Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Barack and Me

Last night on one of the cable news channels, I heard some commentators discussing whether Barack Obama had plagiarized a speech from Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick. The speech was about the importance of words--and I was struck by how similar parts of the speech were to the new tour I've been working on at the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site in Buffalo, NY. The site is the house where Roosevelt was sworn in on September 14, 1901, after the assassination of William McKinley. After the somewhat improvised swearing in--and then a brisk walk--Roosevelt returns to a room being used as a temporary office for him and sits down at a desk to write his first message to the nation. On the tour, we bring visitors in, and talk about how we look towards presidents to do many things--to help us understand things, to mourn, to look towards the future--and mention both "four score and seven years ago," and "today is a day that will live in infamy. We ask visitors what Presidential words they remember--in our prototyping, people mentioned JFK's "ask not what you can do for your country," but also "our long national nightmare is over," and Reagan's speech about the Challenger astronauts. So the idea that words matter--particularly to presidents--isn't an idea exclusive to Obama, or Deval Patrick. It just is...words do matter.

What happens next on the tour? Visitors were asked to just jot down some notes about what they would say if they became president. What happened? In each prototype tour, a serious discussion about the fundamental things that we care about as Americans--and that we wish for in the future. We then share a copy of TR's draft of his proclamation--although by the time of its writing, he had published numerous books, he struggled just like the rest of us. The draft is in fits and starts, with cross-outs and start-overs. Words do matter.

And hey, why doesn't anyone accuse him of plagiarizing from me! I wrote this draft tour weeks before the speech.

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