Freelance speechwriter Erick Dittus has been insistently pumping us with good stuff from the Carter Library. Unfortunately, President Carter is broadly known to have been a terrible client for speechwriters. Having spent most of his career as his own speechwriter, he neither appreciated nor developed the talents of his staff.
But his chief speechwriter, James Fallows, had a more general complaint about speechwriting. In his exit interview with Presidential Papers staffer Lee Johnson in November of 1978, Fallows said he was very much looking forward to getting back to journalism—and out of speechwriting.
It has been for me an extremely valuable vehicle through which I have been able to spend two-and-a-half years now seeing the way things work and for that I will always be grateful. But, I will be happy if I never write another speech in my life. I can give you my brief theory on that, which is, in most other kinds of writing your goal is to define your meaning as precisely as you can—To use the most vivid examples to rule out all ambiguity. That’s exactly the opposite of what you want to do in speechwriting most of the time. Usually you want to define things only so clearly that half the people will still agree with you and not use any illustration that will offendanybody, and not have any idea which is unsettling in any way. And I have no contempt for that. That’s the way democracy works. But, I just don’t want to do it any more.
And this was one area where writing for President Carter was not particularly hard, Fallows says.
Carter, I think, is better than nearly any other politician in stating plain home truths. But even then he can’t offend people most of the time; he can’t say, “I don’t know the answer to this; nobody knows the answer to it”–he can’t saythings as baldly as he could if he was writing something for himself or I could if I was writing something for myself. Obviously, it has more impact if it comes from him than from me. But that’s the trade-off.
A trade-off that Fallows was more than happy to trade off.