The most reliable source of grist for the speechwriter’s mill? The obits

I get most of my ideas, and meet the most fascinating people, in The New York Times obits. Why just last month ...

As I like to say, the obits are a great place to meet people. They're also a great source of ideas for speechmakers, speechwriters, and speech editors.

In one week late last month, I got to know the Chicago theater kingpin Sheldon Patinkin, got reacqauinted with Ohio politician Jim Traficant, and met the writer Alastair Reid.

From Patinkin—or actually, his friend, the actor Jeff Perry—I learned the true size of the job of criticizing a creative product. Directors and actors would beg Patinkin to give them notes on their work, because he was a "world champion note giver," according to Perry. "His process is gorgeous; like movements in a symphony or rules of comedy, it comes in threes.

First are the Socratic questions that lead you to this pleasantly shocked re-understanding of your intent. Then he continues with a great, blunt, nonjudgmental articulation of what he saw compared to what you intended. And finally, as you launch into a spin cycle of anxiety and self-justification about all the obstacles sabotaging your genius, he has the knack of being able to steer you, like a shrink, bartender and rabbi rolled into one, into the belief that the fixes are easy, they are absolutely in your reach, and there’s plenty of time to work them in.

U.S. Rep. Jim Traficant liked to make references to Star Trek, often ending speeches with a request: "Beam me up." Traficant wore an outrageous hairpiece, spent time in jail and had a lot of crazy ideas. But he got heard, with soundbites like this one, from a 1998 speech:

Mr. Speaker, the Lord’s Prayer is 66 words, the Gettysburg Address is 286 words, the Declaration of Independence is 1,322 words. U.S. regulations on the sale of cabbage—that is right, cabbage—is 27,000 words. Regulatory red tape in America costs taxpayers $400 billion every year, over $4,000 each year, every year, year in, year out, for every family.

Beam me up.

And then there was Alastair Reid, who only occasionally returned from reporting trips around the world to visit his office at the New Yorker (where the dope smoke often curled out from under his office door). What drove him him to travel all his life? Same thing that drives everyone to travel, to whatever extent they do. Here's Reid's poem, "Curiosity":


may have killed the cat. More likely

the cat was just unlucky, or else curious

to see what death was like, having no cause

to go on licking paws, or fathering

litter on litter of kittens, predictably.

Nevertheless, to be curious

is dangerous enough. To distrust

what is always said, what seems,

to ask odd questions, interfere in dreams,

smell rats, leave home, have hunches

does not endear cats to those doggy circles

where well-smelt baskets, suitable wives, good lunches

are the order of things, and where prevails

much wagging of incurious heads and tails.


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