Ich bin ein speechwriter

From the safe distance of two decades, former Boston Herald reporter Harvey Dickson writes in a New York Times blog post about the time he gave some ethically dicey speechwriting advice to Joseph P. Kennedy II. Kennedy was traveling in Germany in 1992 and had invited Dickson along for an intimate look at the trip.

The second and last leg of the trip was to Berlin. Kennedy wanted to make a speech in Schöneberg, the district of Berlin, where his uncle, President John F. Kennedy, delivered his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in 1963.

We were in another government van on the way to Schöneberg City Hall when Kennedy, sitting in the front seat, turned to his staff and said, “So what am I going to say?” They all shrugged. This surprised me. I assumed they would have had something already prepared for what was supposed to be the culmination of the trip.

Kennedy turned to me, sitting in the rearmost seat, and asked, “Harvey, what should I say?”

This was an issue. A reporter isn’t supposed to write a speech for the politician he is covering. I was pretty sure about that rule. Still, the temptation …

“Well,” I said, “when President Kennedy was here, it was to express solidarity with the citizens of West Berlin after the Communists built the Berlin Wall. You’re here to express solidarity with the foreigners who are being attacked. You should use the German phrase that your uncle used, but change it for your purposes: ‘Ich bin ein Ausländer’”—I am a foreigner.

Kennedy gave his staff members a look as if to say, “Why couldn’t you guys come up with that?”

He fleshed out the rest of the speech on a notepad and 30 minutes later he was in front of Schöneberg City Hall, saying, “Ich bin ein Ausländer …”

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