A speechwriter sounds off (and, not wanting to be thought a dinosaur, does so anonymously)
September 17, 2010
A guest post from an old acquaintance who prefers not to be ID’d lest he be dismissed as a curmudgeon. —ed.
Yes, I know, times are different, TV and Facebook and Twitter have changed everything, but …
I still believe that leaders and their writers can elevate people through elevated language and ideas that offer serious propositions and logic–and leaders can elevate them without looking down on them. On the other hand, writers can accelerate the continued dumbing down of the spoken word, and accelerate the bumper sticker debate that writers so readily and rightly condemn. We can add immensely to what Neil Postman suggested we were already doing back in 1985: “Amusing Ourselves to Death.”
We can be a part of patronizing too many people.
MLK did not write his speeches for a 7th grade level, nor did he write his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” that way. And consider this passage from his great litany in “I Have a Dream.”
I have a dream.
that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”
MLK gave us great sound with along with great words, meter and contrast and reptitiion; great sound, even good sound, is part of what we lose when we write for a 7th grade audience.
JFK’s inaugural, with its echoes of John Donne and so on, was not written for a 7th grade audience. Likewise for his “I am a Berliner.” Consider the length of the underlined sentence from “I am a Berliner.”
I am proud to come to this city as the guest of your distinguished Mayor, who has symbolized throughout the world the fighting spirit of West Berlin. And I am proud — And I am proud to visit the Federal Republic with your distinguished Chancellor who for so many years has committed Germany to democracy and freedom and progress, and to come here in the company of my fellow American, General Clay, who has been in this city during its great moments of crisis and will come again if ever needed.
Or the ideas in this line:
Two thousand years ago — Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was “civis Romanus sum.” Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is “Ich bin ein Berliner.”
Somewhere among those who are active and vote, somewhere among those who still read good novels and history, there remains a substantial audience for good speeches.