In the Words of My Speechwriter . . .

By David McGrath
Thursday, September 4, 2008

The year was 1972, and an ad in Chicago Today ("Wanted: Writers. Flexible hours.") led me to an upper floor of a building on LaSalle Street. I was 21, desperate for a job and wearing the Montgomery Ward suit I'd gotten for graduation. Before long, I was shaking hands with the president of Termpapers Inc., who hired me without bothering to look at the portfolio I brought along.

That day, I accepted orders for a 15-page paper on Bantu education in Africa and a 10-pager on the Attica prison riot. I earned $2 per page for the prison paper and $3 per page for the Bantu report, since it was for a graduate course.

Six weeks and approximately 50 term papers later, I showed up at LaSalle Street to collect another assignment, only to find a notice taped to the door: "Closed by order of the U.S. Marshal."

Government lawyers had gotten a cease-and-desist order on the basis of fraud, forgery, plagiarism and subversion of the educational system. Harvard University vowed to follow up with lawsuits against term-paper mills for breaking "an implicit educational contract" between colleges and students.

Standing before that sealed door, I was in mild shock. Yes, the work had felt nefarious at first, but I had been assured by the company president that it was all aboveboard. We writers were agreeing to let someone else use our words for fair compensation. "Just like political speechwriters," was his rationale.

Today, selling term papers to students to use as their own is still illegal, but selling speeches to politicians to use as their own remains a legitimate enterprise.

How can that be?

Consider how we react to college students who buy term papers, to author Alex Haley plagiarizing in "Roots" or to Sen. Joe Biden cribbing a few lines from a British politician in 1987. All are judged to be acting improperly because they used others' words without attribution. Yet those using the words of unacknowledged speechwriters get a free pass.

What's the difference?

The fact that the writers give permission to the speakers to pretend it's their own work does not make it okay. That's exactly what happens with term-paper mills. Just ask Jacksonville State University President William Meehan, who in 2007 was publicly embarrassed and officially denounced after it was discovered that his weekly column in a local paper had routinely been ghostwritten by the college's publicist.

Nor can second-party speechwriting be justified because it isn't journalism or scholastic scholarship. Some speechwriters have likened their profession to screenwriting, penning dialogue to be spoken by others. But in the entertainment world, the audience buys seats to witness a fiction. They know the actors don't write their own material, and authors are acknowledged in screen credits or theater programs.

When was the last time you saw or heard a writer credited at the end of a speech by John McCain or Barack Obama?

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