It's the Speechwriter, Stupid

As talk of election wanes into mid-November, I realize now how little I knew of the men behind the men this past year.  The life of a presidential speechwriter has been under documented to boot.  It’s not a sexy topic at all.  But I say, despite it all, enter speechwriter, stage left.  Or stage right, depending on his political orientation.  Know that by now, somewhere on the Eastern board lie two speech writers with jobs well done: gone went a winning speech on the one hand and a losing speech on the other.  Each writer was armed with syntactical grace and unmatched word choice.  Sir Speech A Lots, they were.  Mostly you don’t hear about speechwriters though, because there is not much to be said.  They, in fact, may be classified along the bureaucratic spectrum as boring.  But boring as it may, it was their words we heard last week; it was the umms and hand-gestures that belonged to the Presidential candidates alone.  The speechwriters were there through the bout of campaigning, cringing at mispronounced Middle-Eastern capitals and botched grammar of Presidential candidates.  But they endured, sweaty-browed and perturbed, unbeknownst to the watching eye public.  It was a tough life for Sir Speech A Lot.  But with a day’s rest came the duty of an inaugural tomorrow, or a 2008 tomorrow.

After last week, the finger-pointing was brought to a halt.  The sensationalized gripes and grievances of both sides subsided.  Gone went the hack patriotism, the poster-plastering pandemonium, the ‘four-more-years,’ the jingoistic televisions ads, the Michael Moore haters, the patriotic puns, the anti-Bush garb, the filibustering, the lesbian daughter of Cheney, the snipes at Kerry for being an ideological flip-flopper, the resentful snares at Bush for being an all around war monger.

Even ‘blame,’ which proved so very fruitful this election, deflated like a balloon on the campaign trail in a matter of minutes:  Blame the religiously recovered alcoholic.  Blame the wishy-washy ketchup loving old boy.  Wait, they’re both old boys.  Blame the two party-system, then.  Blame it on Florida.  On Chads.  On the electoral college.  On Canada, the world, the solar system, the universe.  And let us then return to our stasis of quiet discontent.

Inevitably four figures: Bush, Kerry and their respective speech writing shadows suited up Tuesday morning.  Maybe they ate some scrambled eggs and had a short stack of pancakes.  Maybe they prayed vocally and in unison that Tuesday morning.  And collectively, no matter which partisan pantry breakfast was being had, four speeches with opposing thoughts but underlying confidence were typed and ready.  And we put on our clothes.  Maybe had some scrambled eggs, too.  We prayed vocally, some of us did.  At one point Chadded it up, and let the waiting begin.

The winning speech, well that was no task really.  But speaking of loss, defending your honor, that’s tough, no matter how you jargon-coat it.  The speechwriter didn’t have to say a word of it himself, though.  And therein lies the beauty of the job.  I imagined the speechwriter’s respective hands and fingers busy at computers or legal pads, much like myself trying to actually write about them, as they turned their last phrases on the election, not knowing a. if the outcome would be favorable, b. if then the delivery of the speech itself will go unheeded, and c. that a pun along the lines of, ‘O-hi-o, it’s off to work we go’ could have served beneficial during the hubbaloo.

Ted Wilmer, one of Clinton’s speech writers, described speechwriting as, “…a funny mixture of historical information, and a summary of complicated current events, and a carnivalesque showmanship.”  If you are highlighting this article as we speak, then highlight the word showmanship and remember it for later.  Throw it into a conversation at a post-humus-election dinner party.  Tell your friends that showmanship has become the opium of the masses; the bigger the bon mots the better.  What ever happened to good old fashioned rhetoric, you may ask?  And the art of war?  Even if it’s just verbal war. But what of that?

Speechwriters write a message with someone else’s voice, someone else’s mannerisms.  So how does one prepare a speech with someone else’s stylo in mind? Granted collaboration is inherent, but putting the hand to the paper is still Sir Speech A Lot’s job.  I wonder then, if these speechwriters secretly practiced in front of the mirror, using Kerry’s dead-arm movements, or Bush’s over-blinking eyes.  Maybe they pictured the audience naked from the side-stage, too.  If it were me, I would have been mouthing the words like a fifth grade school teacher, whispering lines in kid’s ears amidst a reckless production of ‘Annie, Get Your Gun.’

There was botching of phrases that no one knew about.  Right now, for example, I could have tacked on a symphony of curse words around the edges of my sentences, and you would never know.   Therein lies the beauty of editing.  Maybe I forgot a comma, maybe Kerry stuttered once or twice.  Maybe I embarrassed myself with a horrible metaphor, maybe Bush evaded the definition of popular sovereignty.  To the victor went the spoils.

The remainder of this article is intended for the speechwriters themselves.  I wanted to add a dotted line above this paragraph with the words ‘cut here,’ and mail it to them before the election.  It is a cheat sheet, you see.  But time was scarce, and postage a pain, so I left it up to the God’s of showmanship to deliver the advice.  ‘Hold strong to your forte, Sir Speech A Lot’ they said in sleepy dreams.  ‘For one last shah-bang, hold strong.  And in case you have forgotten, here are some tips.  And in case you lose this, see footnote one, below.’

The joke is about as old as it gets.  Bush could’ve gotten up and said, ‘What did one tomato say to the other? Get it?’  It could’ve eased the tension in the crowd, even though the joke itself is God-awful.  Wait, is the word God considered partisan these days?  Bah dah bump cheeh.

The inspirational personal story. This has helped presidents cross the boundary of man-of-steel to man-of-sentiment.  President Bush had a large opportunity to practice this though the years: “My name is George Dubyah and I’m an alcoholic.  Hi George.  Hi-yah alcoholics.”

The meaningful pause.  George the elder apparently had to have the word ‘pause’ written out while Reagan could see one trickling down before it even happened.  I’ve seen it happen more by accident.  Speech writers worry that candidates might read the end of a sentence in an upward, inflected tone.  They’ll realize the sentence really is over, and cover their marks by even sterner repetition: “Wrong war, wrong place, wrong time?(Upward Voice)  Wrong Time.

When all else fails, I rely on calling all randoms, or, the word to your mother technique.   “I know Mindy, a swimmer from North Carolina, was glad to see that all new public pools have more chlorine.  Or, “I know how glad I am to have the support of General Swift, General Boat, and General Not Swift Boat.’

And this was it, the Closing Flourish. Regardless of the winner, my advice to both speechwriters was to end it in lyrics.  Lyrics that were to be recited dramatically, not sung.  I pictured Kerry reciting the chorus of the Metallica rendition of “Tuesday’s Gone with the Wind.”   Or Dubyah reciting Chicago’s, ‘If you leave me now, you’ll take away the biggest part of me. Ooh ooh ooh ooh no-oh baby please don’t go’ as he tucked his tail and heads into the sunset.  One can only dream.

By now, the speechwriters are rejoicing over pumpkin spice lattes with sighs of relief.  Gone went the ballyhoo, if only for a moment.  Vice President Nelson Rockefeller repeated the phrase “the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God,” while campaigning so often that it became Bomfog for short.  Bomfog stuck.  It is in books and on paper all over the place.  Keep the Bomfog alive, then, speechwriters.  Keep it platitudinous, keep it real.  And let the lexicons live.

***Footnote One:  A copy of these techniques can be found in the “Showmanship for Dummies,” 1956 edition, New York, New York.

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