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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.


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