Needle in a speech stack
February 08, 2016
If Hillary Clinton releases the transcripts of all her speeches, what does it mean for speechwriters?
In one of the 17 current plot teapot tempests in the presidential primary contests, people who support Bernie Sanders want Hillary Clinton to release the transcripts of all her big paid speeches to Wall Street types, thereby to learn what she told those money goons "behind closed doors," as the exciting phrase always goes.
It's fun to think that maybe Hillary Clinton told those folks some version of the "47 percent" comment that Mitt Romney made to donors back in 2012. Because Clinton is a Democrat, what they'd find if they raked through those transcripts–which Clinton insisted that host organizations make for her personal records (presumably to protect herself from accusations that she'd said untoward things)–would be something closer to what President Obama said about poor whites who "cling to guns or religion."
Knowing how cautious Clinton is, the smoking gun in those tens of thousands of words is an electrifying sentence like, "I'm committed to smart Wall Street regulation, but I see the whole picture and I can assure you that if I get elected I'll a hell of a lot more judicious and thoughtful in the kinds of reforms than Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders would be."
At the moment, it doesn't look like she's going to release the transcripts—not at least until all the other candidates agree to release all the transcripts of every speech they've ever given.
The question is, should they?
Luckily, I only have to determine is what's good for speechwriters and the speeches they write. And that question is hard enough. My first thought was: If every speech will ultimately be vetted by every opposition researcher, could speeches become duller? And my second thought was: Could speeches become duller than they already are?
Interestingly, Hillary Clinton's longtime speechwriter Lissa Muscatine said at the last World Conference of the Professional Speechwriters Association that she thought speeches were increasing in public importance, because they're among the only historical documents we have. When the Clinton White House was under various sieges in the 1990s, Muscatine said, everyone learned not to put anything you wouldn't want to hand over in a subpoena in writing, ever. (Which is why some of us are confident that Hillary Clinton's emails are innocuous.)
Speeches, she said, are written and delivered with the notion that they could become public and be used by foes as well as friends. So while speeches may be far less than totally candid, what's in a speech transcript is a rare reliable record of the thinking of the moment.
And Muscatine had already put her mouth where her mouth was. When I'd asked her if it would be all right to invite press to her keynote conversation at the World Conference, she'd unhesitatingly agreed, noting that she always expects the possibility of some media being at any public event, and calibrates her comments accordingly. She wasn't going to dish dirt either way.
I'm sure that's how her old boss thought, too, when she was giving her speeches, and during the Q&As. And it's how all bosses should think. And—as speechwriters know—as bosses generally DO think. Which is why they're at such pains—and involve so many lawyers—to make sure they say as nothing that can ever be used against them in a court of law or the court of public opinion.
So my feeling is, sure: Make transcripts of every speech and put them all on the Internet for everyone to see. It'll make speeches more important as policy documents—and it can't possibly water them down much more than they already are.
Speechwriter, do you agree? —DM