By CLYDE HABERMAN
The New York Times
September 14, 2007
A central theme wove through the words of the political leaders who spoke at the Sept. 11 memorial service this week. It was an ancient concept: We are our brothers’ keepers.
“Can I see another’s woe, and not be in sorrow too?” Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said. He also said, “We cannot live for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads.”
Former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani said, “Just as despair can come to one another only from other human beings, hope too can be given to one only by other human beings.”
Former Gov. George E. Pataki of New York said, “The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.” From his successor, Eliot Spitzer, there was this: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” And Gov. Jon S. Corzine of New Jersey spoke of time’s passage. “For those who love,” he said, “time is eternity.”
Fine words all, brave and true.
The only problem is that not one of them captured an original thought from any of those leaders.
True to form, they flew rhetorically on borrowed wings. Rather than articulate their own feelings on the 9/11 cataclysm and its aftermath, they took the road well-traveled, finding refuge in the musings of famous writers (and not quoting with full accuracy in every instance, but let’s not quibble).
Mr. Bloomberg’s reflection on sorrow was William Blake’s, and those “thousand invisible threads” were from Herman Melville — a New Yorker, the mayor made sure to point out. Mr. Giuliani borrowed from Elie Wiesel, Mr. Pataki from James Baldwin and Mr. Corzine from Henry Van Dyke, who may not be a household name but has the virtue of having been a New Jersey man (Princeton).
As for Mr. Spitzer, if you did not instantly recognize his words as those of John Donne — you know, “no man is an island” and all that — you probably should go home and retrieve your old class notes from English 101.
In fairness, these leaders may not have had total freedom at the lectern. City Hall organizers found “a small pool of readings around a certain theme” and gave each man “an option or two,” said Stu Loeser, a spokesman for Mr. Bloomberg.
Mr. Giuliani, for one, labored under unusual constraints. Any stab at originality would have no doubt been turned upside down and sideways by people looking for its significance to his presidential race. Then, too, each man had barely a minute to speak — not much time for fleshing out thoughts.
But then, the Gettysburg Address was merely 270 words or so. Lincoln showed that an awful lot of thinking can be crammed into an exceedingly small space.
The reality is that from the beginning, the politicians have not even tried to articulate their own reflections on the meaning of that terrible day in 2001. On the first anniversary, they settled for reciting from the Gettysburg Address, the Four Freedoms and the Declaration of Independence, as if those documents cover all bases after every crisis.
For Theodore C. Sorensen, who wrote memorable words for President John F. Kennedy, there is an absence of leadership that has “dried up both speech and thought about what our great country is all about, what our true values are, what our role in the world should be.”
To another former speechwriter, Peter Quinn, who worked for Govs. Hugh L. Carey and Mario M. Cuomo, politicians have to cater these days to audiences of ever-shrinking attention spans. “The idea of a coherent thought expressed eloquently has kind of left the marketplace,” he said.
INDEED, said the linguist John McWhorter, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. “Now, even politicians who are 60 were raised after the time when that kind of ringing oratory was in their background,” he said. “We’ve lost that muscle. They grew up in a world where nobody talked that way anymore.”
But William Safire, a former New York Times columnist who worked in the Nixon White House, saw no reason for despair. Mr. Safire agreed that “an original line cannot be beaten.” But “not everybody is a Churchill or Martin Luther King,” he said. “An apt use of quotation can be moving and memorable.”
Emboldened by that thought, we will follow the politicians’ lead and borrow wings of our own. We say, It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.
We drew that one from the same well used by Mr. Bloomberg: Herman Melville.