The Serious Ones
June 09, 2017
Why do you think former speechwriters—not press secretaries, not communication directors—write such credible commentary?
Some speechwriters might have resented it when I criticized Jons Favreau and Lovett for what I saw as the glib, snarky style the former Obama speechwriters showed on an appearance on The Steven Colbert Show, back in April.
Does the head of the Professional Speechwriters Association condemn his flock to the back pasture? Once a speechwriter, always a monk—is that it?
My thinking on the issue was clarified this morning when I read, and contemplated the high credibility of this Washington Post column on Comey and Trump, by Michael Gerson.
I believe the sources of that credibility, aside from the internal merits of Gerson’s argument, are two:
First, it’s a Bush administration guy talking—a Republican who should be inclined to root for a Republican president, no matter how unorthodox.
But just as importantly, it’s a speechwriter talking. And speechwriters are seen as the serious ones.
Why do we seem to place less weight placed on political analysis by, say, former press secretaries or even communication directors? After all, those folks were probably closer to the action than the speechwriters—had more face time with their presidents, more knowledge of the inner workings of their White House and more voice in administration policy.
Well, for one thing, speechwriters write better long-form articles. Communication directors put their 10,000 hours in on the phone. Speechwriters put theirs in at the keyboard. So communication directors are better on the phone. And speechwriters are better at the keyboard. So their writing is better (and in some cases it may be fair to add, their thinking is clearer).
But it’s the perception of speechwriters that causes CNN anchors to proudly promise that on the other side of the break we’ll hear from “a former administration speechwriter”—not “communication aide,” not a “White House insider.” No, if you’ve got a speechwriter lined up, you play that up, because speechwriters are seen less as operatives and more as thinkers who subscribe to the sanctity of intellect—and are thus trusted to write and to say what they actually believe.
And why are speechwriters seen this way? Partly, because they have kept their mouth shut heretofore, whereas we’ve seen all the other communication staffers on the Sunday morning shows. The speechwriter is the person in the meeting who hasn’t spoken a word for the first hour and whom everyone has forgotten is even there and who finally says, “You know, I have a thought.” And everybody turns to hear.
The speechwriter’s gravitas is useful—it’s useful to speechwriters, it’s useful to media organizations and it’s useful to the public.
But it actually does require restraint for its maintenance. A speechwriter can lose his or her own reputation by writing sloppily or without intellectual integrity or in an unserious style. And that speechwriter can undermine the reputation of the rest of his or her peers.
Someone politely defended Favreau and Lovett from my gently offered criticism by saying those guys don’t see themselves as speechwriters anymore, but rather as “media personalities,” with a popular podcast and Hollywood screenplays in the works. But on the podcast website, what are the first lines of their bios? “Jon Favreau served as Barack Obama’s head speechwriter from 2005–2013.” And, “Jon Lovett … earned this reputation (which is seriously fantastic, ask people) as a speechwriter for Hillary Clinton and as a presidential speechwriter in the Obama White House.”
Favs and Lovett (along with Rob Lowe) have added a hipness to the speechwriting brand that expands our reach into more mainstream forums. We shouldn't begrudge them their success or their profile. But I sure hope other young speechwriters don’t all plan to follow them to Hollywood.
And I do think that all speechwriters, and all former speechwriters, must be aware of the source of their credibility.
That credibility is useful for working speechwriters, yes. It’s also useful for a society that’s looking, with increasing desperation, for adults it can trust. —DM