The Speechwriters

We're going to be hearing a lot of clips from the candidates' speeches tomorrow in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. I think we sometimes forget, particularly when we hear a superb one, that the person who wrote it is not the same as the person who delivers it.

Who are these speechwriters? The New York Times had a long profile Friday on Barack Obama's chief speechwriter. He's 26 year old Jon Favreau. They met the night of Obama's 2004 speech in Boston. Favreau, who was then a speechwriter for John Kerry (yes, at 23) heard Obama rehearse the speech backstage and recommended changing a line. One thing led to another, and the next year Favreau was working for Obama. Obama has two other speechwriters, ages 26 and 30.

Favreau spent a lot of time with Obama in the beginning months of the campaign, when things weren't as busy. He's successful because he isn't writing in the abstract, he's channeling his boss.

Mr. Favreau also used this time to master Mr. Obama’s voice. He took down almost everything the senator said and absorbed it. Now, he said, when he sits down to write, he just channels Mr. Obama — his ideas, his sentences, his phrases.

As another speechwriter puts it: [More...]

“The trick of speechwriting, if you will, is making the client say your brilliant words while somehow managing to make it sound as though they issued straight from their own soul,” said the writer Christopher Buckley, who was a speechwriter for the first President Bush. “Imagine putting the words ‘Ask not what your country can do for you’ into the mouth of Ron Paul, and you can see the problem.”

And, there are some critics of Obma's speeches:

Not everyone is so enamored. Mr. Obama excels at inspirational speeches read from a teleprompter before television cameras, critics have noted, but many of his other speeches on the campaign trail have failed to electrify.

Ted Widmer, a historian at Brown University, said that Mr. Obama’s speeches “were perfect for getting to where he was early in the race, but I think now that we’re in a serious campaign, it would be helpful to hear more concrete proposals.”

So, what about the other candidates. Who writes for Hillary and Edwards? Who writes for their spouses? What about Huckabee? His speeches, like Obama's, seem unique to his personality. (If you know, feel free to leave it in the comments so I can do a follow-up post.)

At the opposite end, I wouldn't be surprised to learn McCain has no speechwriter and pens his own rambling, sleepy lines. If McCain is serious about becoming the nominee, he'd do well to take a page from Obama's playbook and hire at 25 year old.

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  • Display: Sort:
    McCain should do no such thing (none / 0) (#1)
    by chemoelectric on Sun Jan 20, 2008 at 11:48:09 PM EST
    I have said that Obama's speeches are meaningless (calling them non-specific is generous), and remarked that he seemed like a twenty-something in a forty-something body. Lo and behold, I discover that his words are literally those of a twenty-something.

    This "works" for Obama because he thinks like a twenty-something. It would not work for McCain, who is an elderly man exhausted after a lifetime of careening, spit-charged bitterness.

    i'm not so sure this is a good thing: (none / 0) (#2)
    by cpinva on Sun Jan 20, 2008 at 11:51:54 PM EST
    who was then a speechwriter for John Kerry (yes, at 23)

    if you'll recall, sen. kerry lost in 2004. having the same individual writing speeches for you, that wrote them for a losing candidate, can't be a positive.

    this might explain the overall vacuuousness of sen. obama's speeches.

    I suppose it's possible (none / 0) (#3)
    by oldpro on Mon Jan 21, 2008 at 01:29:55 AM EST
    for a particularly savvy, especially talented wordsmith who empathizes - connects - with the person for whom s/he writes to do a fine job at such a young age.  It's startling when the person is so young but the truth is that it's very difficult at any age.  It's a rare talent and requires the happy accident of both subject and writer finding and recognizing one another.