Monday, October 05, 2009

Author, author

The death of William Safire prompted a friend -- Cheryl Solimini -- to write on Facebook about her graduation speaker at Syracuse University, William Safire. Mr. Safire was a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, a speechwriter for President Nixon (oops) and an expert on language. His best advice -- avoid cliches like the plague. Peggy Noonan had a nice tribute to him and his type the other day.

I remember that speech by Safire well. It might have been the best speech I ever heard from, oh, a quarter of a mile away.

Safire was the speaker in 1978, the year after I graduated from college. He had enrolled at the school in 1951, dropped out after two years, and came back for his degree 25 years later. After that introduction, he started out this way:

"My subject today is 'The Decline of the Written Word.' If the speech I have written is disjointed and confusing, you will get my point the hard way."

Safire went on to say that he had four points to make on the subject. He cleverly said he had forgotten the fourth point, but could simply go back to his text and make it three points -- the advantages of editing the printed work are many. Then he artfully came back to a so-called fourth point.

I saved a copy of the speech from the Syracuse Post-Standard for quite a while. The problem was that I didn't get to hear it in person. There were no extra tickets for graduation back then, so I watched the ceremony and speech live on television from the luxury of Tim Wendel's living room just up the hill. Safire got a well-deserved standing ovation for his work, which he said touched him deeply.

Someone apparently convinced Safire to include that speech in his own collection of great speeches, "Lend Me Your Ears." Good move. You can read parts of it on line by clicking here. It's even more timely now in the light of e-mail and texting and Twitter.

While I also felt like applauding Safire's eloquence, I also felt more than a little jealousy that day. Where, I thought, was that level of inspiration the year before?

When I graduated in 1977, our speaker was supposed to be Kurt Waldheim, the Secretary-General of the United Nations. But there was some important matter around that time that demanded Waldheim's attention, some border dispute in Africa between two countries I hadn't heard of. So the Syracuse chancellor made a couple of calls and convinced John Sawhill to catch a plane in. Sawhill was the nation's energy czar at the time, which meant as much to me now as it did then.

Sawhill started his speech with the usual thank-yous. Then he said something like, "I believe this class is entering a great turning point in our society. I know others have said that before, but here is why I believe it to be true now ..." And with that, a couple of thousand graduates promptly stopped paying attention. I looked over at my co-worker at the school newspaper, Debbie Hormell, and she was furiously playing dots during the speech. Hope she won.

For a year, I felt cheated that I didn't have a meaningful graduation speech. Then along came Safire's speech, and I claimed it unofficially. For that, and for a career filled with love of words and of his craft, we all thank him.

1 comment:

Deborah Hormell Ward said...

Budd, thanks to your lovely post, I will now claim Safire's speech as my graduation launch as well. Kudos to you for identifying our commencement speaker -- all I recall was that he was, uh unmemorable. Now we've been redeemed.
And sure, I'll say I won at Dots. Can't remember that either!