Last week, President Obama's foreign policy scribe Ben Rhodes sat with reporters and previewed the big Middle East speech the day before its delivery.
To many speechwriters, this was a new low on a steady fall away from the traditional speechwriter's creed of anonymity.
Their perspective is well-represented by longtime freelance speechwriter Erick Dittus, who wrote in response to my query in last week's Executive Communication Report over whether the practice was a good idea:
Someone from the State Department, yes; or maybe the Press Secretary, but not the speechwriter. This is a bad trend that seems to be getting worse. Peggy Noonan was the first Presidential speechwriter of note to raise her hand and say, "I wrote that great line," simultaneous to when it was being given, and then George Stephanopolous and a few others followed with President Clinton.
Before President-elect Obama even gives the inaugural address we learn about the lifestyles (Red Bull or Mountain Dew, Video games or Film, etc.) And then a discussion of sources (who they talked to or their assistants talked to put it all together)… and then the post mortem raising of the hand.
Fortunately, the ethics of the Obama people are light years ahead of Noonan. They at least seem to understand that the President just might be a step ahead of them, and that they are the sometime vehicle, not the driver of the speech.
Yet regardless of whether it's post, or pre-delivery each time we raise our hand (and yes I know the press is prodding for information) we undermine the brand (our speaker).
If you talk to Clark Judge—who wrote a bunch of Reagan and Bush-I speeches—you won't learn of a word that he wrote. Same went for James Fallows when he wrote for Carter, and to the best of my knowledge William Safire and company didn't claim credit (where it may have been due) for Richard Nixon's utterances.
Do I read with great interest what White House speechwriter are talking about their before a particular speech is presented? Yes. As a ghost who's written for 61 CEO's, and several elected officials I read most anything I can about craft [and the burdens] of fellow wordsmiths.
Yet, regardless of this natural curiosity, I would rather not have access to these ideas until well after a particular speech is written.
Why? Again, I believe it undermines our goal of promoting the speaker's [and I presume our] agenda.
While the outing of the speechwriter may meet the feint curiosity needs of the unsavvy citizen who knows little about the craft and the partnerships most good speeches entail, it decreases the dynamic energy of the message and the messenger. And that's not what we're supposed to be doing.
So… let the speechwriters write memoirs about their contributions and do the talk show circuit AFTER they leave the White House, not before the speech is given. We're collaborative ghosts not pure authors. If we want to see our name in print write a book or quit the relatively high paying job of ghosting speeches and become a journalist.
Over the years as editor of Speechwriter's Newsletter and now ECR, I've been forced to take a stand on this issue, and I've chosen Dittus's stand. Witness my stern lecture to the White House's chief speechwriter only last fall, when I predicted that his attention-seeking would get him bounced out of the job within a year.
But I've never felt quite as strongly about it as I've tried to sound.
And you know what? I think I'm coming around to another point of view—the one that says:
Fuck it: If speeches don't hold up to transparency—if we can't be moved despite a general understanding of how they're made, then maybe we should question how they're made, rather than scream for more secrecy.
I've been around this business a long time, and I know how speeches are made and I don't think my ear is any more jaundiced. A good speech well delivered is a good speech well delivered. The very best speeches—Obama's Philadelphia speech on race a year ago comes to mind—are always deeply rooted in the soul of the speaker, whether a speechwriter helped craft them or not. That's a law of spiritual physics.
It's the only law, as far as I'm concerned, and one that can't be broken even if we try. If you heard that Philadelphia speech, and a speechwriter came out and said she wrote it from whole cloth and handed it to Obama 30 seconds before he went on … you simply wouldn't believe it.
Because human beings know authenticity when we hear it (or we ought to), and we can measure it in a hundred increments by a thousand different means. Whether or not we know the name of a speaker's literary collaborator ahead of time or afterward is a very small factor in our consideration.
If I had a speechwriting client who told me she wanted me to be a ghost, I'd be a ghost. And if a speechwriting client didn't specify how I ought to behave, I also think I'd err on the side of the ghostly. But like President Bush before him, President Obama doesn't mind having his speechwriters talk about the speeches they write, and so to go to battle on this issue as if it's some kind of moral code—well, I respect speechwriters who do, but I ain't gonna do it anymore.
Readers, what do you say? Is ghostliness next to godliness, or ixnay on the nonimityay?