Photo by J. Adam Fenster / University of Rochester
Signed copy of John F. Kennedy's inaugural speech requested by D.W. Carmichael of CBS News is on display as part of a new exhibit on presidential speeches at the University of Rochester Department of Rare Books and Special Collections.
THE PRESIDENT'S VOICE
Caledonia native Curt Smith curates exhibit on presidential speechwriting
ROCHESTER — President Barack Obama made a plea for unity Monday in his second inaugural address.
The 44th president — sharing the day with the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday — called on a politically divided nation to act with “passion and dedication” to improve such things as equal rights and prosperity at home, while nurturing democracy abroad.
The historical legacy of his speech is yet to be written, but a new exhibition at the University of Rochester offers a look back at the history of presidential speechwriting.
The exhibit, “A Presidential Voice,” is co-curated by Caledonia native Curt Smith — himself a prominent presidential speechwriter — and features more than 50 selections from public and private collections, including presidential libraries and the University’s collections. The exhibit features a copy of Abraham Lincoln’s first address and a signed copy of John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address where he said, “Ask not what you country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
The exhibit is a “bi-partian rendering of presidential speechwriting,” said Smith, a senior lecturer in English at UR. He co-curated the exhibit with Lori Birrell, manuscript librarian in the University’s Department of Rare Books and Special Collections.
Smith contributed many items from his personal collection for the display.
“We want people to be able to relive the presidency through speeches that were written, then given,” he said.
Between 1989 and 1993, Smith wrote more speeches than anyone else for President George H.W. Bush, including the 41st president’s “Just War” Persian Gulf address on Jan. 28, 1991, in which the president explained to the world the moral reasons for going to war with Iraq, the Medal of Freedom for Margaret Thatcher address, and the 50th anniversary speech on the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Smith also wrote Bush’s moving 2004 eulogy to Ronald Reagan at Washington’s National Cathedral.
The exhibit features letters, speeches, photographs, and correspondence of presidents including John Quincy Adams, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Theodore Roosevelt, and Bill Clinton.
The material references Warren G. Harding’s hiring of the first White House speechwriter in 1921. Later memorabilia show how the birth of radio changed the delivery of speeches.
According to Smith, the exhibit is intended to “shed a light on the writing process, methodologies used, and the importance of delivery.”
The exhibit is on view through March 8 in the Rare Books and Special Collections Department on the second floor of Rush Rhees Library. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays. For more information, call (585) 275-4477.
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