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 / Winter 2008 /Issue 53(originally published by Booz & Company)


Best Business Books 2008: Rhetoric

Schlesinger’s White House history affirms how at least one vital aspect of that presidential process, from the FDR presidency to that of GWB, transcends politics and personnel: Speeches aren’t written. They’re rewritten, rewritten once more, and then revised. Only the best speeches — and the toughest speechwriters — are rhetorically elevated instead of fatally compromised by the seemingly endless iterations and political review.

To succeed in this environment, more than a few White House ghosts appear to have had egos larger than those of the presidents they served. The rhetorical imprint of JFK speechwriter Ted Sorensen on Camelot was such that the Kennedy administration’s chapter becomes “The Age of Sorensen.” The man’s self-assurance and intimate relationship with his president (and, yes, writing partner) is simultaneously poignant and off-putting. On the one hand, Sorensen’s pride of White House place and craft careens into an alienating arrogance. On the other, Schlesinger observes, the man re­mains touchingly protective of the slain president he so ably served. (For another take on the Sorensen years, see “A Master Class in Lead­ership,” by Nell Minow.)

When it comes to manipulating rhetorical machinery, the presidential differences are as interesting as the similarities. FDR was a master manipulator and collaborator who loved language and skillfully edited the output of his rhetorical brain trusts; Truman was more invested in his plainspoken Missouri self-image than in the patrician speechifying of his predecessor. Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter were constrained both by the limits of their own communication styles and by their speech-writing processes. Richard Nixon could improvise a decent narrative from bullet points, whereas the first George Bush demanded that no submitted speech contain sentence fragments. Ronald Reagan’s years as an actor and General Electric spokesperson — as well as the sharp ideological divisions between his administration’s pragmatists and conservative “true believers” — made him an editor par excellence.

But they all had one thing in common: No for­mula for the writing process was sustainable. If the speech-writing process is too institutionalized, the rhetoric reads like laundry lists of policy points and Appropriations Committee compromises. If relationships are too personal, speechwriters become de facto policymakers rather than superior wordsmiths. The question of whether “policy should become speeches” or “speeches should become policy” has been a perennial source of tension in presidential politics. Whether speeches should be defined as events or as part of ongoing rhetorical processes has been a bloody bone of White House contention for decades.

These arguments extend deep into speech-writing mechanics and content. Should speechwriters be as knowledgeable as policymakers? Or is the rest of the institution better off when the writer’s role is to polish dull proposals into serviceable speeches? (Indeed, when the Clinton administration’s National Security Council “took away” foreign policy speech writing from the White House speechwriters, Schlesinger reports, it was heralded as a coup d’etat.) Are all the president’s communications best served by an all-star rhetorical team? Or is “good enough” good enough so long as the team is overseen by a superb editor who fluently knows the president’s voice?

The amorphous nature of the speech-writing process highlights other unavoidable complexities. For instance, how many of a leader’s public words reflect his or her own ideas rather than expressive implants from collaborators who have empathized their way into the leader’s thought processes? When gifted ghosts come to know their charges more as real people than as scripted orators, what do they then become? Peers, colleagues, advisors, collaborators…or something else? Presidents are never pure puppets, but history confirms that they seldom author either their most memorable or their most important lines. Who is the speechwriter’s true client: the president or the president’s chosen constituency?

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