Why the speechwriter’s job must always be a humble one

The first of my four-part “speechwriter’s digest” of Robert Caro’s brilliant Lyndon Johnson biography, The Passage of Power, deals with the humility even the best, most experienced speechwriter must possess: namely, the understanding that the best speeches of all time came directly from the minds and mouths of the speaker, not from the research and the intellect of the speechwriter.

Often after I deliver my “speechwriting jam session,” speechwriters come up to me and point out plaintively that most of the speeches—RFK’s speech after the death of Martin Luther King, Fred Rogers’ senate testimony in 1969, Winston Churchill’s address to congress in 1941—appear to have been written, or improvised by the speakers themselves, not by speechwriters.

And I smile. And I shrug. And then they smile. And we shrug together, smiling.

Speechwriters spend most of their time making solid speeches out of thin air. They spend some of their time making really good speeches even better. But the very best speeches in history? The ones that might endure for a hundred years or more? Those were mostly written by the man or woman who spoke them.

It’s like that, and that’s the way it is. —DM

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