Author:Pierce Word

Publisher:History Publishing Company

ISBN:ISBN: 9781933909448

To compel a man to furnish funds for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.” Sean Hannity to Sandra Fluke last year? No, try Thomas Jefferson in 1779.

The probability that we may fail in the struggle ought not to deter us from the support of a cause we believe to be just.” Ron Paul or Ralph Nader to their respective contemporary loyalists? No, try Abraham Lincoln in 1839.

This evidence that there is indeed nothing new under the political sun is but one of many pleasurable and informative revelations that will reward readers of Pierce Word’s masterful compendium of U.S. presidential utterances from George Washington to Barack Obama.

Because the author’s own voice is heard only in a slightly mushy introduction and acknowledgment section at the end, this book must be evaluated in terms of his editorial and organizational choices, and so judged, the book is a superb accomplishment. The quotations are arranged according to 40 themes, presented alphabetically, and within each thematic category, they are presented chronologically. The latter arrangement is particularly valuable as it enables the reader to appreciate how presidential perspective on a particular subject has evolved over the years.

Perhaps the greatest compliment one can pay to this book is that it demonstrates that U.S. presidents are, despite their exalted office, human beings, and as such are capable of uttering statements that are both trite and profound, poetic and pedantic, conventional and iconoclastic, pompous and self-deprecating, and inspirationally comedic and yawn producing. Examples would be inadvisable because they would make this review much too long, and more unfortunately, would detract from the pleasure that readers will surely find in discovering these contrasting characteristics for themselves.

Occasionally, one president’s quotation will cause closer scrutiny of another’s. For example, JFK’s injunction about what to ask and not to ask of government (which was expressed less succinctly by Warren Harding in both 1916 and 1921) is almost universally revered; however, when viewed in the light of other presidential statements about the citizen-state relationship, it sounds almost totalitarian.

Author Word is extremely even handed in dealing with the great and lesser presidents. I was surprised to learn not only that Chester Arthur had prophetic views on privacy but also that he had once been president of the United States.

It’s also fascinating to see how some presidents can be not only in conflict with each other (is the Constitution an “unshaken rock” or “marvelously elastic”?) but also self contradictory, often depending on the audiences they’re addressing. And thanks to the earthy Lyndon Johnson, even vulgarity is represented.

The research involved in producing this book is formidable. The sources range from ceremonial utterances to informal asides that are close to pillow talk. And speaking of pillow talk, the quotations show that politics can indeed produce strange bedfellows with notorious religionists saying things that Madelyn Murray O’Hare would be happy to claim and equally prominent collectivists paying inadvertent tribute to the ideas of their intellectual nemesis, Ayn Rand.

There are rewards in the book even for the language police. For example, given the contemporary struggle to convince writers that “criteria” is plural, it is fascinating to see that some of our past world leaders had difficulty with the notion that “criterion” is singular. Even the great John Adams had a problem with noun/pronoun disagreement and either Thomas Jefferson or this book’s editor fell into the its/it’s trap.

In such a meticulously researched, indexed, and footnoted work, it is astonishing to find a few fairly obvious errors. A couple are purely typographical—aid for aide, and Glen Beck for Glenn Beck. But one is a lot more serious. At one point George W. Bush is quoted as follows without ellipses or any other indication that it is partial: “States should have the right to enact laws.” This of course sounds like a worthy contender for the “Duh! Award” right up there with Reagan’s “It’s difficult to believe that people are still starving in this country because food isn’t available.” However, in a later chapter, the same statement appears in fuller form: “States should have the right to enact laws to end the inhumane practice of ending a life that otherwise could live.” These days, ‘quoting out of context’ is a rubric frequently overused by speakers as a means of escaping the consequences of their words, but the above is the real deal.

Ronald Reagan is the clear winner in the quip sweepstakes, coming up with quotations that are as close to the Groucho Marx as they are far from the Karl one.

The impression that Barack Obama is overly fond of the first person singular pronoun is reinforced when one discovers in at least two chapters, Belief and Constitution, that his is the only quotation with references to himself in addition to the chapter’s topic.

Because of the large number of themes, repetition of some quotations is inevitable. For example, Jimmy Carter’s plea for weapons control appears no fewer than three times. Some of this could have been eliminated by reducing the number of themes. Is there, after all, a significant difference between Freedom and Liberty?

For anyone interested in savoring the full range of presidential statements as a means of acquiring a fuller understanding of this country’s past glories and contemporary challenges, this book is surely required reading. The aptly named Mr. Word should be sincerely thanked for it.

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