--who made fun of that. Calvin Coolidge had an accent not terribly different than--than John F. Kennedy's, and there were those who found that sort of annoying.
LAMB: Can you hear that today?
Prof. FIELDS:Yes. We have--we have tapes of Coolidge. But I think probably the--the greatest challenge for a president in sort of matching his voice to the country was Lincoln's, where it was a very pronounced accent, and it wasn't one that most people identified with at the time.
LAMB: The--I--I was looking at a quote here earlier, and--and famous phrases that we all remember, like `Speak softly'--I--I--that's not--`and carry a big stick'...
Prof. FIELDS:Mm-hmm.
LAMB: ...or whatever the exact quote was. How--as you study it, who wrote those kinds of things? I mean, do they come from the individual, or did somebody write it for Teddy Roosevelt?
Prof. FIELDS:Well, that one I don't know for sure. He says that it's a--it's a commonplace, it's a kind of conventional wisdom, an epigram that he has heard. It was typical of Roosevelt to try and find something--was typical, actually, of both Roosevelts--to try and find something that would crystalize a particular thought or idea, but he was drawing on a kind of folk wisdom, and that's the other thing that both Roosevelts did in a different way than, say, Jefferson ever would have, or even Lincoln, for that matter, in the--in the formal addresses.

And that's constantly referring back to conventional wisdom, that Lincoln's authority would come from biblical wisdom--`A house divided against itself cannot stand,' that sort of thing, in the really crucial moments. But for both Roosevelts, for Truman, for Ronald Reagan, the ideas that it's--it's conventional wisdom, that it's the wisdom of the people, becomes the--the--the most important authoritative foundation.
LAMB: You wrote about State of the Union speeches, announcement speeches for candidates for president, farewell speeches, and then special occasions. Anything else?
Prof. FIELDS:Well, I had a long chapter called Broadcasting the Presidency, which tried to deal with--with the presidency in the television era, that I could never quite get to fit in with the rest of the book. But I think that what is the great challenge, in terms of understanding the office, is what happens when the presence of--of the president becomes physical, palpable for--for--for the American people because it's being televised. So that that's the only thing I looked at that's not really in the book.
LAMB: Television and Bill Clinton. How's he do?
Prof. FIELDS:Fairly well. He does his best, I think, as he did in--in one or two of the debates, where he can get close to people. Clinton is good at responding to individuals. He's a good listener. He giv--conveys the sense that he's really paying attention to the people around him. His formal addresses are almost always hurt by this tendency to go on and on, which I think is part of that other persona.

In a way, his whole notion of himself and his form of leadership, and I think it's built into his psyche, is that of a reconciler, of a conciliator; and that process works by letting people talk and talk and talk. It's a little bit like in--in a class letting the class go on too long because you keep thinking, `The next line will save it. The next line will make it all clear.' And he has a habit of adding material, I think, with that sort of impulse, that it's still this effort to reach out, to make sure everybody's gotten it, everybody's included. And while that's a--a great strength in some aspects of the presidency, in formal occasions, it--it's a flaw.
LAMB: What impact has television had on the actual written word and the kind of language we hear now?
Prof. FIELDS:Well, there are two things that come immediately to mind. One of the things that Franklin Roosevelt used to do in the fireside chats is have anecdotes about individual Americans. He tried to use the chat not just to connect the people to him, but to connect them to one another. So he would say what was going on with farmers over here, what was going on with factory workers over here, and he was constantly introducing, using specific names and instances. When he went into the World War II chats, he would refer to particular acts of heroism.
LAMB: And you say he used to have a--ask people to get their maps out?
Prof. FIELDS:He--yes, he would--he would sort of ask them to instruct themselves, get out their maps, go look at something in the Constitution. He assigned homework in the fireside chats. Well, when we got television, one of the things that Ronald Reagan did with that same impulse, that same device, was to actually place those people in the balcony at State of the Union addresses, to have sort of the living examples of the sort that Franklin Roosevelt used in these anecdotes in the speeches.

So part of what television does is allow you to use much more visual stuff, whether it's charts, which Reagan also would do sometimes. Instead of asking them to go look at their map, Reagan's version of that was to show them the pie chart or whatever, to hold the map up.
LAMB: All right, the thing--have you noticed that there are individuals or documents that are the most often quoted by presidents over the years?
Prof. FIELDS:Well, one of the things that--that's striking about it is--is who influences presidents, and where did they get their notion of the presidency. Because one of the things that after a while began to be sort of problematic for me until I worked this out was presidents almost always modeled themselves after somebody whose policies were quite different than their own.

There's a great difference between the Democrat Andrew Jackson and the Federalist George Washington, but Jackson tried, in every way, to--to present himself as the second Washington--modeled his speeches after him, quoted Washington at great length. Same way Ronald Reagan does with Franklin--did with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Clinton, who is a very different kind of president than the Cold War, hawkish Kennedy, does some of that with Kennedy.

So the first thing was that there is this--this notion of a presidency that seems to be fixed fairly early in a president's life, and they often quote from that; but the--the other thing is that the material that gets quoted changes dramatically, that it's often other presidents, it's often biblical. Kennedy was fond of using biblical text; Lincoln was fond of using biblical text. But what we get increasingly in--in the--the '80s and--and--and '90s now are references to movies. At the Republican Convention in 1988, I think there were far more references to Hollywood than there were to the Bible. There's Dan Quayle identifying with Hoosiers or everybody identifying Ronald Reagan with the Gipper, that all of a sudden the popular culture now has become more of a source of quotation than it had been in any previous era.
LAMB: You have right here on the cover of the book three names that you dedicate this book to. Who a--who are these three gentlemen?
Prof. FIELDS:Bob Streeter was my dissertation adviser at--at the University of Chicago and the person that taught me the most about how to do this kind of analysis and--and taught me to take very seriously the whole breadth of America's literature, the--the larger American story. Jarvis Thurston was my first chair when I began teaching and at Washington University created a--a community of writers as well as of literary critics; and his whole notion of what American literature was was--was very inclusive. So it allowed me to go in lots of different directions. Bob Salisbury's a political scientist that I've taught a lot of courses with who has tried to keep me honest about the political science of all of this, and to point to things that I would have missed otherwise.
LAMB: When is the debate coming to St. Louis?
Prof. FIELDS:Well, we have the first one, which I think is the end of September.
LAMB: What impact does that have on you all out there?
Prof. FIELDS:Well, we did it last time, and we did it then with six days' notice, and--and no one thought we could sort of pull it off on campus, and it all came together. But one of the things that happened as a result of that is everybody had to pitch in. Students were doing a lot, faculty and staff. So it was sort of a great community experience for us. This time we've got so much advance notice, I'm not sure what we'll do with all of the time. But it's--it's a great thing for a campus. It--it lets students think about a campaign in a different way than they would normally. All of the activity which normally would be someplace else at a time they're concentrating on their own books and studies suddenly becomes a part of that study, and I think that's really important for us.
LAMB: When you write, how do you do it?
Prof. FIELDS:Painfully. I started out writing everything in longhand. I didn't type, and so I had manuscripts. My wife typed things. I hired other people to--to type later drafts. She was one of the few people that could read my handwriting. When computers came out, they saved me from that--that lack of typing talent, because you could make lots of mistakes and fix them. So now I actually work on the computer.
LAMB: How long did it take you to write this?
Prof. FIELDS:About four years, but I didn't have any sort of sustained time. I was working as a teacher and a dean most of that time. And it's drawing on material that I had been working on for 20 years before that.
LAMB: Are you surprised at the attention it's gotten?
Prof. FIELDS:I think you're always surprised when something you write gets attended to; that on one hand there is a sense that when you get to the last page, it's done. I mean, it--it sort of disappears and you go on to something else. So part of what happens is it's prolonged the process for me. Now people are interested in talking about it and thinking about it, and it's changed the nature of--of--of the writing process, extended it for me. But I'm not surprised that people find the presidential story, the story of union interesting, important, at the center of our lives. One of the things that it seems to me that--that makes the Americo--American story so powerful is that it's about the most basic longing of individuals, that we really want to be whole, and our notion of our corporate life also includes that--that--that movement towards wholeness in some way. And, of course, at the same time we contradict that because we're not whole. We're--we're lots of--of different kinds of things packaged pretty loosely.
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