Via Jeremy Blachman, I saw this Times article on Pres. Bush’s speechwriting team as it prepares for this week’s State of the Union address. I had a couple of thoughts.
First, the chief speechwriter, William McGurn, says that Bush “is the strictest editor, the most line by line” he’s ever had. McGurn compares Bush’s scrutiny with that of William F. Buckley at the National Review and the late Robert L. Bartley at the Wall Street Journal, McGurn’s former employers. But wouldn’t McGurn have been writing very different material for those publications than he is for the White House? If your editor at NR or the WSJ needs to work over every line of something you write, they probably shouldn’t have hired you in the first place. I would hope those august publications would allow a little more autonomy from their writers, even in editorials purporting to represent the opinion of the entire editorial board. Presidential speechwriters, on the other hand, have to craft a speech that essentially reads the boss’s mind, and goes out under the boss’s byline. If McGurn’s pieces at NR had been signed “William F. Buckley,” my guess is that Buckley would have examined them very closely. Is Bush even really an “editor” at all, in the sense that term is typically used in the publishing world?
My second thought is that the obvious reason for McGurn’s description of Bush as a line by line editor is his desire to perpetuate the fiction that presidents write their own speeches. By now, of course, it’s really little more than a polite lie. If people like Ted Sorensen, Pat Buchanan, and Peggy Noonan can get famous for being presidential speechwriters, there’s really no point in pretending such people don’t exist. But I suppose it wouldn’t do to call the president a mouthpiece, a karaoke artist. To be fair, presidents (to varying degrees) exert control over at least the broad outlines of their speeches’ content, as well as the general rhetorical voice. But the Times article makes much of the long days McGurn and his team have been working, which seems unnecessary if they’re mere scriveners of the president’s words.
Third, for a very good article on a presidential speechwriter, check out this New Yorker article about McGurn’s predecessor Michael Gerson. It’s a lot longer than the Times piece, but it’s a lot more interesting.
All this reminds me of the occasional debates over what role clerks should have in writing judicial opinions. The analogy is not exact, because presidents do a lot besides give speeches, while (appellate) judges count opinion-producing as their primary duty. Judges vary in their practices, but a lot of opinions are written almost entirely by clerks (with varying degrees of input and direction from judges). If Gerson can be praised for the “mind-meld” he achieved with Pres. Bush (allowing him to draft speeches that presumably needed less line by line editing), and if folks like Buchanan and Noonan can trade on their ghostwriting and not feel any shame for it, why should law clerks be so different?
It’s acceptable to acknowledge that Noonan wrote two of “the Great Communicator’s” best speeches and the most consequential speech by George H.W. Bush, but it’s not acceptable to acknowledge Clerk So-and-so as the author of Smith v. Jones? Maybe it’s a good thing if the law is clear enough that a law clerk can apply it as well as a judge. There’s also the (less flattering) possibility that a judge’s mind might be easy to read and voice easy to reproduce. Certainly, the judge should scrutinize and edit anything that goes out in the name of the judges or the court. But why is it considered so awful for a judge to work as a critical editor instead of the initial drafter? After all, that’s what presidents do.