Writing speeches for the government: the downs and the ups

Former President Clinton Writer Ted Widmer had a nice piece on presidential speechwriting in the Washington Post June 20. He led off with an acknowledgement of the bane of the White House speechwriter’s existence.

In 1948, James R. Masterson and Wendell Brooks Phillips published a satire of Washington writing called “Federal Prose.” The verdict, as you might imagine, was not positive. Here is how they translated “too many cooks spoil the broth” into federalese: “Undue multiplicity of personnel assigned either concurrently or consecutively to a single function involves deterioration of quality in the resultant product as compared with the product of the labor of an exact sufficiency of personnel.”

But Widmer concluded with a sweeter sentiment:

One moonlit night, during the Civil War, Walt Whitman was struck by the beauty of the president’s house, “the White House of future poems.” He had no idea that so many writers—some of them even poets (Archibald MacLeish)—would find employment there. Most were decidedly less illustrious: nameless prose stylists, cranking out the words by which we live, now and then stumbling on a bit of inspiration. Speechwriting has plenty of pitfalls, but in a solipsistic world that expects our writers to dish endlessly about themselves, it can be rewarding to write quietly for a larger cause. Now and then, too many cooks actually improve the broth.

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