Why Don’t Politicians Write Their Own Speeches?

I was scouring the op-ed pages of the papers today and came across a David McGrath piece in the Washington Post introduced with the blurb “When was the last time you saw or heard a writer credited at the end of a speech by John McCain or Barack Obama?”

I clicked through, expecting a piece expressing bemusement over CNN’s commentators last night continuing to point out the Matthew Scully wrote Sarah Palin’s VP acceptance speech when nobody bothered to point out that Obama, Joe Biden, and others didn’t exactly write their own speeches, either.

Instead, McGrath had a much more substantive point:  Why is it that we accept ghost written speeches at all?

He notes that we universally decry term paper mills and that public figures are routinely excoriated for passing off others’ words as their own in just about every other circumstance.  And the arguments excusing ghost writers — they’re paid, they consent to let others use their words, everyone knows it happens — apply in cases we deplore.

Can voters this year be sure they learned something about the real Sarah Palin from her GOP vice presidential nomination acceptance speech last night, considering news that it was originally written by speechwriter Matthew Scully over a week ago for an unknown male nominee? The commissioned draft was subsequently customized by Palin and a team of McCain staffers in the 48 hours leading up to its presentation.

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?

If contemporary political candidates cannot find time to write all their speeches, the way Teddy Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln did, they should at least craft the major ones. And when they must use speechwriters, they should credit the writer at the conclusion so the public knows the true source of the work.

Now, it’s not clear that being a gifted writer of prose necessarily translates into executive leadership.  And, one could argue that, since we’d never be certain that candidates didn’t get surreptitious help with their speeches, we might as well do away with the pretense.

And, I’d argue, professional speechwriters are more akin to the behind-the-scenes writers who work for Jay Leno, David Letterman, Jon Stewart, and others than term paper mills.  The point of a political speech isn’t — as with a college paper — to demonstrate mastery of writing skills but rather to convey a candidate’s message effectively to a wide audience.

Still, McGrath has a point.  Even if people theoretically know that candidates don’t write their own lines, we all fall into the psychological trap of acting as if they do.  We credit them, not their handlers, for getting off good zingers in the debates or a particularly funny line in a speech.  That’s true, of course, for the standup comic as well.  But politicians are not, at least in theory, mere showmen.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2008, Politics 101, US Politics, , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Rick DeMent says:

    James,

    It’s not just politicians that have speech writers, it’s business leaders, academics, any powerful person who gives addresses really. I have a close friend who does it for a living for high level business leaders from Donald Trump to Steve Wynn and while I didn’t know that none of then write their own speeches I wasn’t surprised.

    But politicians are not, at least in theory, mere showmen.

    I would take issue with that

  2. rodney dill says:

    For some reason people seem hardwired to accept eloquence for intelligence.

    I’ve worked with engineers far too long to equate the two.

  3. Jeffrey W. Baker says:

    Obama does write his major speeches. He wrote his March speech on race in America himself, and supposedly only showed it to a few key advisors before delivering it.

    Which of McCain’s speeches are written by speech writers, and which are his own?

  4. Bithead says:

    But since we’re now seeing reports that Palin’s prompter was broken for at least part of the speech, who wrote the thing seems less of an issue. At the least, she had to do a real-time, on-the-spot re-write, which trust me, requires a certain amount of smarts.

    As a snarky aside, I have to wonder how Obama would perform in that situation. I suspect and suppose we’d be saying Obama was ‘over’.

  5. dbt says:

    Bithead, the politico is saying that’s not true.

  6. Triumph says:

    I refuse to believe that Gov. Palin didn’t write her own speech. She is one of the most articulate and transformative figures of our generation.

    She is not only a hockey mom, but she actually knows how to use the internet [I believe she sold an airplane on ebay]. She also can cook a mean casserole and always goes to the PTA meetings when she’s not hunting or watching her devoted husband race around the tundra on a snowmobile.

    Frankly, she is go-getter. I can’t imagine her NOT writing her own speech. It is simply not in her character. She has literally stood eye-to-eye with our Russian nemesis, Vladamir Putin, and stared him down. She has tried to bring God’s will back into our failing schools. This type of unflinching executive leadership suggests that tossing off a brilliant speech is just all part of a day’s work for the Governor.

  7. Boyd says:

    I’ve been giving this some thought, and I think Mr McGrath is all wet on this issue.

    First, it’s not as if the speechwriter goes off and writes the speech, after which it’s handed to the politician, who just reads what the speechwriter wrote. To a greater or lesser degree, the writer goes through several (or many) drafts before the speech is finalized, based on feedback from the speech-giver.

    Secondly, why is it that it’s acceptable to employ someone with greater expertise in a particular area to help the politician do their job, except when it comes to writing a speech? If we were to apply this reasoning to other activities of politicians and elected officials, they’d be doing everything all on their own.

    I don’t buy this argument. The best person for the job isn’t necessarily a good speech writer, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned over the past eight years, communication matters.

  8. Dave Schuler says:

    Why do we accept ghost-written speeches? Production values. We expect life itself to be as glossy as a Hollywood movie.

  9. Michael says:

    Secondly, why is it that it’s acceptable to employ someone with greater expertise in a particular area to help the politician do their job, except when it comes to writing a speech?

    A very good point. While “Hockey Mom Palin” may be a single person, “Vice President Candidate Palin” is not. That’s just a basic function of management in any environment.

  10. carpeicthus says:

    As noted above, Obama is notable that he actually writes some of his major speeches himself (and, unlike McCain, actually wrote his own books). Personally, I want everyone’s speeches to be written by the speaker, but there’s no way you can enforce that, and when you’re giving 15 speeches a week on the trail, maybe it makes sense.

    dbt: If it were true Bithead would have been incapable of saying it.

  11. Bystander says:

    Geez … do you mean that some professional actually wrote Kerry’s stuff in ’04?

  12. Wayne says:

    “Obama is notable that he actually writes some of his major speeches himself”

    Are you claiming he write these “speeches” without letting anyone proof read or give other input into them?

    If so, I would find such action as foolish and in poor judgment. I will explain that further if some don’t understand why that is foolish.

    A candidate just reading off a prepare speech is not impressive to me. However I suspect much of the time they are like many Generals. They say what they want in a speech, how they want to say it, and review and revise the drafts until it close to what they want. Most of the work (proof reading, fact checking, sentence structure, flow, etc) is done by their staff.

    Isn’t it amazing how Obama has such a hard time when he isn’t going off a teleprompter? That is why he avoids doing more town hall debates with McCain.

  13. G.A.Phillips says:

    very good point. While “Hockey Mom Palin” may be a single person, “Vice President Candidate Palin” is not.

    So this means Slickwilly Jr is any were between 200 to 300 liberal bullsh-t artists instead of one.

    oops, I meant donkey poop artists, I have been forgetting to be civil lately, my apologies to all you Marxists, Nazi’s, terrorist sympathizers and Godless evolutionary baby murders.

    I don’t want to hurt any of your feelings so if have please forgive me.

  14. LaurenceB says:

    After Palin’s speech, there was a conversation among the Fox commenter’s that went something like this:

    Kondracke: blah, blah… of course, she didn’t write it…
    Easton: blah, blah… not that she actually wrote it, of course…
    Hume: Hey, why do you guys keeping saying that? Of course she didn’t write her speech, but no one does.
    Barnes: blah, blah… well, when she made that obscure reference to something foreign, that certainly displayed her knowledge of the subject! Take that Democrats!

    I’ve said it before – Fox News is the best entertainment value anywhere.

  15. But politicians are not, at least in theory, mere showmen.

    Not mere showmen, but showmen nonetheless. It is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for leadership in this media driven age. Stagecraft has been recognized as an important element of statecraft since at least the time of Elizabeth I, and probably long before that.

  16. Bithead says:

    If it were true Bithead would have been incapable of saying it.

    Well, after more reports came out the story did change a bit…apparently the prompter was getting ahead of her, by not stopping during the pauses for applause. And again, I wonder how Obama would fare there. I tend to doubt he’d have done as well.

  17. Michael says:

    Well, after more reports came out the story did change a bit…apparently the prompter was getting ahead of her, by not stopping during the pauses for applause. And again, I wonder how Obama would fare there. I tend to doubt he’d have done as well.

    Obama would have likely done fine. Again, Obama’s speaking problem isn’t remembering what to say, it’s determining what to say. Once the speech has been written, and he’s familiarized himself with it, I don’t think he’d have a problem if the teleprompter got ahead of him. He may improvise the words, but he’d already know what he was going to say.

  18. Bithead says:

    Obama would have likely done fine. Again, Obama’s speaking problem isn’t remembering what to say, it’s determining what to say.

    I doubt that.
    The words he’d use may be to your approval but half of speechmaking is delivery… and he gets lost without his prompter.

  19. Michael says:

    The words he’d use may be to your approval but half of speechmaking is delivery… and he gets lost without his prompter.

    Have we had instances where he was delivering a prepared speech with a malfunctioning teleprompter?

  20. elisabeth says:

    I am a professional speech writer and it’s normal to have someone else write your speech unless you are especially skilled at writing. I think it’s obvious that writing and delivery are two very different skills. It comes down to a lot of things:

    Many people have amazing ideas but don’t always know how to translate them into language for broad audiences. Speaking and writing are two very different skill sets.

    Many leaders – whether business or political simply don’t have the time. It takes time to write a good speech -especially if using facts and figures and quotations, too.

    Most provide me with talking points or an overall view of what they want to say.

    Some interesting facts:

    In 2002, the teleprompter was not working when Bill Clinton gave his State of the Union. Only he and his speech writers knew. Pretty amazing.

    Barack has been using a 26-year old speech writer who was being mentored by Ted Sorenson (JFK’s speech writer). Obama wrote his 2004 DNC Speech, the race speech, and the 2008 DNC speech. I am quite sure he had his speechwriting team – not just his advisors review it. He is an unusally good and rather poetic writer as demonstrated by his first book. (the second was unfortunately politcal pandering and lost the spirit of the first.)

    Peggy Noonan (“it’s over.”) wrote all of Reagan’s speeches. Including the post-Challenger one that most think was his best ever.

    Hillary Clinton wrote her own DNC speech – many thought it the best in her career. She is also the one that came up with Bill’s line, “I’ll always believe in a place called hope.”

    Speech writers also miss the mark sometimes. While Bob Shrum wrote Ted Kennedy’s famous “The hope never dies” speech he didn’t do so well for John Kerry.

    Bobby Kennedy spoke extemporaneously when perhaps he gave the best speech of his life -including quotations from Greek poetry – when he received the news that MLK had been shot. He was neither a great speaker or a great writer but the authenticity of his words overcame with absolute magnificence both of these limitations.

  21. Bithead says:

    Have we had instances where he was delivering a prepared speech with a malfunctioning teleprompter?

    Not as I’m aware… just places where he was working without one. And as I said, he fell on his butt, every single time.

  22. Michael says:

    Not as I’m aware… just places where he was working without one. And as I said, he fell on his butt, every single time.

    Was he making a prepared statement, or having to come up with what he wanted to say on demand?

  23. Actually, Obama did write his own acceptance speech for the convention himself. He also wrote the speech on race himself, and the keynote speech he gave four years ago. That’s why I find it so ridiculous when people say he is “just an empty suit who can read a teleprompter well”.

    The point you make is correct – most politicians don’t write their own speeches. But Obama does (at least the major ones; he doesn’t have time to write all of his own speeches while campaigning), which

    From the Washington Post website:

    San Francisco: I’ve heard Obama writes his own speeches. Did Obama write that speech himself?

    Robert G. Kaiser: He did, and I can’t tell you how impressive that is to cynical old reporters like me. Washington has very few personalities left who read their own books, do their own thinking, write their own speeches. But Obama not only reads the books, he writes them–and his speeches.

    Chuck Hagel is another senator who does this; it can happen on either side of the aisle, but I wish it happened a lot more often!

    I tried to post the source for the excerpt above but it got caught by the spam filter.