I spent some time last night looking closely at the White House photograph of a draft page of President Barack Obama’s September 9, 2009 remarks to a joint session of Congress. The subject was health care.
From the first paragraph, original, re: Ted Kennedy:
But those who knew him and worked with him here — people of both parties — know the truth. It was the experience of having two children stricken with cancer; the sheer terror and helplessness that any parent feels when a child is sick; and his ability to imagine what it must be like for those without insurance . . . .From the first paragraph, revised:
But those of us who knew Teddy and worked with him here — people of both parties — know the truth was more complicated than that. It was the experience of having two children stricken with cancer. He never forgot the sheer terror and helplessness that any parent feels when a child is sick; and he was able to imagine what it must be like for those without insurance . . . .The first sentence now includes its speaker — “of us” — and is made more intimate — “Teddy.” The thinking becomes more complex: the truth is not a simple or single thing. The sentences that follow make their subject tireless and empathetic: “he never forgot”; “he was able to imagine.” Behold the power of verbs.
From the second paragraph, original:
That large-heartedness — that compassion — is not a partisan feeling.From the second paragraph, revised:
That large-heartedness — that concern and regard for the plight of others — is not a partisan feeling.I’m tempted to prefer the concision of “compassion,” but it makes sense that something large should follow “large-heartedness.” And what sounds greater to your ears? Compassion, or concern and regard for the plight of others? The revision also creates an attractive series of anapests (xx/): that conCERN, and reGARD, for the PLIGHT.
If you look at the photograph, you might be surprised by what happens as this paragraph continues: the sentences about Stanley Ann Dunham’s cancer and Sasha Obama’s meningitis are crossed out, as are lengthy handwritten additions to those sentences. Removing those brief accounts makes for a stronger tie between the statement about non-partisan feeling and the sentences that now follow.
Third paragraph, original:
For that too is part of the character of this country — our ability to stand in other people’s shoes; a recognition that we are all in this together; that when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand and that hard work and responsibility to family and community and country should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play that sometimes only a government can ensure.Third paragraph, revised:
For that too is part of the American character. Our ability to stand in other people’s shoes. A recognition that we are all in this together; that when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand. A belief that in this country hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play — and an acknowledgment that sometimes government has to step in to help deliver on that promise.In the first sentence, the point that large-heartedness is neither Democratic nor Republican is sharper — large-heartedness is now American. And the sentence now ends with its most important noun, “character.” It’s probably only coincidence that the sentence now recalls the title of D.W. Brogan’s The American Character (1944).
The remainder of this paragraph, pre-revision, already sounds like Obama in its parallelism. But it’s a mighty long sentence to trek through. The revision breaks the sentence into more graspable (and thus more moving) elements. The parallelism becomes rousing, built not merely from “that” but from a series of nouns: “a recognition that,” “a belief that,” “an acknowledgement that.” Notice “in this country”: this is the way we do things. Notice too the urgency added to the final sentence, twice revised: an acknowledgment not that government “can help deliver on that promise” but that “sometimes government has to step in” to do so.
This draft page shows what anyone who writes and works at it comes to figure out, again and again: that everything is subject to revision, and that some things must be cut for the sake of the whole. I can imagine the President realizing at some point that the account of his family’s medical woes would not serve his purpose — that “it,” as they say, was not about him.
The speech as delivered differs of course from this revised draft:
Remarks by the President to a Joint Session of Congress
on Health Care (whitehouse.gov)
[Update, March 30, 2010: I missed the added “in this country,” third paragraph, and have revised accordingly.]