As published in October 2020 in So It Goes, the magazine of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library
“It’s too long.”
“There’s a lot to say.”
“Jamie, no president ever delivered an inaugural this long. A damned oration.” Even after Dan Webster’s editing, it had taken him two hours to read it aloud last night.
“You owe your election to a lot of people.” Jamie fancied himself a political guru as well as speechwriter. “They all expect to be mentioned.”
“Listen, I’m 68 years old.” He wasn’t sure he could stand up that long, let alone on an outdoor platform. “Do we need all this detail?”
“You’ve got to assure voters that you’ll keep your campaign promises.”
Defer to Congress on legislative matters. Use the veto sparingly. Re-establish the federal bank. Issue paper currency. There had been a lot of promises, not all of them his own ideas.
“And you need to remind the nation,” Jamie persisted, “that you’re still the man.”
Ah, yes. The heroic general who ended Tecumseh’s rebellion in an epic battle on the banks of an obscure Indiana river whose name became his. The ambassador who stood up to an upstart Columbian dictator named Simon Bolivar, lecturing him on free government.
“You need to tell people who voted against you that you’ll be a great President.”
Speechwriters. Washington and Adams and Jefferson never had speechwriters. Or campaign consultants. Not even Jackson. In those days, men debated the issues, straight-out, man to man. His campaign, he thought, set a new low in sloganeering. Making him “Old Tippecanoe.” Making his campaign symbols a log cabin and hard cider — even though he’d grown up on a slaveholding Virginia plantation, and gave up making whiskey at his comfortable Ohio farm because he decided it was sinful to distill stuff that had such a bad effect on people.
And poor Martin Van Buren, who inherited an economic mess from Jackson and could hardly be blamed for the Panic of 1837. They made him into a wealthy elitist, living a luxurious life at public expense in the White House. Unprecedented, ugly attacks. The campaign consultants hadn’t made him say all that stuff about a “royal lifestyle” in the “regal splendor of the Presidential palace.” Charlie Ogle did that, with that disgusting three-day “gold spoon” oration on the House floor. His proxy.
But they insisted that he himself mouth the promise to end Jackson’s spoils system — even though everyone knew that Webster and Henry Clay ached for a share that he could not deny them.
When Inauguration Day dawned cold and wet, he had renewed doubts. “Let’s move it indoors, Jamie.”
“Well, at least let me wear a sensible hat and overcoat.”
“Can’t. Wrong image. Tippecanoe, remember?”
So he resigned himself to being sworn in, delivering a long outdoor speech and parading in an open car, dressed as though it were May instead of March.
Consultants. Speechwriters. This new campaign style would be the death of him.
Author’s note: William Henry Harrison, the ninth President of the United States, died 32 days after his inauguration, of pleurisy and complications from pneumonia, which most historians attribute to his long oration in snow and freezing rain without a coat or hat. The speechwriter here is a literary invention. Historians say Harrison wrote the speech—at 8,445 words the longest in history—by himself, although it was edited by his soon-to-be secretary of state, Daniel Webster.
“Consultants” was first published in 2013 by Calliope, the magazine of the Mensa Society. It was republished in So It Goes