Wednesday, September 19, 2012


On Speechwriting

Why don't politicians write their own speeches?

It's obviously completely bipartisan; it just happened to strike me when reading the Politico coverage of Romney's Tampa appearance, which has as its central claim the idea that the perfectly serviceable speech prepared by Peter Wehner was ditched a week out from the convention and was then, well, "cobbled together by Stevens and Romney himself." (The horror.) We're a far shot from Abraham Lincoln, pounding out ten perfect sentences on the train, even if Pericles did deserve a tip of the hat for that one. Coolidge is believed to be the first President to employ a professional speechwriter, but what happens behind the teleprompter mostly stays behind the teleprompter.

Even though it's common knowledge that modern politicians often just sprinkle a nice crumb topping on the work of paid speechwriters, it's still necessary to engage in weird kabuki theater on the matter. JFK's inauguration speech may have been quietly on Ted Sorenson's CV, but Sorenson's words don't really belong to him anymore, in the public consciousness. "The soft bigotry of low expectations"? That's Mike Gerson (also, very meta for the idea of politicians not being expected to write their own material). Does your heart soar for Obama, or for Jon Favreau?

The best moment in (not-so) recent memory, of course, was Danielle Crittenden nearly getting her husband, David Frum, run out of DC on a rail as a result of The Email:

Dear all,

I realize this is very "Washington" of me to mention but my husband is responsible for the "Axis of Evil" segment of Tuesday's State of the Union address. It's not often a phrase one writes gains national notice—unless you're in advertising of course ("The Pause that refreshes")—so I'll hope you'll indulge my wifely pride in seeing this one repeated in headlines everywhere!!


There's no solution here (short of locking candidates in a room with a pen and a sheet of paper and then frog-marching them to the mic). Speechwriting is a profession, like any other, and you're bound to take satisfaction where you can, possibly in watching your client sweat during off-the-cuff appearances. Sadly, unlike in movie musicals, there's no option to shove them out of the way and bravely, without backing vocals, explain how the American family can save North Korea from tyranny.

27 Comments / Post A Comment

Beatrix Kiddo

To me, the most interesting/hypocritical thing about speechwriters is that every politician has them, and yet supporters of one candidate often dismiss his or her opponent as just "reading speeches someone else wrote for him."

dj pomegranate

@Beatrix Kiddo See also: use of teleprompters.


Pretty sure it's a simple time issue. They don't exactly have the time to pull an all-nighter cobbling a speech together. Also, so many people weigh on these speeches - the speechwriter might pull it together and write it, but s/he has to clear off with various officials, bureaucrats etc., so it requires a fair bit of organizational management. When every word you say publicly matters, those words need to be chosen and vetted carefully.

Politicians are not the only ones with speechwriters though. I bet every single member of the brass has one, as do senior-level bureaucrats in international organizations etc. Who wouldn't want a well-crafted speech?

And the email was actually quite sweet.

Lily Rowan

@nyikint There's a story in the Michael Lewis Obama profile in Vanity Fair about his basically pulling an all-nighter to write the Nobel acceptance speech.

"When the president handed him this speech, Rhodes had two reactions. The first was that there is no obvious political upside to it. His second reaction: “When did he write it? That’s what I wanted to know.”"

H.E. Ladypants

@nyikint Yeah, as someone who has worked in the diplomatic field and seen the schedules of quite a few heads of state, I can tell you time is a very real issue. You would not believe the schedules and demands these people meet and have to keep. There is very little time for scratching your ass, let alone writing your own first draft.

Secondly, as somebody who has worked on a few speeches (for diplomats, not politicians) it's really an act of ghost-writing. You try to capture their speech patterns, their way of thinking. The idea is to create something as close as possible to what the person would have done had the had the time. And then things get tossed back and forth, approved and not approved, etc. Just because a politician doesn't write the speech themselves, it doesn't mean their fingerprints aren't all over it.

Finally, there is very little margin for error in these things, so outside ears can be helpful. Hell, yesterday I read some stuff that had been vetted by a ton of folks and was still caught some awkward phrasing that had made it through.


It's always interesting to me how people talk about it as if it's such a horrendously unheard-of risky-business thing when people in the political world don't employ speechwriters. "Oh my goodness, did you hear? Michelle Obama wrote her DNC speech all by herself! [SHOCKED GASPING, CLUTCHING OF PEARLS]" As if the speechwriters are a given and no one does it themselves because they weren't properly trained or something, and writing your own speech means you're going completely off the rails and being a totally unpredictable renegade.

We're weird.

Judith Slutler

@Scandyhoovian I'm guessing this is more about the time people have to take in order to write their own speeches, or something?

H.E. Ladypants

@Scandyhoovian Also, let's be kinda real here: writing a good speech is hard. Lots of people can ramble and hit their points but writing something that people want to actually listen to is very difficult. Even intelligent and well-spoken people don't necessarily know how to do this.

So for me being all, "Michelle wrote her speech all by herself!" is also kind of a "damn, look at that lady be really good at yet another thing."


Well, I think at least recently Sarah Palin is that faction's case and point.

mari d

@H.E. Ladypants

Another thing: good speeches look rather weird on paper, since they're meant to appeal to the ear and not the eye.

So a brilliant essayest or novelist might not be a great speechwriter, as they'll need to figure in timing and cadence in a way that will seem really wrong (to the eye).

H.E. Ladypants

@mari d Exactly! It's a completely different skill!

H.E. Ladypants

@mari d Also, I have had direct experience with this trying to help my friends write things. "But you just said the same thing three times in a row only kind of different." Yes, I did! It is a horror to read but nice to listen to! Rhetoric. It is fun.

Lily Rowan

Yeah, I've never been at an event where the person at the mike didn't have something prepared for them by someone else! It's just the way the world works.


So, this is related to politics and a little bit kinda maybe (okay, not really) related to speech-writing. Planned Parenthood is sponsoring an #AskMitt Twitter campaign, where all y'all Twitter-folk can tweet him questions with the #AskMitt tag. They have written some prompts (like speechwriters do! see! tying it in!); everyone should GO TO THERE immediately if not sooner.


Rob Delaney seems to be doing a great job with that. I see no need to interfere.


Guys! My old boss worked as a speechwriter for Schwarzeneggar for a while, when he was the governator of California. She said there were certain words they knew they couldn't write into the speeches, because he wouldn't know how to pronounce them. Ex. One time she is watching him give a speech she's written, and he pauses for a few beats on the word "epitome," but then he does eventually nail it. He said to her afterward, "I thought it was ep-ee-tome."


@dahlface I read that quote in Arnold's voice, and it made my morning WONDERFUL.

polka dots vs stripes

Does your heart soar for Obama, or for Jon Favreau?

It can't soar for both? Equal opportunity liberal speechwriting/speechgiving heart, here.

Regina Phalange

Obama might have my heart, but Favreau's making SOMETHING soar.


@Regina Phalange Fact- he is a babe.


@Regina Phalange Wow, until you posted that, I was totally thinking of a different Jon Favreau.

Regina Phalange

@Blushingflwr Honestly, they could both get it. Never met a Jon Favreau I didn't like, apparently.

the roughest toughest frail

@Blushingflwr I totally did, too. Here I was, giving director-Jon Favreau all kinds of unearned credit.


When I was in 5th grade, I wanted to be the President's speech writer when I grew up. Still a dream of mine. Still time!


Lincoln probably didn't write the Gettysburg Address on the train. You should read Goodwin's Team of Rivals, which does a pretty good takedown of this.


Look, if you ask any elected official to do anything for him/herself more complicated than putting on trousers you're bound to be disappointed by the results (and even then).

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