By Matt Latimer
Sunday, September 6, 2009
I've made a decent living as a speechwriter over the past decade and even realized my dream of becoming one of the few to have crafted the words of an American president. Deserved or not, my name can at least be placed in the same sentence with those notable presidential scribes whose talents have enlivened our national story: Sorensen, Safire, Shrum, Dolan, Noonan.
So it might not be in my interest to say this, but here goes: The time has come to eliminate my job, Mr. President. Fire the speechwriters; it might be the only way to save the presidency.
The age of the Internet and cable news has opened the world to an onslaught of ideas, opinions and information. It also is stripping away the grandeur -- and power -- of the highest office in the land. Commanders in chief have become daily, even hourly, television performers, expected to be out yakking in public on everything that happens, from the death of Michael Jackson to the latest NASCAR champion to "An Evening of Country Music."
Speechwriters have become enablers, manning an assembly line of recycled bullet points so presidents can serve as the nation's pep-talk-givers, instant reactors, TV friends. The constant access to television coverage can tempt any presidential ego, but it's a terrible trap. Even President Obama's pal Oprah knows when to go on hiatus from her show and give her viewers a break.
There was a time when a president's words could instantly move millions. Think of Kennedy's call to land on the moon or Reagan's challenge to the Soviets to dismantle the Berlin Wall. Now we hear presidents so often, they are almost irrelevant. When I worked at the White House last year, I recall one commentator criticizing a speech President George W. Bush delivered (and I had written) about the economy, suggesting that the president just go away for a while. And that was one of the kinder reviews.
Yet Bush's advisers, particularly Karl Rove, exerted enormous pressure on him to go out every day to talk about anything -- even if no one was listening. Each year, for example, we were asked to produce three entirely separate statements to commemorate St. Patrick's Day. And we crafted remarks for so many Hispanic-themed ceremonies that the president finally stood up in the Oval Office and told his speechwriters, "No más."
The Hispanic-themed comments were an outgrowth of the administration's all-out push for comprehensive immigration reform. As the president's proposal became more controversial, Rove -- on one of his over-caffeinated days -- persuaded Bush to give speech after speech, each time hoping that somehow they'd find the magic words to turn things around. Bush, who when given a moment to collect his thoughts could be a persuasive speaker, was talking so often that his words on the subject lost their presidential heft. Critics noted that his message seemed muddied and his arguments contradictory or confusing.
On Afghanistan and Iraq, Bush was sent out to speak so frequently that he sometimes ran out of words. I was with him in Las Vegas in early 2008 when he offered a not-exactly-startling assessment about the effort in Afghanistan: "It's hard work. It's not easy. It doesn't happen overnight." For Democrats who think this could never happen to their guy, here's what Obama said recently at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention: "The insurgency in Afghanistan didn't just happen overnight. . . . This will not be quick, nor easy."
In Obama's umpteenth statement on the economy last month, he reached for the granddaddy of all cliches: "We can see a light at the end of the tunnel." (Perhaps he was doing a belated tribute to Robert McNamara.) Another time, Obama made this boomerang of a boast about the economy: "Today we're pointing in the right direction. We're losing jobs at less than half the rate we were when I took office."
On the biggest issue of his presidency yet -- health-care reform -- Obama is following his predecessor's example. He keeps arguing and re-explaining while his poll numbers drop. On Wednesday he'll offer another big health-care speech -- one he'd be better off canceling -- supposedly full of new details. Don't worry if you miss it. There will be another. And another. Obama has even reverted to his peculiar tendency to refer to the places he visits as if they are people -- "Inaction is no longer an option, Chicago" or "Thank you, Montana." Like a rock band on tour, he's singing the same tune so often that he has to remind himself where he is.
Obama is smarter than this. On the campaign trail, his speeches, in clear, coherent English, contrasted with the dreary Washingtonspeak of Hillary Clinton, who sounded as if everything she said had first been focus-grouped with 40-somethings in Youngstown, Ohio. Even some of us in the Bush White House studied Obama's speeches and marveled at their grace.
As a conservative, it might be in my interest to urge the president to hire even more writers so he can keep droning on -- and turn "yes, we can" to "yes, I ramble." But as an American, I'd prefer to protect the presidential voice. If we don't keep it elevated above the idle chatter of the moment, we may see a future FDR or Reagan delivering an Oval Office address commemorating the fifth marriage of Britney Spears.
I realize that eliminating the speechwriting office is a radical measure. It would be a shock to the system, forcing the president to give more care to the remarks he delivers, if only because he has to write them himself. No doubt the pressures on the president to perform for the 24/7 media world will grow regardless. The only way to calm such a monster is to not overfeed it.
So when Obama returns from Camp David after spending this Labor Day weekend with his family, he should consider sending his speechwriters on a vacation of their own. A long one.
Matt Latimer served as deputy director of speechwriting for President George W. Bush and senior speechwriter for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. He is the author of "Speech-Less: Tales of a White House Survivor," forthcoming this month.