The Library of America has just brought out the two volumes of American Speeches (volume 1 here, volume 2 here), superbly reviewed today in the Boston Globe by David M. Shribman, the executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Shribman concludes his forced march through nearly 1,700 pages of our country’s greatest rhetorical moments and concludes:
At the end of this glorious marathon of speechmaking we are prompted to wonder what exactly makes for a great American speech. There is no simple answer, but perhaps this will do: A great American speech either reflects the times in which it is given (as Kennedy’s Inaugural Address so eloquently does) or changes the times in which it is given (as King’s civil rights speeches so powerfully do). In their time as in ours, and for all time, we should be grateful for what some Americans said, and did.
It has been a pleasure to know some of the recent pasts great speechwriters –Ray Price who worked for Nixon, Ken Khachigian, Josh Gilder and Peter Robinson who drafted for Reagan, and John McConnell who has been at work in the current White House. All of them read deeply in the great speeches of the past but with an ear for the vocabulary and dramatic moments of the present. All were news junkies of the worst sort, and also always scanning for the moment and the setting. Each had to be persistent. (Read the account of Robinson’s drafting “tear down this wall” for Reagan in his fine book How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life to get a detailed and eye-opening account of how speechwriting actually happens in the White House. The modern “process” of speech-making is the enemy of great rhetoric.)
But I think the era of staff-assisted rhetoric is over. Sure, they will always be a fixture of staffs and of certain big days like State of the Union addresses.
But the rise of new media has almost completely overthrown the ability of candidates and officials to decide which speeches wil be their statements of policy. Every day and every utterance is just part of the resupply of the American opinion machine that gets to decide what matters and what doesn’t. Thus the candidate weak in rhetorical advantages –Hillary– can no longer rely on the assistance of staff to prop up the lack of oratorical skills to the extent that candidates even four years ago could. The candidate who is always pretty good and sometimes great on the video stump has a distinct advantage in this cycle of instant elevation.
On the Democratic side, this favors Senator Obama. On the GOP side, Governor Romney though Mayor Giuliani is a close second. All three are gifted talkers, who don’t need writers to turn a phrase, and each is blessed with the hard to quantify “energy” that lifts a speech or an interview.
The role of the speechwriter is going to change, I think, to that of part idea-guy and 24/7 debate prep/media prep shadow. Each candidate would be well advised to spend some time every day with the smartest folks on the bus being asked questions from every direction, and listening for the phrases and responses that make sense. The reality is that the “spin room” is always open, and will be throughout the campaign.A “major speech” can no longer set right what has been broken in a casual conversation, or say what has been unsaid for too long. The writers still matter, but the debate/media counselors matter far, far more.