Rhetoric & Public Affairs 9.1 (2006) 132-137
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On or About June 1988
Davis W. Houck
"On or about December 1910," Virginia Woolf famously wrote, "human character changed." While my Midwestern great-grandfather would no doubt object strenuously to the idea that "character" could be so temporal and thus whimsical, the aphorism has aged well. Maybe modernism really did shake up the essentials. In June 1988 at a small conference of public address scholars meeting in Madison, Wisconsin, Martin J. Medhurst staked the future of the field to, in no small measure, a research program that featured four themes: book-length rhetorical analyses, historical revisionism, close textual analysis of individual artifacts, and reading rhetoric as a cultural force. Each of the four would be nourished and sustained by an unflinching commitment to primary and archival source materials. The archive was nonnegotiable: to make a "difference," public address scholars would need to find temporary residence there.1 Human character didn't change in Madison. But public address scholarship did. Definitely for the better—but not without consequence.
I was minding my own business in the rapidly filling auditorium. After yet another exhausting day of conferencing at Texas A&M University's annual presidential rhetoric conference, most of us were looking forward to a bit of "politics light." After 11 hours of being hostage at the Bush Conference Center, conferees were either caffeinated to the point of being able to carry both Juan Valdez and his burro, or—like me—so maxed out on academic prose that they'd sell most of their academic credentials for a burro ride back to the hotel. The featured speakers this evening were none other than Maitlin and Carville—and they'd be introduced by the nation's 41st president. This was academic entertainment Texas-style: big, audacious, and loud.
I'd zoned out. And then the tap came. Now David Zarefsky is no ordinary tapper. When he taps, you turn your whole body around, and swiftly. But with Rick Rigsby hard on my right, I only got halfway turned around when Professor Zarefsky addressed me: "I just finished Rhetoric as Currency, Davis," he stated. I was flattered—and then a somewhat awkward pause. "I really enjoyed it, but I had a question about your archival work at Hyde Park." This [End Page 132] was it, I feared. The Dean of Public Address was about ready to carve up—with unfailing politeness—the whole project. I braced for the worst. "What happened up there? I've never read an acknowledgment page quite like yours."
I breathed a bit easier. Professor Zarefsky was referring to my rather terse remarks about the staff of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library in upstate New York. "The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library proved helpful, largely in spite of its staff."2
I'll admit it wasn't very polite; it certainly lacked the Zarefsky-Benson élan that I so admire. But I wanted, above all else, to be honest with my readers: the archivists at Hyde Park hadn't been very helpful or friendly to me or my dissertation project. Whereas on my second day at the Hoover Presidential Library, the main archivist invited me over to his West Branch, Iowa, house for pizza and beer, on my fourth day at the FDR Library, I was being scolded for not sharpening my pencil properly. Another unfortunate soul in the research room with me got verbally flayed for removing paper clips a bit too zealously.
But beyond infantilizing me, I was getting a first-hand look at the Roosevelt history-writing machine. When I requested to see drafts of the first inaugural address, I got the ten-page handwritten version—FDR's handwriting, that is. Since at least 1966, we've known that Raymond Moley drafted the bulk of the address and burned his originals so that FDR might be given credit for writing the speech.3. Why continue the fiction nearly 40 years later? Why not advise the researcher of the Moley drafts and their location? Does the most important president of the...