Napoleon once boasted that every French soldier carried in his knapsack the baton of a field marshal. In like manner, every speech writer believes that his pen contains the words for another Kennedy Inaugural.
Robert Shrum, who has written speeches for a number of presidential hopefuls, conceded that he had been trying out for the role of Kennedy speech writer Theodore Sorensen ever since the age of 16. He wrote: "I wanted and worked to become whatever title it was in the White House--they keep changing it--that means advising and verbalizing for a President."
Any candid speech writer would admit to the same ambition--to write the soaring phrases that galvanize a nation, soothe its sorrows or praise its heroes. The political speech-writing enterprise tends to attract bright people whose own ambitions are sufficiently in check to write felicitous lines for others, but who are not so passionate in their desire for anonymity that they would deny their formative role in a memorable or well-received speech by another.
But speech writers can also get politicians in trouble, as the recent flap over Sen. Joseph R. Biden's liberal borrowings from British Laborite Neil Kinnock and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy demonstrate. Unlike other kinds of writers who can wait out a creative blockage, political speech writers must meet the inexorable demands of the scheduler. And, to recall an admonition long used in Washington, "If you want it real bad, you'll get it real bad."
Some speeches by major presidential contenders are indeed appallingly bad. One that must still bring back the night sweats to its author was delivered in March, 1976, by President Gerald R. Ford in Charlotte, N.C., to a convention of the Future Homemakers of America.
"It still takes a lot of living to make a home," the President declared, and "I say and say it with emphasis and conviction that homemaking is good for America." That speech caused a major shake-up in the upper echelons of the White House speech-writing department.
The man who bested Ford in the 1976 presidential election ran into his own set of problems shortly after securing the Democratic nomination. Stung by criticism that he was being too differential to Ford, Jimmy Carter began getting rough with the President in September, 1976. Carter took the gloves off with a speech using a labored metaphor: "Ford is a good automobile, but it's not doing too well in the White House. Stuck in the mud. Four flat tires. Out of gas. Gears locked in reverse. If it ever does move again, which I doubt, I'm sure we're going to have it back into the future."
The speech backfired on Carter because it exposed a mean streak that had been kept under wraps very successfully throughout most of the campaign. Its target moreover was a man generally liked by the American public. But its most basic flaw was that it was simply a bad speech.
What gets politicians and their speech writers into trouble is when the speeches are too high-powered for the speaker. I worked for a politician who had managed to win election to the U.S. Senate on two occasions on the strength of his folksy manner. The style fit perfectly with the farm state that he represented. But when he made the fateful decision to seek his party's nomination for the presidency, his staff felt that he needed to sound "presidential."
The candidate was assuredly no sow's ear, but writing into speeches the high-flown observations of historian Jacques Barzun or philosopher Alfred North Whitehead was like putting socks on a rooster.
What is equally bad for a politician is what Ford's speech writers did to him at the Homemaker's convention: They gave him a speech that reinforced in the minds of the public an image of banality that Ford had been trying to shed. Ford's own joke writer, Don Penny, had described Ford as sounding like "a Florsheim shoe salesman." The North Carolina speech bolstered that view of Ford.
The most general problem with speech writers, however, is that so many of them are much too good for the people for whom they work, or they think that their bosses are better than they actually are. They put the most thoughtful phrases into the mouths of people who have never taken five minutes to reflect on anything. Where restrained and serviceable words might do, they want the speaker to utter deathless lines. They end up, many times, by debasing the language and causing pedestrian politicians to think of themselves as philosopher-kings.
The speech writers, however, are less the problem than the politicians. Public life is increasingly an environment where to be a "quick study" is the standard of intellectual excellence. Politicians tend not to write their own words because they do not think their own thoughts. Speech writers become necessary when public officials are too busy to think.