Place and Power

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Listen to “Place and Power” by Fred Smith


If you want well-written insight into the work of speechwriters and their behind-the-scenes influence, I would suggest Barton Swaim’s book, “The Speechwriter.” Its soul-searching honesty about the conflicts, challenges and moments of both praise and despair are good reading.

Some of our finest pundits, commentators, and authors have served as speechwriters. I am thinking of Michael Gerson (for George W. Bush), Peggy Noonan (for Ronald Reagan), and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (for John F. Kennedy). Standing somewhere between press secretaries, diarists and fiction writers, they all wrestled with finding words for individuals who were often not, with some exceptions, gifted with language. For all of them, the task was to keep themselves hidden while making Presidents men of ideas and stature. Men of history.

But, I am also thinking about another speechwriter who was a priest, poet, and a country parson. Only this week have many people learned for the first time that President George H. W. Bush was named for his grandfather who was named after the English poet, George Herbert. Born into a wealthy English family, Herbert took his degrees at Cambridge University graduating with distinction. He became what was then called a “Public Orator” or official spokesperson for Cambridge for eight years. The duties of writing official letters, delivering speeches in praise of visiting dignitaries and crafting the language and ideas of influential people were not only fitting but infectious. With access to powerful political contacts, including Sir Francis Bacon and King James 1, Herbert found court life attractive and seductive. King James often referred to him as the “jewel of the university” for his eloquence and ability to express in Latin the thoughts of the university on public matters.

And that is why so many of his friends and supporters were surprised when instead of a predictable advancement to higher office Herbert chose ordination and the unremarkable life of a parish priest. Some wrote it off as his losing (through their deaths or banishment) his chief allies and advocates. Others said he had peaked early on and did not have the talent to rise. Still, others were convinced he found an easy position as a priest with few responsibilities and a guaranteed income.

They were all wrong. Herbert had wrestled practically his whole life between his ambition to rise and be a significant voice in the court of the King and his mistrust of those same ambitions. In his poem “Submission” he writes of his struggle not only with gradually going blind but with justifying his attraction to position and place. Why would he not use such obvious gifts for a greater good than that of a parish priest?

Were it not better to bestow

Some place and power on me?

Then should thy praises with me grow,

And share in my degree.

How know I, if thou shouldst me raise,

That I should then raise thee?

Perhaps great places and thy praise

Do not so well agree.

Wherefore unto my gift I stand;

I will no more advise:

Onely do thou lend me a hand,

Since thou hast both mine eyes.

Herbert’s resolve reminded me of Jack Heaslip, the long-time friend and “traveling pastor” for the band U2 who passed away in 2015. U2 called him their “North Star.”

“During shows he would often stand with his back to the stage, praying for the people in the crowd and, literally, everything that was going on,” said Mark Rodgers, president of Wedgwood Circle. “He didn’t care that no one saw him doing it…This was part of his ministry, for the band and for everyone there.” Yet he was practically invisible to the public.

A friend, Mary McCleary, shared the last paragraph of George Eliot’s novel “Middlemarch” with me, and I think it tips the balance in the direction of being deeply satisfied in the best possible way:

“…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

The fear of being invisible and unimportant can either grow or subside with age. For some, they feel their chance to “be somebody” is fading, and for others they find themselves resting in the knowledge that their contributions may be hidden but not in vain. Having had my 72nd birthday this year, I experienced both. But, I hope I have settled on the latter. It’s enough to rest in those unhistoric acts in the gift of a hidden and faithful life.

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Showing 4 comments
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    Mark Woloshin

    Love it…..

  • Avatar
    Clare Frist

    Thank you once again, Fred. Wonderful blog!

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith

      Thank you, Clare. It’s a beautiful poem, isn’t it?

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