Where better to hear a speech on The Power of Words than at a library? That was Tom Griscom’s topic at the annual meeting of Chattanooga’s public library board of directors. I couldn’t resist joining them atop four floors of books, DVDs, and periodicals. Griscom had revitalized my passion for writing almost a decade ago. As editor and publisher of The Chattanooga Times Free Press, he created a cadre of community correspondents who reported weekly on events in their neck of the woods. I hemmed and hawed when first contacted, but the young reporter got me when she said, “C’mon. You know you want to.” Yes, I did, for years, and never regretted it.
The brilliant idea of drafting community reporters came from a publisher with massive political credentials. Combining the power of words with the power of grass roots advocacy was no doubt a natural strategy for Griscom. While I disagreed with many of the positions he took in the political and corporate arenas, I was all admiration for his expertise. He’d progressed from political reporter at the newspaper to press secretary for US Senator Howard Baker, becoming the senior staff person when Baker became chief of staff. Griscom became director of communications for President Ronald Reagan and a key figure in the White House.
What was Griscom’s response to the recounting of this impressive background in the introduction? First, he lowered the microphone, being almost two feet shorter than his introducer. Then he began as any true Southerner would, by telling stories, beginning with a tongue-in-cheek tale about his short stature. When Senator Baker called with a job offer, he drove to Alabama to meet in person. “Why me?” Griscom asked, as his wife had requested. Baker, who is also short, stood facing Griscom and said, “Young man, you’re the first reporter I can see eye-to-eye.”
Embedded in the stories of his foot-dragging move to D.C. and the off-putting snow, were numerous words of wisdom. Despite today’s instantaneous communication, Griscom reminded us that we use technology, but choose our words. Technology has magnified and preserved our words since the Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440. Yet, the power came from journalists and authors whose words created visuals that made history, shaped popular culture, and never went away: “The British are coming!” said Paul Revere, “Ask not what your country can do for you…” said JFK, and Neil Armstrong’s classic phrase, “This is one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Words also shape politics and Griscom is known for his part in President Reagan’s famous phrase, “Mr. Gorbachev, Tear down that wall!” Although controversial within the Reagan administration, Griscom pressed for the phrase’s inclusion. Secretary of State George Shultz objected saying that it wasn’t presidential and would undo all his efforts to build bridges between the world leaders. Despite objections, the phrase was used by Reagan, along with the visual of the Brandenburg Gate that separated East and West Germany. Griscom reports that the response was, “Full silence at first, then full applause. The impact was from the heart.”
Griscom was prepared to live with the consequences, and so should we. “Take the risk,” he advised us. “Pick up a banned book and read the good parts.” Whether we choose To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, or 1984 by George Orwell, we will be inspired to do more, to aim higher, and, for many, to write. Explore what the public library offers and encourage others to do the same. The library symbolizes the freedom to choose what we want to read. Griscom concluded in that publisher’s voice that I recall so well, “Open access to information for all!”