Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Ask Not Who Wrote It

"No man not inspired can make a good speech without preparation." Daniel Webster

Oy Vey! What's up with this? We haven't been socked by enough heroes with feet of clay -- now we're told JFK "may" or "may not" have penned "some" or "all" of arguably the best inaugural address in history?

Okay, Lesson One: that was not a good way to begin a speech. And I know whereof I speak, so to speak. I've been there, done that. No, not for JFK, I'm not that old. I have, however, written many speeches for public figures, including presidents. And I'm here to tell you it's not a one-man, or one-woman, job. It's a process. A collaborative effort. A meeting of bright, informed minds whose objective is to articulate a vision. To reach out and touch other minds, and hearts. To paint a picture with words and phrases that lift, rouse, affect, persuade, inspire.

Tune in to Bravo TV any weeknight at 11pm ET (not 7pm, you don't want to miss The Daily Show) and watch reruns of The West Wing in its glory days, written by Aaron Sorkin -- to my mind this generation's Paddy Chayefsky. You'll get an insider's view of what's involved in major league speech writing. And in the painstaking, exalted art of crafting an inaugural address.

Because that's the Big Kahuna, the once-in-a-lifetime shot at True Greatness. Trust me (taboo words in speech writing, by the way), no president risks securing his place in history by tackling so momentous a task alone. Especially not as savvy a politician as John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Which isn't to say JFK didn't write many of those stirring words himself. He was undeniably intelligent, well educated, a gifted writer and communicator. We know he strove for the Broader Theme, embraced Important Ideas, sought Higher Goals, and favored impassioned phrases.

He embodied all our expectations of a great leader. Global thinking. A penetrating mind. Keen wit. Polished eloquence. But Joe Kennedy's boy also had street smarts. He surely gathered the Best and the Brightest around him for his debut on the world stage. Doubtless he ran the show, and of course he took the bows, but the supporting players were critical to its success.

Former Bush speechwriter Peggy Noonan was able to claim credit for "a thousand points of light" because everybody and his Aunt Mary knew George Bush Senior didn't have the chops to come up with such a lofty concept. Ted Sorenson's in another league entirely. He continues to remain aloof from the discussion, preferring to keep his personal place in history to himself.

And what difference does it make in the end? President Kennedy remains an iconic figure in American history. Whether or not he wrote every word, he conceived and delivered an inaugural address that will resonate for generations.

Did Abraham Lincoln really write the Gettysburg Address all by himself on the back of an envelop? It doesn't matter. The men are gone. But their words abide -- and speak for themselves.

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Blogger David Goldenberg said...

Well said, Sally. Considering I just used a quote from JFK's inaugural address in my blog "Essential Emmes," and one from another address a while back, it sure doesn't matter to me who wrote the words. I was stirred when I first heard them at the age of 11, and they still stir me today.--But are you gonna tell me Abe Lincoln DIDN'T write the GA on the back of an envelope??? Now THAT's disillusioning!

11:19 AM  

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