Ah, the life of a writer! I subscribe to the Atlantic Monthly so I can see the style of the articles so I can get a sense of how I can contribute but then I am too busy to read it and the magazines pile up on my coffee table. Until finally, back in August, they came out with the one issue I could not overlook, the inevitable one at the end of the seventh year of an eight-year Presidency explaining where it went wrong. So much promise, so few results; such big dreams, such a rude awakening: you know the drill. Like a car crash, you know you don’t want to see it, but you have to look anyway.
After slogging through a tortuous analysis of Karl Rove’s supposed fantasies, purported theories, ostensible approaches and putative failures, I had had enough speculative pseudo-analysis to last me for a couple of lifetimes. Just when I was ready to toss the Atlantic into the Atlantic (a luxury we Miamians can indulge), I came across one of the most riveting political stories of my lifetime. Riveting for a writer, anyway.
In a remarkable piece, former White House speechwriter Matthew Scully takes also-former White House head speechwriter Michael Gerson to task for hogging the limelight. Phrases that Gerson has taken credit for, or at least accepted credit for, turn out to be the work product of a third member of the team, a guy too self-effacing to either claim authorship or complain about Gerson’s grandstanding, John McConnell. Scully maintains that the computer records of the White House are so thoroughly logged and cataloged that it can be determined by historians that his version is accurate. Peter Wehner wrote a strong rebuttal in National Review, and there the matter rests, uneasily.
This story has been percolating in my mind ever since, but the other day I was prompted to see the solution. I got a call offering me a nice paycheck for ghostwriting a man’s life story on condition no one would ever know I was involved. No problem, I said. I’ll take the cash and you’ll take the credit. Then suddenly it hit me: this is what speechwriting is meant to be. You must learn to disappear. The officeholder is speaking those words; they are his heart; they are his message; thus, they are his words, every one of them, no one else’s.
Bought and paid for, the cynic would say. Maybe so. My friend, when asked if his hair is his, likes to pull his toupee off with a flourish and say: “All mine, paid in full.” Perhaps it’s a crass commercial transaction, but once you sell a thing it is no longer yours. Personally, I am not cynical about this, I see it as eminently honorable. The man is not buying words for him to say. He is buying your skill at putting his ideas into words. There is nothing the least bit awry in this arrangement. If Scully, or Gerson, were true creators of the sentiments expressed in those speeches, they would be candidates.
So my solution is to abolish the overt job description of speechwriter. It should become like espionage, where some of the consular attaches are really leaving microfilm in tree trunks instead of health education pamphlets in impoverished villages. Let there be a general category of White House aide with a neutral title, so nobody knows who is really writing what. Let each of these functionaries sign a document pledging to never reveal in any public forum what Presidential utterance was utterly composed by which staffer.
To this day I am offended when I see Theodore Sorenson being feted for crafting the exhortation to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. Those remarks were delivered by President John F. Kennedy at his inauguration and they are his by every right, his only. If you think about it, Kennedy’s call to Sorenson must have gone something like this: “Ted, what I want to do here is call upon people to see themselves as obligated to the country more than their country is obligated to them.” The scribbler doodles the main words on a sheet of paper, moves them around different ways by a series of overlapping and intersecting arrows. Finally, ask not yadda yadda yadda: the man is a genius! Gimme a break. It’s Kennedy’s line.
From now on, I never want to hear again which speechwriter wrote what, or even who are the speechwriters. Ask not, tell not.