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Speechwriting, right or wrong

A phone call last week with a speechwriter who's looking for her next job.

She said she's only written speeches for Republicans in her career, but she's a registered independent and in any case, she's professionally agnostic about politics. "If you want me to write an argument for the casino, yeah, I'll do that. If you want me to write against the casino—sure, that's fine!" She has a news broadcasting background, she added—so she's used to covering both sides anyway.

It had been awhile since I talked to any speechwriter like that—probably since the early 1990s, when I was a very young cub reporter working on a little brown-paper weekly called Speechwriter's Newsletter. A freshly minted English major, I was always asking speechwriters how they could words they didn't believe in. ("Kid would prefer a moral issue to a real one," as my old boss Larry used to chuckle.)

Back then, lots of speechwriters copped to being points-of-view for hire—even boasted about it. Claiming with pride that they had "no pride of authorship," lots of scribes back then saw themselves the way lawyers do, and saw their clients as deserving of rhetorical representation, right or wrong.

Everybody had lines that couldn't be crossed: Many speechwriters said they would never work for tobacco companies, I remember. Similarly, the woman I spoke with last week said that of course there were people and views "on either extreme" that she couldn't work for. But mainly? She was up for anything—including a job for either party, in D.C. She just loves writing speeches, and she's written for leaders she has admired, whether or not she agreed personally with every syllable she helped them utter.

I told her not to tell anybody in D.C. that. I was remembering back to 2006, when I wrote a letter to Robert Gibbs, communication director for the junior senator from Illinois, asking him to add my letter "to what must be a teetering stack of letters from people hoping to contribute their talent and experience to the cause of Obama for President."

For people like me—liberals and conservatives not content in our hatred of the other side—Senator Obama has offered a pinhole of hope for a basic American reconciliation around common values we all know we share. For us, so long despairing in a political context designed to make us see our fellow Americans as either godless monsters or superstitious idiots, a pinhole is plenty.

After offering my services and listing my qualifications, I explained why I wanted so badly to help: "I have a three-year-old daughter. I’d like to be able to tell her, as I was told as a child, that she lives in a great and wise country. President Obama would be my best hope."

Before I sent the letter to Gibbs, I ran it past a Washington speechwriting veteran for a critique. He pointed out that nowhere in my letter did I tell Gibbs which political side I'm on. If I didn't, nobody would trust me.

I remember feeling let down by that, wishing naively that politics hadn't become so tribal. And I bet that's what the woman I spoke with last week felt when I told her not to go into D.C. bragging that she'll write for anybody reasonable on either side.

Between that call and this post, PR legend Harold Burson died, at 98.

“We are advocates,” Burson said about public relations people. "We are being paid to tell our clients’ side of the story. We are in the business of changing and molding attitudes, and we aren’t successful unless we move the needle, get people to do something. But we are also a client’s conscience, and we have to do what is in the public interest."

Obviously, we can't serve as a consistent conscience for our clients if we don't have a strong conscience of our own. But neither are you and I authorities on what is in the public interest on every issue, even if we're pretty sure what we think of casinos.

Speechwriting: It's complicated, and it should be. —DM

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