Ask not who wrote the words, ask whose words are rote

A former speechwriter considers the national rhetoric and whether words mean what they say, or if it depends on who says them.
Crosscut archive image.

Barack Obama with turban.

A former speechwriter considers the national rhetoric and whether words mean what they say, or if it depends on who says them.

Photographs, like language, draw strength from subtext.

The Internet pic of Barack Obama dressed in African garb sets a trip wire that a turban (even one presented as a goodwill gift from another country, mind you) is synonymous with terrorism. Hillary Clinton's "ready from day one" mantra is code for the other guy ain't got the goods when the enemy comes a-knocking.

The cruelest subtext of all, however, at least for America's hermetic community of speechwriters, is Sen. Clinton's suggestion that words are cosmetic. Beware the silver-tongued lawmaker, all sound and fury.

How sweet to witness a politician's anti-rhetorician rhetoric fizzle.

During her Feb. 21 Texas debate with Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton revealed her finesse, or lack of finesse, as a lobber of the acid broadside.

"Lifting whole passages from someone else's speeches is not change you can believe in," Clinton said, referring to Obama's ballyhooed use of lines from his pal, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. "It's change you can Xerox."s

Ouch. Clinton's rapier-ish zinger drew boos, and for good reason: It rang too cold, too scolding, too rehearsed. It also begged the question: Did Clinton's Xerox nugget spring, whole and unblemished, from the depths of her wordsmith soul?

Oh, if only. Chances are that in some murky, speechifying cubbyhole, a hungover twentysomething conceived this ditty. She handed it to her boss, who handed it to his boss, who handed it to a campaign pasha, who handed it to Sen. Clinton with a triumphant, "Here's our 'Where's the beef'!"

As David Greenberg wrote in Sunday's New York Times, "Audiences don't kid themselves that politicians invent the words they speak."

For speechwriters, this new conventional wisdom is shattering. Not because audiences realize someone else is writing the script – speechwriters figured everyone knew that, at least intuitively. The shattering flows from the Clinton thesis that leadership and persuasive rhetoric are disconnected. Think of Willie Stark from Robert Penn Warren's All the Kings Men: Before you know it, we'll have a demagogue in the Oval Office.

Piffle. During my brief and undistinguished career as a speechifier, I picked up the essentials: Don't try to make someone they're not; don't quote from writers your speaker has never heard of (Wallace Stegner excepted); keep it short with sentences no longer than a full breath; aim for a joke or two or three; and, when appropriate, steal from others.

I don't mean steal verbatim exactly. I mean identify cadences and patterns. Look for the music and write down the notes. Mimic others when their message resonates and cite passages with attribution.

True, if politicians understood the formula, scribblers everywhere would be out on the streets tin-cupping it. It's the speechwriter equivalent of broadcasting ICBM telemetry codes to the Russians, but here's our secret, as summarized by former Nixon scribe William Safire: "Tell 'em what you're going to tell 'em; then tell 'em; then tell 'em what you told 'em." Simple enough.

Regrettably, over time, political language has lost its kick because of focus groups and professional polling. The "tell 'em" rhetoric inevitably knits together words like "moving forward" "new" "leadership" and "our families" with various slogans du jour.

That's what makes Obama so appealing: His language crystallizes the country's appetite for change in a manner that sounds imaginative, original, and unvetted. He thinks and writes clearly, a pensive rhetorician from the land of Lincoln.

The Northwest has never produced anything close to an Obama-style orator, alas. Idaho Sen. William Borah was a persuasive stump speaker. He also may have been the political exception.

The best gabbers, arguably, have come from the ranks of organized labor and radical offshoots like the Industrial Workers of the World: Big Bill Haywood, Harry Bridges, and Dave Beck.

Could it be that they benefited from not having speechwriters?

In The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom explores the challenge of poets grasping for the original while standing on the shoulders of past greats. I'm pretty sure most speechwriters don't feel inhibited by an anxiety of influence. Hell, influence is our lifeblood.

One of my favorite patterns is the "reversible raincoat" line, a technique of JFK's Ted Sorensen, who likely stole it from someone else. It's the "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" line. Substitute a word or two, say "Department of Transportation" or "taxpayer," and voila! you have yourself a hook line.

The hope is that listeners will absorb the rhythm like a subliminal message. Any chance that they'll equate the speaker with a JFK or a Lincoln or a Churchill?

Like I said, it's subtext.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson is the former editorial-page editor of the Everett Herald. Follow him on Twitter @phardinjackson