You are here

Would Sorensen stay in his lane?

Rate this

The worst thing about being a speechwriter is that there's really no set way to be a speechwriter.

That's also the best thing.

Especially right now.

During the century or so since Judson Welliver was understood to be the first presidential speechwriter, speechwriters have been all kinds of things to leaders of all kinds of institutions: They have been confidants and intellectual consiglieri. They have been wordsmiths who rhetorically passed torches and tore down walls and sought a more perfect union (even if they sometimes came up only with "nattering nabobs of negativism"). They have been note-takers and typists, nervous Nellies, pawns and punching bags. They have been stubborn subversives, quietly "sneaking" into their leaders' speeches, as they confess at their cocktail parties, memorable turns of phrase, novel ideas and not infrequently new policies entirely.

Even at their worst, speechwriters have generally added clarity and erudition to the expressions of leaders, many of whom, when faced with audiences full of strangers, prefer to say nothing interesting at all.

At their best, speechwriters are the "intellectual blood bank" Ted Sorensen was to JFK, the poetic partner that Peggy Noonan was to Ronald Reagan, and the speechwriting sister that Sarah Hurwitz was to Michelle Obama. 

But generally, speechwriters have, over the last century—and increasingly over the last quarter century (starting roughly around the time NFL quarterbacks stopped calling their own plays)—grown more specialized. Their role has grown more defined. Their skill set has become more tidily teachable, by professional courses called Speechwriting School. Their purview has grown finite—and their responsibilities, too.

Which is good.

But, especially for speechwriters with the intellect, ambition, vision and confidence to match the leaders they work for, it is also bad. Such speechwriters chafe daily at the notion that all the king’s men and women have the policy figured out, the risk and ramifications assessed, the public relations strategy nailed down, the audience analyzed and core message massaged. So that the speech, as so many speechwriters have heard from chiefs of staff and communication VPs, "pretty much writes itself."

Of course, no speech ever has written itself, just as no leadership team has ever mastered every aspect of a communication aside from the writing.

But in exchange for a measure of safety and security, speechwriters have accepted a role that's more discrete—and ultimately diminished. They generally stopped behaving as advisors like Adam Walinski, who while working for Robert Kennedy in his late 20s "stuffed RFK's briefcase at night with articles by I.F. Stone" in order to influence his boss's thinking, according Kennedy biographer Evan Thomas, who said, "Kennedy read and absorbed the material." They began limiting their advice to the rhetorical, disconnecting it from the strategic—unlike Saint Sorensen, who influenced negotiations in the Cuban Missile Crisis because a suggested gambit "just wouldn't write."

And they became more tame. Sticking with the Kennedy speechwriters just for tidiness, RFK often complained about Walinski, even as the latter wrote the drafts that became Kennedy's most famous speech, "A Ripple of Hope." According to Thomas, Kennedy:

would tone down [Walinsky’s] heated prose, only to have his aide try to slip fiery words back in. When Kennedy finally blew up, [Kennedy advisor] Joe Dolan suggested that he get rid of Walinsky, rather than struggle with him. “Oh, Sorensen was worse,” Kennedy said, thinking of his brother’s talented wordsmith who could be prickly, too, about defending his prose. Walinsky was not fired, but he was layered: Richard Goodwin was brought in to help craft the speech—which would be remembered as Kennedy’s best.

Richard Goodwin, who named LBJ's legislative agenda "The Great Society."

And so on.

Since those wild days, speechwriters' roles have shrunk to fit bureaucracies, and their behavior has been regulated to conform to the corporate norm.

Relatively. And, as I'm about to argue hopefully: Temporarily.

As I wrote about extensively last year, the king's men and women in corporations, nonprofits, universities and other institutions who once had their own roles mostly figured out are reeling. As I wrote last fall after a disquieting meeting of communication executives at University of Virginia's Darden School of Business:

A secular society increasingly distrustful of its own government and with a press discredited as “fake” by large swaths of the public, is singing, as one Darden participant put it, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?”

And to whom are people turning for principled leadership and cultural compass points? Of all things, corporations and other large institutions. With an erratic president and a discredited intellectual elite, people need someone to trust, someone to know the responsible, sensible, sustainable “corporate” view on gun control, transgender restrooms, gay marriage, Confederate monuments, immigration, Black Lives Matter, Obamacare, tax reform, kneeling during the National Anthem and climate change.

What social activists long decried as amoral self-interest in corporations is now treasured as impartial interest in sustainability. “Trump can pull out of Paris,” said one participant. “But UPS can’t.”

Corporations are now social arbiters by default.

And so organizations that heretofore intelligently focused almost exclusively on a single issue of particular strategic importance to them—global trade, for instance, or energy policy—now are daily and publicly presented with petitions to sign and stands to take for or against causes or policies that constituents care about. Yes or no. Fer us or agin us? Which side are you on?

Clearly, organizations can’t afford to weigh in on every issue that comes down the pike. They have “statement fatigue,” as one communicator calls it. But in an increasing number of cases (and on an increasing number of days every year), traditional institutional silence is now strategic suicide.

And if you think the top communication executives at these institutions know what to do about it, you would be wrong. In many hours of conversations at Darden these execs expressed theories, offered brainstorms, shared reactions. They talked about creating quiet and contained “micro-communications,” with small groups of constituents. They discussed the need to acknowledge social issues and differing opinions without making grand and final pronouncements. And they recognized that there is no single approach that works for every organization, and that each industry, company, brand and CEO must make a unique path, using some guesswork and gut feel along the way.

Speechwriter, do you think this is still an era where you can serve your organization best by staying in your lane? Or is it a moment when you owe your whole intellect to your organization, to the extent that you can use your courage and cleverness to get it across—your sense of history, your vision of the future, your counsel on far more than what leaders should say in speeches? 

(That's a rhetorical question.)

The reduced role that speechwriters have lately accepted is not time-honored, and I believe that exec comms norms, such as they are, are not set in stone. In my second-hand but sustained experience, when speechwriters dare to (thoughtfully) assert their views, their crossed fingers are rewarded with their leaders' gratitude, and more responsibility. And when leadership communication execs take (thoughtful) advantage of the breathtaking theoretical breadth of their job description, they don't usually have to ask forgiveness in the end. They have to ask for a bigger budget to implement their plans.

Though the new year helps me think in such terms, what I'm suggesting is no New Year's Resolution—a thing we ought to do even though we don't want to. It may be what some speechwriters have been called to do all along, if only they can summon the skill and the courage (and the luck) to take it on at this moment, in their way, in the context of their organization and its leaders.

If you're one of those speechwriters, now's the time.

At the Professional Speechwriters Association, where speechwriters gather to make their plans, the proper role of the speechwriter at this morphing moment should be a theme of 2018, it seems to me.

Do you agree? —DM