The tumult over Melania Trump’s speech this past week at the Republican National Convention — a search for a plagiarist that turned up an in-house writer for the Trump Organization — was an anomaly: Speechwriters are rarely figures of public note. If we have a creed, it is to cultivate “a passion for anonymity,” as the Brownlow Committee implored presidential staff in 1937. Most manage that pretty well, keeping out of the spotlight so it stays trained on the boss. The job is more often than not a quiet grind. Americans are predisposed to distrust the words that leave the lips of politicians, and the opacity of the speechwriting process can heighten those suspicions. Here are five misconceptions about our role.
Richard Nixon — who was out-orated and ultimately defeated by John F. Kennedy in 1960 — dismissed JFK as a “puppet who echoed his speechmaker,” the great Ted Sorensen. The charge didn’t stick; Kennedy’s natural eloquence and wit were apparent in every ad-lib. A less adroit speaker is open to the accusation, as Marco Rubio found during a disastrous debate performance in February, when his robotic adherence to talking points smacked of pre-programming. Jeb Bush called Rubio “totally scripted,” which raised the question: Scripted by whom? Minders, pollsters and writers (oh, my).
“Are some public officials simply mouthpieces?” wonders Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who teaches political communications at the University of Pennsylvania. It’s not unreasonable to assume that if someone isn’t writing for himself, he’s not thinking for himself. Jamieson laments this “divorce between speech and thought” — and the extent to which politicians rely on ideas that “originated in someone else’s mind.”
Yes, something consequential was lost when political leaders abandoned the practice of working out their thoughts on paper, as Abraham Lincoln did. Writing, for him, was how he clarified his beliefs and determined a course of action. The maniacal repetition of party-line talking points is a poor substitute for cognition. Still, it’s wrong to assume that today’s politicians are mere puppets or parrots. Speechwriting, for the most part, is intensely collaborative: Writers and speakers trade outlines and drafts, reconsider the flow or the focus of an argument, refine (and sometimes ruin) a good line.
And woe be to the speechwriter who strays too far from the intentions of his principal — as I learned in 2000 after I removed, from an important speech, a passage that President Bill Clinton had written. “Put it back the way I had it,” he told me sharply. And then he uttered a word that was definitely unscripted.
When speechwriters aren’t portrayed as puppet-masters, they’re seen as note-takers — transcribers — who record and then polish what the speaker provides. At a White House party on the evening of the 1997 State of the Union address, Clinton threw his arm around Michael Waldman, his chief speechwriter, and introduced him to a guest as one of “the guys who typed my speech.” The verb was not incidental. Many politicians have ambivalent relationships with their speechwriters — relying on them while resenting that fact. “I used to write my own speeches, you know,” Ronald Reagan once reminded Peggy Noonan.
Even some speechwriters see themselves this way — either out of an excess of self-effacement or a misunderstanding of their role. “In the end, it’s not my speech,” many writers say, and that’s manifestly true; it’s got to express the speaker’s vision in the speaker’s voice. But most speakers don’t want their own words fed back to them untouched, unconsidered. If what they’re looking for is someone to take dictation, there’s software for that now, and it never needs its ego stroked or leaks anything to reporters. Smart speakers demand more than a stenographer.
Elected officials have policy and political advisers, and the most effective speechwriters conduct themselves as speech advisers — making recommendations about the form, content, purpose and intended audience of remarks. Sam Rosenman, who wrote speeches for Franklin Roosevelt, said that FDR “expected us to criticize and argue with him, and to suggest changes in language and ideas.” Any writer who didn’t, Rosenman added, was “useless to” Roosevelt and “might as well go home.”
One of the weirdest obsessions of the Republican Party — right up there, almost, with the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” and the question of who uses what bathroom — is a piece of technology more than 60 years old: the teleprompter. The GOP is opposed to it. True, many Republicans use one, but the party’s semi-official position was articulated by Fred Davis, a media strategist, in 2011: A teleprompter, he said, is “a sign of inauthenticity. It’s a sign that you can’t speak on your own two feet.”
This was a shot at President Obama, whose preference for teleprompters over traditional devices such as notecards has been ridiculed by Republicans as a sign of fakery and feeblemindedness. It is now also a knock on Hillary Clinton; Donald Trump often points out that she, too, uses a teleprompter. “If you run for president,” he has said, “you shouldn’t be allowed to use teleprompters.” Trump grants himself exemptions, including Thursday’s acceptance speech, but he clearly chafes at the discipline involved in sticking to a text. “We do very freewheeling, and we have a tremendous time,” he boasts.
Anti-teleprompterism, as the rise of Trump reveals, is not purely cynical; it reflects a widespread frustration with contrivance in politics. We have come to equate “off the cuff” with “from the heart,” as a former White House colleague of mine has put it. Which is just silly. Much of what Trump blurts out is demonstrably false, while a well-crafted speech can be deeply revealing. Consider Steve Jobs’s commencement speech at Stanford University in 2005, in which he spoke about “love and loss” and living with cancer. He read it from a sheet of paper — though it wouldn’t have been any less genuine if he’d read it from a screen.
Our collective skepticism — to put it politely — about the truth of what politicians have to say is well grounded in the betrayals of the past half-century, from the “light at the end of the tunnel” in Vietnam to the Watergate break-in and coverup, the Iran-contra scandal and the Lewinsky affair. Trump’s address in Cleveland on Thursday provided a fresh example of a speech stuffed full of lies — a “compendium,” as The Washington Post’s fact-checkers put it, “of doomsday stats that fall apart upon close scrutiny.”
This kind of chicanery has become commonplace in politics. Trump is more brazen than most, but he is hardly the only candidate who — to paraphrase the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan — feels entitled to his own facts. This has given rise to a cottage industry of lie-detectors. Yet observers might be surprised by the conscientiousness of most public servants, or by the scope and serious-mindedness of the fact-checking operation in the White House or a typical campaign. Data is checked and rechecked by the economic team; anecdotes are thoroughly vetted and scrapped if they seem suspect; grand claims are qualified in ways that result in accurate, if sometimes awkward, phrase-making. Clinton wanted to set a goal in his 2000 State of the Union address of making America the safest country in the world. He had to settle for “the safest big country in the world”; senior policy advisers warned that the United States was never going to top little Iceland or Denmark.
A growing cadre believes that the “bully” has gone out of the pulpit. “Americans pay hardly any attention to what presidents say,” Jonathan Chait wrote in the New Republic a few years ago, “and what little they take in, they forget almost immediately.” Political scientists such as George C. Edwards III of Texas A&M University contend that even America’s greatest communicators — Roosevelt and Reagan — showed no real ability to move popular opinion. Edwards argues that when presidents “go public” to advance a policy argument, they are, simply put, “wasting their time.”
The transformative power of speeches has, no doubt, been overstated — not only by people like me who write them for a living but by Aaron Sorkin productions like “The American President” and “The West Wing.” For a few years, at least, the Obama White House seemed to share the romantic notion that a big speech — whether on health care or on U.S. relations with the Muslim world — could change the game. But by Obama’s second term, his aides came to feel that it was virtually “impossible to break through” the “media filter” or the noise on social media, as a senior White House staffer told me in 2014. It’s hard to get heard. The national audience is fragmented, overstimulated and distracted.
Yet the timeworn method of repeating a clear message can still, over time, change minds and then outcomes. If this country ever finds the will to pass common-sense gun-control measures, it will be in no small part because of Obama’s insistence on it, in speech after speech. And over the past year, the barking of Donald Trump and the podium-pounding of Bernie Sanders have shown that the right message, delivered at the right time, can be a catalyst for change. Sanders lost the Democratic nomination, and Trump might well lose the election. But their words — Sanders’s impassioned, Trump’s often ugly — have altered the landscape in which we all live.