By: Brookelyn Riley
At 23 years old, Jon Favreau interrupted then-U.S. Senate candidate Barack Obama during a speech rehearsal to offer him improvement techniques. This bold move launched him into a 7-year career as President Obama’s lead speechwriter. After an incredible tenure at the White House, Favreau has recently decided to delve his talents into another arena – screenwriting. His upcoming departure from the White House staff on March 1 calls into question the importance of these presidential positions that we rarely acknowledge as an essential part of the president’s persona. (Parsons 2013)
We recently discussed Alexander’s Performance of Politics book in which Alexander argues that images, emotion, and performance are vital features in battling for presidential power. A winning candidate will utilize these images, emotions, and performance aspects to paint a picture of themselves as the hero, the only one fit to lead the nation at this tumultuous time. (Alexander 2012) However, it is important to realize while watching candidates paint this lucrative picture that many of these images and emotions of their performance are cast through their speeches, written by their speechwriters.
Politics has always been performative, but what has changed in more modern campaigns is the elements of performance. They are more differentiated and defused, resulting in new roles, new paid specialties, and a new self-consciousness about their performance. In past democratic mass politics there was little likeliness for one to find speechwriters. When speechwriting did become more common, it was not a paid or specialized role. Finally, when it became a profession, it did not display itself in the public sector. It has only been in the past 30 years that speechwriting became recognized as a commonality in democratic politics with speechwriters having an active role in taking credit for their work of the candidate’s words. Today’s successful speechwriters, such as Favreau, give interviews and write books detailing their accounts, sometimes even at the candidate’s expense. Modern day journalists are quick to ask if the words that come out of a candidate’s mouth are truly their own, which has prompted news organizations to bring in former speechwriters such as William Safire (New York Times) and Pat Buchanan (CNN) on staff. (Alexander pg. 290)
Robert Schlesinger, author of White House Ghosts, said, “No modern president can be successful without an appreciation of the importance of communication …And no president has the time to write his or her own speeches.” The greatest presidents have a strong sense of when and how to communicate with the public and utilize their speechwriters to achieve that goal. (Schlesinger)
A president who leads a nation as opposed to just running a government must be loquacious, and the more recent presidents have been loquacious to a fault. This change has been altered by the rise of television and other forms of mass media. President Gerald Ford, not typically remembered as a man of many words, delivered a speech every six hours, on average, in 1976. President Jimmy Carter addressed the nation even more often and added 9,873 single-spaced pages to the Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States. President Bill Clinton in his first year spoke three times more publicly in his first 12 months than Reagan did. With these transformations, a rhetorical presidency has been brought about. Crafting a speech is a learning and synthesizing process that allows a president to get information, decipher issues, and come to conclusions about national policies and efforts. Importantly, it helps him find the words to persuade his fellow countrymen to come on board with these decisions. (Gelderman 1995)
FDR and his immediate successors showed that a full collaboration with speechwriters could be highly effective and beneficial in persuading this audience. Now, collaborative efforts are essential. As a rule, the more that modern day presidents have chose not to work closely with their speechwriters – even when they do a lot of their own speechwriting, like Clinton – them ore they have tended to find themselves in various sorts of political woes and troubles. (Gelderman 1995) Therefore, after working with Favreau since his entrance into the presidency and working closely with him throughout, it will be interesting to see – or not to see – the dynamic of the president’s speeches and if there is even a noticeable difference.
Cody Keenan, Obama’s incoming chief speechwriter, got some well deserved attention this week with the State of the Union as his first big gig as top pen at the president’s desk. “There’s a myth of the White House speechwriter that somehow or another we’re the ones who go into a room and come out with this fully formed text,” former Clinton chief speechwriter Don Baer said. Since the number of people involved in the speechwriting process has significantly grown in the last 30 years, the jobs of those like Keenan and Favreau are more than presidential collaborators; they also have to be skilled bureaucratic infighters. (Schlesinger 2013)
Speeches like the State of the Union are the president’s opportunity to not only make a case but to outline a path for governmental bureaucracy to follow. This aspect is why modern speechwriters have to have more than rhetorical prowess. They must know how to guide a speech through an “often-harrowing process.” For instance, the Obama speechwriting team began drafting the State of the Union months ago. Former Clinton speechwriter Jeff Shesol said that “the writing is often the least difficulty piece of it. Writing the little block of text about education, writing the applause lines – these are the things you know how to do as a speechwriter. The challenge is to try to impose some order on this – to bring order out of the chaos.” (Schlesinger 2013) Ultimately, the final editing is up to the president.
As outlined, the job of being a speechwriter for the president has went from being a secretive to a high-profile one, now coming with attention, media coverage, and even fame and other rewarding career pursuits to follow. They play pivotal pieces in the presidential puzzle. It will be an interesting and notable to watch how the big picture is affected as pieces such as Favreau are removed and ones like Keenan are entered in.
Gelderman, Carol. “All the President’s Words.” The Wilson Quarterly (1976-) 19.2 (1995): 68-79. Web. 8 Feb. 2013.
Parsons, Chris. “Jon Favreau, President Obama’s head speechwriter, is departing .” Los Angeles Times CA] 5 Feb. 2013: Web. 8 Feb. 2013.
Schlesinger, Robert. “Presidents and their Speechwriting.” White House Ghosts. Web. 8 Jan. 2013.
Schlesinger, Robert. “Writing the State of the Union.” US News & World Report 12 Feb. 2013: Web. 12 Feb. 2013.