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All the Presidents' Pens

Review of: Speechwriting in the Institutionalized Presidency: Whose Line Is It? by Kenneth Collier (Lexington Books, 2018)

This book begins with a confession by the author—“I don’t enjoy listening to presidential speeches.” Ken Colliercan be forgiven for this tongue-in-cheek opening, because it’s likely that there cannot be many people who have readas many presidential speeches as he has – or studied so closely how the rhetorical sausage is made, so to speak.

The title of Collier’s new book on presidential speechwriting comes in part from an academic paper he presented in 2004 on aspects of public oratory during the presidency of George W. Bush. The book synthesizes Collier’s years of research into the evolution of modern-day presidential speechwriting, using vignettes illustrating incremental changes over time to how presidential speeches are drafted, edited and delivered – and how the preferences of individual presidents have contributed to these shifts.

Whose Line Is It?focuses on how the thirteen presidential administrations from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama approached speechwriting and speechmaking. The book draws on not only an extensive review of the relevant literature and research visits to the archives of many presidential libraries, but also numerous interviews with White House speechwriters (quoted anonymously in the text). The variety of individuals quoted, whether on or off the record, gives the book a panoramic, “cast of thousands” quality.

Collier is interested in understanding how speechwriting came to be an “institutionalized” White House function. This is the short-hand expression he uses throughout the book to refer to how presidential speechwriting changed over the course of the 20thcentury. For a long time, this task was the domain of well-connected political advisors doubling as ghostwriters who provided speechwriting assistance on a quiet, informal basis as needed by the presidents they served. Their scribing on behalf of the executive branch was hardly ever acknowledged.

Presidential speechwriting as we know it today is no longer solely in the hands of smooth, silent inhabitants of the political backrooms. As Collier explores, speechwriters exist on White House organizational charts, pass their advice to presidents through memos, provide on the record interviews to media, and write books about their experience after they leave the White House.

The work of a presidential speechwriter has now “settled into the narrower role of specializing in writing,” Collier observes, and involves working with policy experts and others to push speech drafts through a carefully managed process intended to create an accurate text for delivery. That contrasts strongly with the ghostwriters of yesterday, who often simultaneously dabbled in policy formation while sitting directly across the President’s desk to nudge along a draft speech.

Some may approach this book with trepidation, sweating at the sudden recollection of the dense course readings shouldered during college. Others may wonder whether Collier, a professor of political science at Texas’ Stephen F. Austin State University, is mainly set on proving or disproving abstract theories of political communication.

This trepidation can be safely set aside. Collier writes in an engaging, plain-language style, easily accessible to a non-specialist audience. He uses telling excerpts from memoirs, biographies and other sources to illustrate his points, not confusing mathematical formulae or pie charts. Indeed, executive communicators will no doubt find Collier’s extensive footnotes and bibliography helpful when looking at expanding their knowledge of the presidential speechwriting process.

On the other hand, someone who is browsing this book hoping it will be a 2018 equivalent of the works of cultural critics such as Christopher Laschor Neil Postmanshould keep on looking. Collier is an objective, attentive student of presidential speechwriting, not an axe-grinding polemicist. That goes as well for his judicious, measured observations at the end of the book about the current occupant of the White House, and the possible impact of President Trump’s style of public speaking on further evolution of presidential speechwriting.

This reviewer hopes that a 2ndedition of Whose Line Is It?will appear in a few years, so that Collier can incorporate a look at some of FDR’s key predecessors in the White House, and explore in more detail how past speechwriting practices, broadly speaking, have influenced contemporary developments.

Also for possible inclusion—what if anything do the extant writings of Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin or other Founding Fathers envision for the Presidency’s output of public pronouncements? Which parts of their vision have survived? Which have been modified or set aside?

In other words—Prof. Collier’s book represents a strong foundation for further installments of his highly-accessible and engaging scholarship.

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