Are speechwriters getting younger and dumber?

In a smart piece on President Obama’s “bathroom humor” at the recent White House Correspondents dinner, former President Reagan speechwriter Hal Gordon harked back to President Roosevelt, who knew how to use humor to achieve more than just cheap laughs:

FDR had endured some particularly vitriolic attacks from that journalistic Rottweiler, Henry Louis Mencken—who, of course, was present for the festivities.

When FDR got up to speak, he immediately launched into a furious denunciation of the American news establishment. Roughly, he said the following: “The average American newspaper, especially the so-called better sort, has the intelligence of a Baptist evangelist, the courage of a rat, the fairness of a prohibitionist boob-bumper, the information of a high-school janitor, the taste of a designer of celluloid valentines, and the honor of a police-station lawyer.”

Jaws dropped. Journalists rubbed their eyes in disbelief. Ominous mutterings were heard. Had the president lost his mind? Whatever provocation he may have felt that he had been offered by the press, how dare he attack respectable journalists like that!

FDR ignored the mutterings, flashed his trademark grin, and then detonated an even bigger bomb: “Of course,” he said soothingly, “you realize that these are not my opinions. I’m simply quoting my good friend Henry Mencken.”

Roosevelt had put the nation’s journalists through the wringer and hung them out to dry. And he had done it in such a way that it was impossible for them to take him to task for it.

It’s a pity that the smart young things in Mr. Obama’s White House don’t read more history. They might have imitated FDR instead of George Carlin.

Now, it’s not cool for a middle-aged fellow like Hal Gordon to dismiss White House speecwhriters as “smart young things.” Political speechwriting has long been staffed mostly by younger people. Smart? Well, there are lots of kinds of intelligence; among the rarest is Hal Gordon’s: The man can recite huge swaths of literature from memory, and to call him erudite is to avoid calling him a savant-of-everything.

Though there was never a time when people like Hal Gordon dominated the ranks of speechwriting, every communication department worth its salt had one real intellectual in it—a grown-up who could handle the heavy stuff: The stuff that required an understanding of history, that benefited from a mastery of literature and philosophy.

I recently wrote a magazine story on a major political figure. I asked the young press secretary chief a simple question about the man’s growing up years, in the 1950s. She deliberately and crassly mischaracterized my question then, after specifying that her answer was off the record, dismissed it “pretty absurd.” It was nothing of the sort. But I didn’t take offense, because I realized: What choice did she have? To whom on the politician’s staff could she turn to answer a question that required knowledge of the context of the 1950s? No one. So she got rid of me quick, and left my story—and her boss’s story—without his representation.

And I thought then—as Hal Gordon thought, listening to the President’s silly speech at the White House Correspondents Dinner—these people could use an old lady or gentleman who’s read some books and lived some history.

Don’t you agree? —DM

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