Sun, Jun 13, 2004 - Page 9 News List

The happy warrior is no slam dunk for US election victory

By WILLIAM SAFIRE  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

"My candidate is a dour man," the columnist Richard Cohen wrote in The Washington Post in April about his choice for president, Sen. John Kerry. "He seems as if he is no fun. No one would call Kerry, as FDR did Al Smith, `the happy warrior' or discern some impishness in him. [President George W.] Bush has that quality and so, of course, did Bill Clinton."

On the same day, Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd used that memorable phrase in scorn, as he recalled a moment that has been used effectively against a prematurely exuberant Bush after the invasion of Baghdad: "Bush typified the happy warrior when he strutted across the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln a year ago."

These days, we don't see too many political warriors imbued with what former vice president Hubert Humphrey liked to call "the politics of joy." During the recent Democratic primary season, Dugald McConnell of MSNBC said of Sen. John Edwards: "He has been a good-natured campaigner for the long haul. He's definitely a happy warrior."

Now the title of a column by Mark Steyn in The National Review, the phrase was made famous in an 1807 poem by William Wordsworth, beginning: "Who is the happy Warrior? Who is he / That every man in arms should wish to be?"

He is one "Whose high endeavors are an inward light / That makes the path before him always bright /... But who, if he be called upon to face / Some awful moment to which Heaven has joined / Great issues, good or bad for human kind, / Is happy as a Lover."

Wordsworth concludes on a note of sadness mixed with hope for ultimate redemption -- that if the warrior "must fall, to sleep without his fame, / And leave a dead unprofitable name," he nevertheless "Finds comfort in himself and in his cause; / And, while the mortal mist is gathering, draws / His breath in confidence of Heaven's applause: / This is the happy Warrior; this is He / That every Man in arms should wish to be."

The phrase was made part of the political lexicon, as Cohen noted, by former president Franklin Roosevelt about Al Smith. Thanks to Vic Gold, a journalist whose wife, Dale, is the grandniece of Joseph Proskauer, I have what may be the full story -- verified by Robert Caro in Power Broker -- of the birth of the political usage of Wordsworth's phrase.

Proskauer was Smith's campaign manager. He also claimed to be the writer of the speech that Roosevelt gave at the Democratic National Convention of 1924, putting the name of Gov. Al Smith of New York in nomination for president.

According to Proskauer, Roosevelt, who would soon succeed Smith as governor, turned down the draft, saying, "You can't give poetry to a political convention," and came up with a draft speech of his own -- without the happy warrior. To resolve the dispute, Proskauer brought a mutual friend, the editor and publicist Herbert Bayard Swope, to Roosevelt's apartment without telling him which draft was whose.

Swope pronounced Roosevelt's draft "rotten" and hailed Proskauer's draft as "the greatest speech since Bragg nominated Cleveland." (Gen. Edward Bragg seconded the nomination of the controversial Grover Cleveland in 1884 with "They love him for the enemies he has made!")

After Roosevelt continued to resist, Proskauer, with his authority of campaign manager, told him around midnight: "Frank, we're all exhausted .... You'll either make that speech or none at all." Roosevelt, grumbling that it would be "a flop," agreed. But with his para-lyzed legs in locked braces, he made his way to the convention lectern and delivered what history remembers as "the Happy Warrior speech."

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