Is Cody Keenan a “dumb hack”?
January 21, 2015
Gawker writer says White House speechwriting "is not a high-minded pursuit for brilliant talents." Is he right?
Maybe you saw my little satire about Aaron Sorkin calling b.s. on the borderline phony and downright treacly New York Times account of the writing of the State of the Union Address.
Gawker writer Alex Pareene takes it further, gleefully savaging the Times piece graph by fatuous graph—the article really is full of blarney—and then lamenting the over-glorification of the presidential speechwriter, which he says "probably all dates back to the cult of Kennedy, and JFK's partnership with Ted Sorensen. But political rhetoric has inarguably declined in literary quality since the 1960s about as much as it had already declined, by then, since the 18th and 19th centuries."
And now? Sez Pareene:
Modern political speechwriting is not a high-minded pursuit for brilliant talents. Aaron Sorkin should be shot into space for perpetuating this bullshit fantasy that still enamors hacks like Cody Keenan. Writing a 6,000-word presidential speech is a process that bears only a mechanical resemblance to writing 6,000 words meant to be read and appreciated by normal humans. Some political speechwriters may also happen to be good writers, but they would have to achieve success in a field other than political speechwriting to prove it. (Former Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett, for example, is funny on Twitter and a good political columnist. Neither of those things were evident in his work as a speechwriter.)
I am not arguing that any untrained schmo off the street could write a State of the Union address. Modern political speechwriting is certainly a skill, and one that requires experience and practice to master. It is not, however, a literary endeavor. It is marketing, and not even particularly imaginative marketing. Advertising people who call themselves "creatives" do more actual creative work than political speechwriters. Do the people who write statements of risk for pharmaceutical ads walk around swishing single malt in tumblers and comparing themselves to The Lost Generation? (Well, they probably do, but they are wrong.)
Political speechwriting is an exercise in the proper arrangement of cliches and platitudes, with a bit of "messaging" of policy ideas to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. Speeches like the one the president will deliver tonight are designed to deliver pleasant inanities (The State of the Union is Strong) and sell certain carefully audience-tested proposals as vaguely (or misleadingly) as possible. The State of the Union is less written than it is designed, structured and organized around applause prompts and camera cues.
It would be cheap to suggest that writing overwrought rants at Gawker probably isn't a high-minded pursuit for brilliant talents either.
More substantively: Judging speechwriters based on the literary quality of a State of the Union Address is like judging a poet based on whether her grocery list rhymes. As I wrote on HuffPo yesterday, the State of the Union Address is not a speech.
Most importantly, we must ask: In the scheme of things, precisely what harm is done by even the most egregious once-a-year over-praising of presidential speechwriters? The other 364 days a year, these folks work in a windowless basement cranking out an unthinkable number of high-profile speeches every month, every week, every day.
Why do you think David Axelrod and Obama say these asinine things to the Times about how Keenan is like Hemingway and Mike Royko? (Axelrod says Keenan "reminds me of some of the folks I grew up with in the old days in Chicago journalism — those hard-bitten, big-hearted, passionate writers who brought the stories of people to life.")
They do it to throw the writer a bone, and keep him from leaving to employ his creative writing skills doing much less taxing, more lucrative work for the private sector!
And why do they want so badly to keep him on board?
Because he is incredibly valuable and hard to replace!
He knows a ridiculous amount about the boss, the protocol and the style of remarks for various occasions from the SOTU to the annual Thanksgiving turkey pardon, where to find information and stories and anecdotes, how to get things apporoved, how to avoid gaffes, and a bunch of other things I don't even know about. And in the middle of that daily (and nightly) shitstorm, they know how to turn an occasional original and memorable phrase or make a rigorous argument for changing immigration policy, raising the minimum wage, or altering our relationship with Cuba.
Speechwriters don't compare themselves to Hemingway. Their bosses do, for the same reason they give them windowless offices: to keep them off the ledge.
Really, Pareene, what's the harm? —DM