Political Speechwriting-Legitimate Expression, Subterfuge, Plagiarism?

Yesterday a colleague said they read that Senators Obama and Biden wrote their acceptance speeches, and that she wished that all politicians did the same.

This morning in the Washington Post Op/Ed section David McGrath of the University of South Alabama writes suggests that political speeches should be written by the candidates and not by speechwriters. While his use of the Palin speech smacks a little bit of the hit piece, his questions are important ones and worthy of consideration.

Mr. McGrath offers various examples of ghostwriting, and suggests that there is not only a degree of plagiarism involved when politicians fail to credit speechwriters for their work, but that it violates “a contract of honesty” that should exist between candidates for high office and voters.

Mr. McGrath focuses on candidates for office, and does not specifically mention those in office, but we can assume his concern extends to them.

It is an interesting contention. I don’t know how far back professional speechwriting goes, but I have read that Sam Rosenman wrote speeches for FDR during the 1928 New York gubernatorial election.

Mr. McGrath’s concern extends in directions he doesn’t even realize. I am a long time member of Toastmasters International (TI). Every Spring TI conducts a knockout competition leading to the Toastmasters International World Championships of Public Speaking. Speeches have to be original creations, and materials from other sources must be cited. So…if a contestant asks a friend to edit a speech, does that detract from the originality? If a friend edits the speech, and comes up with a killer line, should they be mentioned? In TI, it is a discussion that goes on each year.

Mr. McGrath’s contention is not just about work product, but subterfuge. As he says:

Psychologists, composition teachers, college admissions officers and personnel directors all know that when it comes to extracting truth and character, there is no more reliable indicator than a person’s original, written words. Why, then, as we watch two finalists compete for the most important job in the world, do we tolerate their lip-syncing of someone else’s creation?

Good question. My general reaction is that those pursuing or holding high office simply don’t have the time to write their own stuff. Writing a quality of speech that can hold up under the scrutiny of, well, the world, takes time. There are stories attributed to everyone from Mark Twain to Woodrow Wilson that illustrate that the less time you have, or the more important an occasion, the longer it takes to write an appropriate presentation. The amount of time it takes to write a high quality speech of any length will cut into the time they need to contact voters and raise money. It is a sad commentary on our selection process, but there it is.

I am comfortable in general with the role of speechwriters…of course, I have ghostwritten a speech or article in my time. My experience is that speechwriters can only come up with the foundation stuff of a speech. It is the speaker who via editing or presentation skill adds the verve and charisma that makes the speech come alive and resound with the audience.

For example, in FDR: The New York YearsKenneth Davis writes of how Sam Rosenman carried a multitude of legal size manila envelopes full of facts and documentation he used to write FDR’s speeches. FDR would take the draft, then proceed to edit the speech, brighten the language and make it his own. FDR would typically edit for style, but sometimes added his own unique perspective to make his points clearer.

One instance of FDR editing came in a speech offered in Buffalo on October 20, 1928. FDR wanted to make a point about the failure of GOP promises to labor, and used Rosenman’s envelope system (this was a man who needed a laptop!) to create his metaphor:

“Somewhere in a pigeonhole in a desk of the Republican leaders in New York State is a large envelope, soiled, worn, bearing a date that goes back twenty-five or thirty years” said Roosevelt. “Printed in large letters on this old envelope are the words, “Promises to labor.’ Inside the envelope are a series of sheets dated two years apart and represent the best thought of the best minds of the Republican leaders over a succession of years. Each sheet of promises is practially the duplicate of every other sheet in the envelope. But nowhere in that envelope is a single page bearing the title “Promises Kept.'” (FDR: The New York Years, page 38)

Rosenman set the foundation, FDR made it his own.

The problem I see in current speechwriting comes when the speechwriter(s) are not close enough to the speaker to understand his/her styles, concerns, beliefs, and goals. Peggy Noonan considers this in On Speaking Well, where she recounts the challenges of her time as a Reagan speechwriter.

Ms. Noonan notes that in previous times, especially under President Kennedy, the speechwriters were considered high level staff. They spent much time with JFK, were in some cases long time friends and comrades, and had a clear feel for his speech patterns, beliefs, style, and goals. They produced, he personalized.

Now? The “Communication Department” is a lower level department, and its work product goes directly to higher officials or cabinet departments to be “vetted” before it goes to the candidate/office holder. Noonan writes of the “Challenger” speech she wrote in the wake of the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986. She included part of the poem “High Flight”, remembering that WW2 pilots carried it on a card in their jackets. She was sure Reagan would remember it, and included a partial quote, saying that morning the Challenger crew:

slipped the surly bonds of Earth…Put out [their] hand, and touched the face of God.

However, the speech had to be vetted by the NSC, where a staffer-more mindful of current tv advertisments than poetry-tried to amend the speech to read:

“reach out and touch somene-touch the face of God”

Writing is not easy, and creating written words that translate well into spoken language is truly difficult It is an art, it is a skill, and it is needed in the body politic to allow us to fully consider a candidate. THe speech writers talents are purchased by the campaign, and the intellectual property they produce is the “property” of the campaign (and as such probably not needed to be footnoted). However, the need and best method to communicate has to be balanced against the other needs of a campaign or term in office. Is a candidate better served writing a speech or going door to door? Is an office holder more effective writing a speech or being in meetings or writing other documents?

I tend to think professional speechwriting is not going away, and the real question is less how right it is than how effective it will be. The time commitments of those in camaigning or already in high office are simply too great for an individual to take the time to personally draft every speech. They have limited time, and there is so much the candidate has to do personally, and speechwriting is one of the things that can be handled, at least in part, by others.

It is my hope that all candidates recognize that speechwriters are not functionaries or hacks that can be readily discarded. A good speechwriter is a gift to be treasured and provided access so they can readily and accurately create speeches and presentations that reflect all aspects of the candidate. A good speechwriter will make the difference between political poetry and political piffle. If the writing is good, and the delivery matches the writing, then footnoting the author is not needed…their names will eventually be discovered and live on…as the likes Sam Rosenman and Peggy Noonan can attest.

Shoot, it worked for FDR and JFK, and that is a pretty good recommendation.


2 thoughts on “Political Speechwriting-Legitimate Expression, Subterfuge, Plagiarism?

  1. Mr. McGrath’s premise seemed to be that a speech written by a ghost writer represents the ideas of the ghost writer rather than of the political representative. But the job of a speech writer is not to craft the message (the public relations team does that). It is to take the message of the speaker (or his vast team of PR pros) and express those ideas in the most verbally effective manner.

    People in positions of power and authority are can not be polished experts in every field. It takes a great deal of technique to craft the types of speeches we see at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. It is a tall order to ask someone to be an expert on land usage rights and also on literature.

    The argument that they should craft their own speech downplays the importance and talent of writers. It assumes that the politician could be as effective writing on his own as he could be with a writer. Of course, a politician could spell out his or her views plainly and communicate them. But this downplays the importance of the emotional impact that we would lose.

    What is most important about the line: “Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall!” Is it the name of the person who came up with it, or is it the context in which it was delivered and what impact it had on society?

    If Kennedy couldn’t come up with a line like “Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country” on his own, would it have been better for America if he had expressed the same thought less musically? I doubt it would.

    McCain, Obama and anyone practicing politics at a national level can be said to be more a team than an individual. They have campaign staffs, they have accountants, legal experts, political advisors, foreign affairs advisors. When McCain says “here is my economic plan” we can hope that he didn’t dream it up in isolation over his corn flakes. We want leaders to take advantage of the best and brightest.

    There is an essential difference between a plagarized novel or term paper and a ghost written speech. It is that the person who turns in someone else’s term paper, or takes credit for another writer’s novel, is being rewarded directly for his writing ability. The expression is, itself, the point of these exercise.

    The job of president is different. We hire the person to lead, not to write. I believe we want our politicians to focus on policy, not poetry, and that’s why I’m grateful they have talented speech writers on staff.

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