The news from Newtown, Connecticut is unbearably sad. But bear it we must. We have no other choice.
To guide us out of our despair we rely on teachers and pastors and, yes, politicians. “Whatever portion of sadness that we can share with you to ease this heavy load, we will gladly bear it,” President Obama said at an interfaith vigil on Sunday. “Newtown, you are not alone.”
A speechwriter’s greatest responsibility follows a great national crisis. He or she must convey the right mixture of empathy and strength, of horror and hope — never minimizing the darkness, but always pointing toward the dawn.
On September 11, 2001, I was a writer for Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge. When I walked into the office that morning, something seemed off — or rather, on. It was the television. It was never on that early in the morning. But it blared on 9-11.
As it happens, there is not much for a speechwriter to do during a crisis. I debated the wording of a news release — do we “send our thoughts and prayers,” or do our “hearts and prayers go out”? I bugged everyone in earshot about our state’s civil defense procedures.
Then word came that a fourth airplane was missing, headed over Pennsylvania airspace. We were evacuated from the State Capitol. I spent a long afternoon watching the news in my Harrisburg apartment while keeping a nervous eye on Three Mile Island, its nuclear-fueled steam clouds visible on the horizon.
The next day, I got busy writing. I did not despair. Instead, I was energized. “Okay,” I thought, “this is what we get paid for.” That attitude did not stop the tears from dripping onto my copy of the New York Post, my lunchtime reading for the week, and its gut-wrenching reports of New York’s Finest and New York’s Bravest.
America’s Finest and Bravest had guided the fourth hijacked plane into the soft ground near Shanksville, PA. That was where Gov. Ridge was going to speak on Friday, September 14, at an ecumenical prayer service on the Somerset County courthouse steps.
The Governor had done an outstanding job on Tuesday, touring the crash site and then answering questions at a news conference. “The dictionary is inadequate, and there just aren’t enough words,” he said. “The range of emotions goes from rage and anger to sorrow to horror to, I guess, a sense of nausea that we all feel.”
I opened the speech with that thought. I wanted to keep a conversational tone, fighting my tendency toward loftiness. It just wasn’t “Tom.” I included a letter to the editor by a Pennsylvania woman praising first responders, published by the New York Post. Our communications director helpfully pointed out that the Star-Spangled Banner was written on Sept. 14, 1814, the same day as the speech. That went in, too.
On Friday, I drove two hours from Harrisburg to Somerset County to hear the speech in person. Thousands of people thronged the streets surrounding the domed courthouse. Dusk turned to dark. The murmuring stopped. A bell tolled once for each of the victims. Then the Governor spoke.
“Having taken so much, the terrorists and their supporters achieved no victory,” he said.
“They did not — and will not — destroy our spirit. They rekindled it,” he said.
“What appears to be a charred, smoldering hole in the ground is really and truly a monument to heroism,” he said.
I will never forget the middle-aged woman who sat on a short wall by the sidewalk, facing me. I watched for her reaction. All through the speech, she kept a stone face. Then the Governor mentioned the Star-Spangled Banner.
When he said, “On Wednesday morning, all Americans woke up to see the American flag still there, still flying high, ‘O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave,’” she let out a loud whoop.
Was it rage? Pride? Defiance?
Whatever it was, it drove the despair away.
John K. Herr is a speechwriter and standup comedian. He has written for three Governors and four Cabinet secretaries, and served in the White House under two Presidents. His standup act has taken him to numerous states and cities, including Las Vegas for the World Series of Comedy. Herr also wrote jokes for former President George W. Bush. Follow him on Twitter: @jherricane.