When speechwriters get too much respect

A bipartisan panel of former White House speechwriters gets together to discuss the state of presidential rhetoric.

One of ’em says President Obama is “a little too professorial.”

Another suggests that the too-professorial president missed a “teachable moment” to educate the American public about the economy.

A third former presidential speechwriter say it doesn’t matter what Obama says, because American’s have tuned him out. “They’ve heard it all before. He’s at a low point rhetorically.”

A fourth says that at a moment when Americans are angry at elites and the institutions they run, Obama comes across as “very unpopulist.”

And a fifth says Obama has failed to talk about “what holds us together.”

What has been gained? Have we learned anything that we don’t already know? It pains me to say it, and it may pain you for me to say it, but: I don’t believe speechwriters have any particular insight on the overwhelmingly complex problem of what president ought to say, on what subjects, to what audiences and at what occasion.

Give a good speechwriter all of the above, and he or she will knock it out of the park almost every time. But just because you can write a fine speech—and that ability is rare, and worth a great deal—that doesn’t mean you know how to plan or direct a leader’s communication strategy. (Which is why presidents don’t usually barge into the West Wing word cave to demand advice on what their next move might be.)

That’s a gross generality and only a theory, of course.

It’s only made a specific truth when speechwriters hold forth boringly on The State of Presidential Rhetoric and peck pettily at the current president from the questionable platforms of the checkered presidencies they served, as best they could.


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