Ted Sorensen must have been asked a thousand times about who wrote the line from JFK’s inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” And every time—until his death, 50 years after the speech was given—he replied with a two-word answer: “Ask not.”
These days we know the grubby inner workings of the speechwriting process in a presidential campaign in the middle of the campaign. Why? Don’t blame Politico; blame its sources, the operatives and likely the speechwriters themselves, who are exactly as loyal to their own careers and protective of their own asses as their predecessors used to be to the leaders they served. That is, totally.
Sorensen, Horace Busby, Bill Moyers (who still won’t give interviews about LBJ), Ray Price—none of these people would have considered leaking details of a campaign’s communication ruminations to the press under any circumstances. Because they knew that in the end, that’s all this trivial bickering among speechwriters and their bosses and their candidates is: The organizational equivalent of one person’s rumination about what to say, and what not to.
And letting it out into the media during a campaign is akin to a standing before and audience and telling them everything you had considered telling them but then thought better of.
This mess isn’t just Mitt Romney’s. It’s ours, too.
For discretion isn’t just one quality a speechwriter should possess.
It’s the very first.
And if we don’t have it, we’re not worth much. —DM