by Laurence Luckinbill
(Excerpt: p. 1 - 4)
July, 1918. A public hall in New York.
The platform, set for a political speech, is draped with red, white and blue bunting. A large American flag is pinned to the drapes, at center and rear, as a backdrop. A podium stands center, in a spotlight. Below it, onstage right, is a rectangular wooden table with a rolling, wooden swivel armchair. On the floor is an oriental carpet. To the left of the podium downstage, is a spindle-backed bench. On it, casually placed, is a brown cloth “Teddy Bear” and situated left and right on the platform are a couple of tall, indoor potted palms as decorations.
As the audience settles, suddenly “The Star-Spangled Banner” blares out, in a tinny, recorded symphonic version. It plays through to what would be the end of the verse line, “were so gallantly streaming...,” then abruptly stops. After a second or two of silence, the doors at the back of the house open as former President Theodore Roosevelt enters speaking at full volume. At 60, he is no longer the vigorous fellow of boundless energy he once was. Now, he is somber, with a set, grave look. But he moves into the room purposefully, supported by a thick walking stick.
What’s happened to The Star Spangled Banner? It’s gone. Vanished. The gramophone broke. Now, you know I’m certainly in favor of all mechanical progress, but don’t you think it would have been better to have that beautiful anthem played by an old-fashioned brass band, with real, live musicians, rather than by an overwound, aged gramophone with a weak spring, which has obviously just snapped? In today’s circumstances of national unpreparedness, perhaps that’s symbolic. Or perhaps not. Maybe it just got the gout, like me. Full of the rheumatism. Old, in other words, and finally acting its age, like me. Bully! I’ve always said I’d rather wear out, than rust out.
Turns to someone in audience.
Wouldn’t you? Rather wear out than rust out? Yes? Well, dear old friends, it looks to me as if quite a few of you are just about there. Is it rust? Or wear? Bully!
A pause. It seems as if he is struggling for his next breath.
Good evening, all of you. Thank you for coming out to hear me give Mr. Wilson an earful. Which I certainly intend to. If I can get to the podium all right.
He arrives at the front of the platform.
I like The Star Spangled Banner a great deal. But unlike Mr. President Woodrow Wilson, I hold that anyone who stands up with a full heart when that tune is played, because of what it means, is entitled to a say in his government. But the sweetest music I know is the bird song at Sagamore Hill. In the quiet of the morning in Long Island. Or it was quiet until the arrival of the motor car and the aeroplane which have scared all the birds off the hills and into the salt marshes, where many of them cannot live. They must stay in the air too long, fly too much without rest, perfect prey for the red hawks that wait....
He turns away abruptly.
Godfrey! “Tis not so wide as a church door, nor so deep as a well, but ‘twill serve, ‘twill serve!”
To someone nearby...
That’s Shakespeare. But you knew that.
He moves to the stairs, pauses.
I can do this.
He lifts his cane.
You see, I still have the Big Stick. Although I can no longer walk quite so softly as before. But, even if I am deaf on the one side, blind on the other and walk like a lunatic duck, as a result I can do this.
He goes slowly up the steps to the stage.
There. You see? Bully.
He places his journal and hat on the table. Takes a telegram from his pocket.
I know that many of you who read this morning’s news papers are concerned, so I will read you this telegram which was brought me at Sagamore Hill yesterday by Mr. Phil Thompson, a friend of mine who’s a reporter with The New York Sun. He received this message from his overseas bureau: “Watch Sagamore Hill for...blank...” It was censored. Phil came up to the house from town and said, “What’s it mean?”
Many of you know that my son, Quentin, our youngest, was recently commissioned as a first lieutenant in the 95th American Aero Squadron. Two weeks ago, he downed his first German plane in an aerial fight. We got a letter from him! A rare occasion, as those of you with twenty year olds away from home for the first time, will appreciate. Now, yesterday, at Chambray, France, Quentin was apparently separated from his flight...set upon by six or seven of the planes of the Hun, and shot down.
But his cousin, Eleanor, my brother Elliott’s daughter, sent word to his mother and me from Paris, that one of Quentin’s air mates thought he had been able to bring his plane to earth intact, and had been captured by the Germans. Neither report could be confirmed immediately. So his mother and I just had to wait.
He puts the telegram away.
My sister Corinne telephoned and suggested that under the circumstances, I cancel coming here to speak today. But I said, to the contrary, that under the circumstances, it was my simple duty.
He moves toward the podium. Takes speech from inside inner pocket.
So, let me speak, as I have come here to do, on the subject of this war and the conduct of the presidency.
He steps up to podium and into the spotlight. It’s transforming. As if he is caught mid-sentence in full “Teddy” oratorical mode.
The prime purpose of the American people at this time, is to win this war, to win it as speedily as possible, and to end it by the peace of overwhelming victory, a peace which shall guarantee to us, to our allies, and to all the well-behaved nations of the civilized world, lasting relief from the threat and horror of German world domination.
Of course, my speaking this way will make you think I’m a truculent, bloodthirsty person who is trying to thwart the able, dignified, humane Mr. Wilson in his noble plan to bring peace to the planet by sending excellently written letters to persons who care nothing for any letter that is not backed up by force.
And how many did he write to the Germans? After number 11,785, Series B, I fear I lost track. A letter when the Kaiser attacked Belgium. A letter when the Lusitania went down killing 1200 souls, asking merely for an apology and a pledge to be good in future. A letter when Germany told us that we would be allowed to send a single American ship each week to Europe on a specified track, provided it carried only what Germany let it, and if it was painted with red and white stripes.
My friends, we’re sailing though a thick stripe of yellow at present in our national life. A letter when the Huns sicked Mexico on us, if we dared to declare war on Germany. And after Mr. Wilson’s eloquent letter in elegant English politely suggested to the Kaiser that if they kept on murdering, America might be forced into “armed neutrality,” finally the terrified Huns responded.
How? By submarine torpedoing three more of our ships, killing almost every one in them. Cowardly, unscrupulous, coldblooded, hypocritical. And that’s the President. A President who proclaims that Americans are “Too proud to fight.” Are you too proud to fight?
My friends, this is not a rosewater parlor, pink tea crisis. This President is a cold-hearted fellow without convictions, who has never faced danger, either physically or morally, and who “kept us out of war” to keep in office, when we should have been in it. And it is our fault for putting a cynical, lying schoolmaster with an unlimited belief in the power of bits of paper with names scratched upon them, in charge of our country, and now our country and our children are faced with a desperate battle for civilization itself. Now, because of Wilson’s woeful policy of “Broomstick Preparedness,” which is nothing short of murderous Unpreparedness, our children have had to play catch-up in a very dangerous game. We should have put a couple of million men in the field a year ago. If we had, Russia would not have broken, and the war would be over by now. It’s heart-sickening! Nine-tenths of wisdom is being wise in time.
But now, if we leave Germany with a stranglehold on Russia, Austria, Bulgaria and Turkey, it will mean she has won the war. No. Belgium must be reinstated and reimbursed. France must have back Alsace and Lorraine, Armenia must be freed and the genocide stopped, Syrian Christians must be protected, and the Jews must be given Palestine.
He breaks off, struggling for breath. Leaves podium. Goes to chair down right.
Moreover, we must raise against Germany the sleeping sword of the Slavs, the Poles, the Czechs, the Yugoslavs. We must save all these submerged peoples. Unless we do this, we shall have failed, and our announcement about “making the world safe for democracy” will be but an empty boast....!
Sits in chair, struggling for breath.
Oh, Lord, it is bitter not to be with my boys still fighting at the front.