Letters to the Editor

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Every once in a while, I've been asked to write something for someone else - a speech, song lyrics, a forward to a book, somebody's narcissistic life story... in college, love letters to girls other hapless dillweeds were smitten with.

For a while, I entertained myself at the latter by trying to work a food reference into each one - "My dearest cinnamon sugarbuns tomato cumquat..."

I figure I am at least partially responsible, then, for a couple of early divorces, one very strange recipe, and an awkward case in which two different "sugarbuns" living in the same dorm discovered that they had received virtually the same letter from two different loverboys, neither of whom could have formulated a coherent sentence on their own to save their lives. Whoops.

Mostly, after that, I have avoided overtures to write other people's words. On a good day, I am barely capable of deciphering my own muddled thoughts; how in the world would I be able to explain yours?

In fact, it all seems vaguely dirty pool to me - a supposed autobiography that turns out to be written by some hack paid a thousand bucks to keep quiet about it, or a politician getting elected based on some empassioned speech that he really had nothing to do with.

Granted, politicians are not writers, usually, yet we expect them to spit out dialogue worthy of a Hollywood epic script in every two-bit campaign whistlestop for a half dozen people at a local coffeshop. What do we get? Some unknown scribe's idea of what a candidate should sound like.

We try hard to ignore that fact, because it is a little disturbing to think that nothing that the people we elect say to us is their own. Or that the people we elect to lead us are incapable of making a speech without an adult version of Cliff's Notes on index cards of a teleprompter.

There have been speechwriters since ancient Greece and Egypt. Traditionally, the ghost writer is quietly behind the scenes, never known - to preserve the illusion of original thought on the part of politicians.

That is rapidly changing, however.

You have probably read about Jon Favreau, the 27-year-old whiz kid who is the chief speechwriter for Barack Obama.

He is becoming the first speechwriter celebrity, lauded in magazine stories and websites as the most influential new political star - without even running for office.

Favreau wrote Obama's New Hampshire Primary concession speech, considered the turning point in his battle with Hillary Clinton - the famous "Yes We Can" speech. (Well, frankly, it was recycled more than written... the same phrase had been the slogan of Obama's Senate race in Illinois four years earlier.)

Still, in just three well turned words, a political race became a political movement, and the rest is history.

Favreau psychs up to write Obama's words by reading the speeches written for Bobby Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. Dig them up, and you will recognize faint echoes of those past speechwriters' styles in the emotional words of Barack Obama.

Don't get me wrong here, I'm not accusing Obama of illiteracy. In fact, it must be daunting to write for a man who himself has penned a couple of best-seller books. And from what I hear, young Mr. Favreau does at least meet with Obama on an important speech and take notes from what Obama says - that probably makes an Obama speech more genuine that most garden variety politicians could manage.

Consider the work of former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, who penned Bush's address to Congress after the 9/11 attacks - one of the most magnificent speeches given in the history of American politics, but in no way Bush's thoughts or words. Gerson apparently wrote Bush's words at the Starbucks across from the White House plaza. He coined "axis of evil" and "the smoking gun" phrases (on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq) - and in fact partly formed the president's policies.

"Bush with a Gerson text sounds a lot better than Bush on his own," says Theodore Sorensen, speechwriter for Jack Kennedy.

With the right script, it has been opined, a George W. Bush could be made to sound like Winston Churchill for an hour.

Indeed, good speechwriters are much rare than candidates. Obama's Favreau used to write for John Kerry. Bush's Gerson wrote for Bob Dole and others, and has parlayed his work into a job as a political columnist and sometimes TV personality.

"Let me put it this way. On most days in most circumstances, you are writing for the next day's headlines..." says Gerson. That, perhaps, should be a warning siren.

Daniel Pink, speech writer to former U.S. vice-president Al Gore, once described speechwriting as feeling "like working in an inner-city hospital emergency room."

"The trick of speechwriting... is making the client say your brilliant words while somehow managing to make it sound as though they issued straight from their own soul," says Christopher Buckley, speechwriter for the first President Bush.

Today, Iowa college students can take classes in writing political speeches for other people. Putting words into famous mouths is big business - even a pathway to fame and power now. But it's a job I wouldn't covet.

We know what our leaders are saying to us, but more and more, we don't really know what they believe.

You will know I've changed my mind if, someday, a local candidate gets up and says, "My dearest cinnamon sugarbuns voters..."