Speechwriter Alex Marklew offered a quote from Lord Beaverbrook that I'd never heard before: "Creative writers are two a penny. Efficient hacks are very rare."
Speechwriter Alex Marklew offered a quote from Lord Beaverbrook that I'd never heard before: "Creative writers are two a penny. Efficient hacks are very rare."
Like "amazing" and "awesome" (and not to mention "amazeballs" and "awesome sauce") ... "rant" is over-used these days. A "rant," ladies and gentleman, is not a clever social critique on Gawker with a few swear words in it. A rant requires some stomping around.
The following post originally appeared on Writing Boots in February 2010. Five years later, the big boys are again spending many millions in conference fees, private-jet fuel and caviar the World Economic Forum for the annual clustermucketymuck. —ed.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote an essay not long before he died in which he called the world's leaders what they are: the "guessers," on whose grand public hunches rest the fate of us all. Aristotle, Ivan the Terrible and Hitler were three of the variously successful guessers from history that Vonnegut named.
But the guessing goes on, wrote Vonnegut, even after the information revolution:
Persuasive guessing has been at the core of leadership for so long—for all of human experience so far—that it is wholly unsurprising that most of the leaders of this planet, in spite of all the information that is suddenly ours, want the guessing to go on, because now it is their turn to guess and be listened to.
I thought of that essay as I read a Huffington Post piece called "Davos Confidential," written by Eric Schmidt, simultaneously a direct supervisor of the information revolution and the guesser-in-chief at Google.
He's at Davos right now.
He starts out on a somewhat defensive note:
It's easy to sneer at Davos as a place where the rich, powerful and famous come to talk to each other and arrogantly put the world to rights. But there has been little sign of arrogance at recent gatherings. Nor any settled view of how to overcome the challenges our world faces. If there is a global conspiracy underway at Davos, no one has yet let me in on the secret.
Instead Davos mirrors the uncertainty in the world in general. The real story this year was not arrogance but anxiety over how we could channel turbulent global forces in a more positive direction so that everyone gains.
Oh, no. So these days our guess is as good as the guessers'?
Back to Vonnegut, who listed some of the influential guesses we've been laboring under in recent years.
The poor have done something very wrong or they wouldn’t be poor, so their children should pay the consequences.
The United States of America cannot be expected to look after its people.
The free market will do that.
The free market is an automatic system of justice.
And back to Schmidt, who concludes his essay by talking about the "principles central to Davos," which sound familiar:
Principles such as the benefits of free trade, free societies and free speech and, above all, open collaboration between business people and politicians who recognize that with freedom should come responsibility. Yes, the world has critical challenges, especially in 2010, but I believe that in these Davos values lie our solutions. It's this hope and optimism that will ensure I keep coming back as long as I am invited.
Davos values? Hope? Optimism?
You know what it sounds like?
It sounds like he's guessing.
Maybe you saw my little satire about Aaron Sorkin calling b.s. on borderline phony and downright treacly New York Times account of the writing of the State of the Union Address.
Gawker writer Alex Pareene takes it further, gleefully savaging the Times piece graph by fatuous graph—the article really is full of blarney—and then lamenting the over-glorification of the presidential speechwriter, which he says "probably all dates back to the cult of Kennedy, and JFK's partnership with Ted Sorensen. But political rhetoric has inarguably declined in literary quality since the 1960s about as much as it had already declined, by then, since the 18th and 19th centuries."
And now? Sez Pareene:
Modern political speechwriting is not a high-minded pursuit for brilliant talents. Aaron Sorkin should be shot into space for perpetuating this bullshit fantasy that still enamors hacks like Cody Keenan. Writing a 6,000-word presidential speech is a process that bears only a mechanical resemblance to writing 6,000 words meant to be read and appreciated by normal humans. Some political speechwriters may also happen to be good writers, but they would have to achieve success in a field other than political speechwriting to prove it. (Former Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett, for example, is funny on Twitter and a good political columnist. Neither of those things were evident in his work as a speechwriter.)
I am not arguing that any untrained schmo off the street could write a State of the Union address. Modern political speechwriting is certainly a skill, and one that requires experience and practice to master. It is not, however, a literary endeavor. It is marketing, and not even particularly imaginative marketing. Advertising people who call themselves "creatives" do more actual creative work than political speechwriters. Do the people who write statements of risk for pharmaceutical ads walk around swishing single malt in tumblers and comparing themselves to The Lost Generation? (Well, they probably do, but they are wrong.)
Political speechwriting is an exercise in the proper arrangement of cliches and platitudes, with a bit of "messaging" of policy ideas to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. Speeches like the one the president will deliver tonight are designed to deliver pleasant inanities (The State of the Union is Strong) and sell certain carefully audience-tested proposals as vaguely (or misleadingly) as possible. The State of the Union is less written than it is designed, structured and organized around applause prompts and camera cues.
The cheap thing to here is to point out that writing overwrought rants at Gawker probably isn't a high-minded pursuit for brilliant talents either.
More substantively: Judging speechwriters based on the literary quality of a State of the Union Address is like judging a poet based on whether her grocery list rhymes. As I wrote on HuffPo yesterday, the State of the Union Address is not a speech.
Most importantly, we must ask: In the scheme of things, precisely what harm is done by even the most egregious once-a-year over-praising of presidential speechwriters? The other 364 days a year, these folks work in a windowless basement cranking out an unthinkable number of high-profile speeches every month, every week, every day.
Why do you think David Axelrod and Obama say these asinine things to the Times about how Keenan is like Hemingway and Mike Royko? (Axelrod says Keenan "reminds me of some of the folks I grew up with in the old days in Chicago journalism — those hard-bitten, big-hearted, passionate writers who brought the stories of people to life.")
They do it to throw the writer a fucking bone, and keep him from leaving to employ his creative writing skills doing much less taxing, more lucrative work for the private sector!
And why do they want so badly to keep him on board?
Because he is incredibly valuable and hard to replace!
He knows a ridiculous amount about the boss, the protocol and the style of remarks for various occasions from the SOTU to the annual Thanksgiving turkey pardon, where to find information and stories and anecdotes, how to get things apporoved, how to avoid gaffes, and a bunch of other things I don't even know about. And in the middle of that daily (and nightly) shitstorm, they know how to turn an occasional original and memorable phrase or make a rigorous argument for changing immigration policy, raising the minimum wage, or altering our relationship with Cuba.
Speechwriters don't compare themselves to Hemingway. Their bosses do, for the same reason they give them windowless offices: to keep them off the ledge.
Really, Pareene, what's the harm?
So where are we, after 267 hours of speechwriting, 568 pundits and several screwdrivers self-served in 55-gallon drums? An administration speechwriter asks me what I thought of the speech (he "liked it," and also thought the Republican response was the "least-bad one I can remember"). I refer him to the below. Honestly, I hate the SOTU. (As George Will does, over on Fox, calling the whole spectacle "degrading.") I like President Obama. So I liked the speech pretty well.
And unless anyone sees any reason for me not to, I'm just about ready to turn to the Australian Open tennis tournament.
Gerald, good night.
SOTU rebuttal, by area dad: “Country’s a goddamn mess, and this is the explanation we get. Complete load of horseshit.” (H/t to new area dad Shawn Bannon.)
Schumer says President Obama "felt strong, and good."
Gerald in Norway, are you awake? Text me if you're still awake and tell us what you thought of the speeches!
Stepford Wife action going on here.
We were about halfway through Joni Ernst's speech when the drugs began to take hold.
Red Oak!? I buy all my suits in Red Oak!
I think "middle-class economics" is the enduring concept, if there is one, from this speech. That, and "I know because I won them both."
I always time my buzz perfectly for the SOTU, but not quite right for the GOP response. So I have a hard time listening to it, and my criticisms aren't terribly substantive. In 2010 I wrote, "An empty cab drove up, and Bob McDonnell got out and gave this speech." In 2011, I compared Paul Ryan to Eddie Haskell and called him a "bedwetter." And in 2012, I presciently observed, "The water shortage was the only thing anyone will ever remember from the Rubio speech."
Well, readers, what did you think? I'm left feeling ... tired. Vodka now!
Oh no he didn't!
Referring back to 2004 Democratic National Convention speech. "Over the past six years, the pundits have pointed out ... that my presidency" hasn't fixed the division between red and blue. And people claim that not only my faults are to blame but the vision itself was naive. "I know how tempting such cynicism may be. But I think the cynics are wrong. I still believe that we are one people."
Lists evidence from his presidency.
Up to us in Washington to live up to American citizens' example. Up to us to: "Appeal to one anothers' basic decency instead of one anothers' basest fears. ..." "If we're going to have arguments, let's [make them] worthy ..." etc.
"Is he going rogue?" asks Cristie from the other room, with this "lecture"? Carter lectured the American people and got beat for it.
Obama is lecturing the legislature (and the Court, I guess) ... and will get away with it.
I'm not writing these things down because I think they're effective. I'm writing them down because if I don't, I won't listen.
Gitmo: "It's not who we are."
Values: We use drones as little as possible, we defend Muslims and free speech and fight persecution of women, GLBT and are generally awesome sauce not just because it's right but because it makes us safer.
Pentagon sez climate change is threat to national security. "We should act like it."
A Chicago correspondent texts, "Is that contraption/drink holder in front of Boehner from Area 51? Zoltan! P.S. The Blackhawks are up 3-0."
Cristie, on the proposal to reward corporations who invest in America: "He says that every fuckin' time."
Now we get into the apparently unavoidable List of Shit.
"Let's set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline ..." This is LBJ, operating the public way.
What a simple and sane and too-rare appeal: Hire a veteran because veterans are good workers.
The Washington Redskins should be renamed, the Washington Boehners.
Is he fucking staring down the Republicans for not standing up over equal pay for women? "He's on fire!" bellows Cristie from the living room.
"Middle-class economics." A new term, and about time—only 30 years after "trickle-down economics." Will it stick?
I'm fixing to go out and celebrate! And just as I get ready to make that crack, Obama jokes, "That's some good news, people!" My communicator pal Allan Jenkins remarks, "I'm not sure it's a good idea to have a smart-ass giving the State of the Union, but it sure does work."
"They were young and in love in America. And it doesn't get much better than that." Not bad, Cody Keenan.
"The shadow of crisis is past. The State of the Union is strong." The speechwriter's days were long.
I'm no fashion expert, but Michelle certainly is wearing what I'd call a zipper-forward get-up tonight.
Seriously. Where is Gergen? I would do a pay-per-view of him watching the speech in his living room. Or him watching the Washington Wizards game in his living room, during the speech.
Ballzy commentary from Blitz: "So it's almost like the president will be taking a sort-of victory lap right now."
Missive from a speechwriting pal who lives in Washington but who can still see out. He shares Dan Pfeiffer's brag that "We posted the speech ... [because] the public should see it when press and Congress get it .... Changing a SOTU traditon forever."
Asks the rhetorician rhetorically, "Does anyone really give a shit?"
Wolf Blitzer just breathed between saying "John" and "Kerry," and then he added: "This is going to be a long night, but it's going to be an exciting night."
Tom Foreman informs us that we, too, can participate during the speech in the Digital Dial Test."
(A shout-out to a jetlagged, sleepless pal who just called me from Oslo, Norway. Hello Gerald!)
I can't believe how much I miss David Gergen. I always saw him as the only adult in the studio.
Jay Carney is an avatar of Jake Tapper's penis.
Actually, Michelle looks like she's in a shit mood.
As we prepare to witness the president and the first family exiting the White House portico, it occurs to me to marvel at the impossibility of imagining (and the endless trying to imagine) what it would be like to be in that position, day in and day out for four or eight years. Is there a chance Obama is not coming out because he's checking out ESPN and still in his socks and grumping off to Michelle about the SOTU, "I'm just not feelin' it tonight."
Written during a previous SOTU: "Fox is using the terribly scientific 'bing pulse' graph to see which of Obama's lines inspired orangutans to masturbate and which made them pick their asses."
This year, CNN is using this embarrassing "technology."
Jake Tapper is an avatar of John King.
At Fox, they're all screaming at each other hysterically about who, exactly, is gonna kill all these fucking asshole terrorists. I understand where they're coming from.
Facebook indicates that I am the only dipshit I know who is watching this coverage right now.
Where is Gergen? If he wasn't going to be on, couldn't he have lent his comb-over to Smerconish?
John King is an avatar in real life.
Tom Foreman is an avatar in Second Life.
If life made any sense at all, Anderson Cooper would appear, during his SOTU coverage, with Kathy Griffin.
To avoid seeing pre-released excerpts of the pre-written Republican response to the State of the Union Speech, I'm headed back to the liquor cabinet.
When they asked me three months ahead of time whether I wanted to know whether I was having a boy or a girl, I was all, "Totes McGotes!" But I choose not to read these pre-released speech excerpts. (However, wouldn't it be cool if my wife would pre-release excerpts of our fights?)
BREAKING: Writing Boots has learned that Aaron Sorkin just read this passage in The New York Times story about how SOTU writer Cody Keenan consulted with White House speechwriting colleague Ben Rhodes when he was stuck with the speech …
Mr. Keenan had spent 15 days holed up in a hotel room in Honolulu as the president vacationed nearby, and seven more in a windowless office in the basement of the West Wing trying to turn a blank computer screen into a 6,000-word State of the Union first draft. The lonesome process had finally gotten to him.
So the burly 34-year-old former high school quarterback left his White House office and trudged in the freezing rain to the nearby apartment of one of his closest friends in the administration, Benjamin J. Rhodes.
It was after midnight, but Mr. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser and the writer of many of the president’s foreign policy speeches, was up reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” to his 4-week-old daughter. The two men poured two single-malt Scotch whiskies and, with the baby resting quietly, began triage on Mr. Keenan’s prose. By 5 a.m., a more succinct draft was on its way to the president.
It was after midnight, but Mr. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser and the writer of many of the president’s foreign policy speeches, was up reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” to his 4-week-old daughter.
… and Sorkin called bullshit.
In fact, he called bullshit on three levels.
First, Sorkin said that no one has ever spent 22 days "holed up" writing any 6,000-word document, let alone a list of policy proposals for a president who has already done this five times. Figuring 12-hour days (the minimum to meet the definition of "holed up"), that means young Cody spent 264 hours writing these 6,000 words. "That's 22 words an hour," Sorkin said. "I fart 22 words an hour."
It also strained Sorkin's rubber credulity that, finally lonely after 22 days of solitary confinement, Keenan staggered out into the freezing rain after midnight. "Some schlock," said the creator of Sam Seaborn, "I will not eat."
And then young Keenan finds young Rhodes "reading To Kill a Fucking Mockingbird to his four-week-old daughter?" shouted Sorkin incredulously. "No wonder the kid was 'resting quietly.' She was probably pretending to be asleep, lest these goody two-shoes geeks start reciting 'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.' God help me, what have I done?"
This is the Hour of Lead. While we wait for Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go ... it seems well to honor the poor speechwriter, without whose senseless slavery the State of the Union would no doubt have been abolished half a century ago. Last week, the Professional Speechwriters Association, of which I am the distinguished executive director, released its Founding Member Survey, which as far as we know amounts to the most authoritative study ever done on the speecies scribus orallus.
Only PSA members get the full scoop, but here's the executive summary: Speechwriters feel lucky, troubled, worried, lonely and hopeful.
Speechwriters, it turns out, are not very different from you and me.
Settling in for another thoughtful, professional analysis of the State of the Union Address.
(Photo credit: Scout Murray)
Despite the decline in SOTU viewership from the 67 million viewers that President Clinton drew in 1993 and 52 million that President Obama got for his first SOTU in 2009, there will still be 30 million watching tonight, according to Politico.
And I don't even know what I'm wearing yet!
Vice President Biden is seen installing a fog machine near House of Representatives Rostrum in order to jazz up SOTU. “I wanted to do this thing up right with a whole laser rig and shit," he tells The Onion, "but that would’ve set me back mucho dinero. But don’t you worry; Uncle Joe knows a few tricks with strobes that’ll get the crowd going."
Huffington Post publishes my SOTU preview, "The State of the Union Address is decadent and depraved."
If White House chief speechwriter Cody Keenan drank while he wrote this year's State of the Union Speech, why wouldn't I drink while I listen to it? Join me here tonight for as I attempt to match the incoherence and vulgarity, decadence and depravity of this annual Washington ritual. Speech starts at 9:00 eastern; tailgating will commence a couple hours before.
No one in Chicago likes our mayor, Rahm Emanuel. An election's coming up and he'll probably get re-elected because he is slick and well-backed by corporate interests. We are afraid of crossing slick corporate-backed dudes. We have this funny feeling that if we reject them, they'll pull their slick corporate money out of our town and everything will immediately rust out and fall apart and our property values will go down and we'll spend the rest of our miserable lives staggering around in burlap smocks.
But it really is true that no one in Chicago likes Rahm. At least, I've never spoken with a single Chicagoan who said, "I like Rahm!" (And though Mayor Daley had many critics, some of them vociferous and most of them justified, you heard lots of people exclaim—sometimes in an apologetic, confessional way—"You know, I love Mayor Daley!")
Why does no one like Emanuel?
The old rhetoric professor Jerry Tarver used to talk about a colleague who was "so pompous that he could say 'good morning,' and it seemed as if he was taking credit for it."
That's not quite it with Rahm. It's not that he carries himself with too much self-love. It's that he regards the rest of us with ... well, he seems to talk to his constituents as if he's caught a pair of senseless and not very clean eight-year-old boys fighting in the dirt, and pulled us apart by our hair. Now it's time for a lecture. He's trying to be as patient as he can ...
We know the job is frustrating, Rahm, but you begged and begged and begged and begged us for it. And you bought it. And so now you own it. And you can't manage to appear grateful and happy and game, at least some of the time?
No, you're too fed up with the dumb-ass citizenry and its endless naive questions.
Well, we know how you feel, because we're parents too.
So we don't like being talked to like kids.
E.M. Forster wrote, "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?"
The older I get, and the less daydreaming I have the time, patience or hope for. And the more the thinking and the saying (the writing) become one simultaneous, overlapping thing.
Why do I write every day? Not so much to learn what I think, but to make sure that I think.
Well here comes a fine pair, each farting freshly about leadership “authenticity."
First: In the The Guardian, writer Peter York declares his (presumably authentic?) opinion, drawn from the (ostensibly authentic?) new book he is promoting, Authenticity Is a Con:
“I’m dead against authenticity, immediately suspicious of the word and its intentions. … Now that the public has lost faith in politicians, banks and the press, the mass of PRs, ad execs, lobbyists and researchers have been casting about for reassuring ways to represent their clients. They have seized on a language derived from the worst kind of therapy; a language that dwells on being true to your emotions, to yourself, but doesn’t demand much more. Authenticity is the key word in this language, because it implies truthfulness with no uncomfortable requirement for facts.”
As if to prove his authenticity, York afflicts the comfortable Guardian readers: “Now, here’s the uncomfortable bit: educated, thoughtful, middle-class people—Guardian readers—are every bit as susceptible to the authenticity sell as American rednecks.”
I’m relieved that no American rednecks read The Guardian (by definition, really). They would be so hurt!
As York knows, there’s nothing wrong with authenticity. There’s something wrong with people who talk about it. And something desperately wrong with people who write whole books about it.
And what is there to be said about people who do research about it?!
Meet organizational behavior professor Herminia Ibarra, who wrote the cover article in the current issue of The Harvard Business Review, on “The Authenticity Paradox."
“In my research on leadership transitions,” she writes, “I have observed that career advances require all of us to move way beyond our comfort zones.”
In my research on heavy drinking, I have observed that 12-14 beers in a single evening make my head fuzzy.
Whereas York glibly shoots down an infinitely complex concept in 1,000 words, Ibarra spends several thousand chewing more than she bites off. Her article (and her research) can be summed up by saying, Human identity is complicated, and so coming off as a credible human being when leading a huge corporation (or a four-man bobsled team for that matter) is not quite as easy as merely “keeping it real.”
In an excerpt from her piece most relevant to communicators, Ibarra advises us that our personal narratives—our life stories—“can become outdated as we grow, so sometimes it’s necessary to alter them dramatically or even throw them out and start from scratch.”
Find me the mid-life person who hasn’t adapted his or her self-story to fit the marriage, the kids, the big promotion, the extramarital affair, the bankruptcy and the divorce, and I’ll show you one sorry case of arrested development.
And, show me the lady or gentleman who has completely rewritten his or her personal narrative and I’ll tell you a tale about a sex-change operation, interstate fraud, a mental institution or all three.
Anybody mostly sane doesn’t need to “research” authenticity. And anybody emotionally thick enough to need to read about it won’t profit by it.
Authenticity: The more we talk about it, the less of it we have.
In fact, I'm sorry this damn post is as long as it is. Don't comment on it, whatever you do.
Words aren't everything, Auden said. They're just all we have to work with.
Which is why writers especially have to stop reading every once in awhile, and rent a couple motorcycles and ride to a place—any place—where there are no words. Like The Devil's Golf Course, Death Valley.
And Badwater Basin, which Wikipedia will tell you is the lowest point in North America, at 282 feet below sea level. But Wikipedia can't tell you it'll be the high point of your trip, because it doesn't know she will be there when you arrive.
Back at the writing desk, remembering a young neighbor boy who used to tell my dad, "Anything can happen now, Mr. Murray!"