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The President's speech
There is a great tradition of Presidential speechwriting in the US - less obvious in Indian political life, going by the banal stuff inflicted on us - that goes back decades. President Kennedy's speechwriters included the historian Arthur Schlesinger and Ted Sorenson (who passed away last October), who JFK, a formidable writer himself, called an "intellectual blood bank. " William Safire, the language maven, wrote for Richard Nixon. Atlantic Monthly's James Fallows ghosted for Jimmy Carter. Ronald Reagan and George Bush used The Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan.
It's not that these speechwriters bandied their thoughts and prescriptions to Presidents. They fashioned into eloquence broad ideas and themes Presidents gave them. Some of their words, mined from poetry and literature, entered the national consciousness. Often, they come during the country's tragic or heroic moments. When Noonan wrote Reagan's address after the Challenger tragedy, she drew on poet John Magee's words about aviators who "slipped the surly bonds of earth. . . and touched the face of God. "
Equally poetic was Obama's speech last week after the Arizona carnage (written by his 30-year old Harvard grad speechwriter, Cody Keenan) in which he asked Americans "to make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds, " and "to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully. . . " before invoking the stirring image of Christina Green, the youngest victim, "as she dances on rain puddles in heaven. "
All this doesn't happen quickly or overnight. Mark Twain once said, "it usually takes three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech. " This is true in the case of American Presidents, particularly Obama, whose eloquence, enhanced by teleprompters, is measured. Both the Arizona speech and State of the Union (written by another 30-year old, his principal speechwriter Jon Favreau) were weeks in the making.
For the Arizona address, Obama spoke at length to a young clergyman on his staff, Joshua DuBois, on what healing words he could offer a wounded nation. Favreau, who also wrote Obama's inaugural address, often has several sessions with the President before a big speech, sometimes waking up at 5 am or staying up late till 3 am, to understand his vision and passion. He then spends weeks on research, interviewing historians and past speechwriters, listening to past orations, and studying periods of crisis and achievement.
Do Indian politicians and public figures put in such effort, assuming they have that kind of support staff? Most tragic moments in our Republic's life are accompanied by trite words exhorting people to maintain peace and calm. Both the words, and incidents, are forgotten soon. Remember anything said after 26/11? Meanwhile, the world recalls even George Bush's infelicitous but memorable expressions (such as "either you are for us or against us, ") because of the immense purpose and clarity that it was uttered with.
In fact, not all memorable presidential expressions come from White House staffers. The story goes that another Bush line after 9/11, "Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done, " came from former Clinton speechwriter Tom Malinowski (who is also credited with Clinton's brilliant address to the Indian Parliament that brought MPs to their feet). Malinowski's protêgê John Gibson, who was on the Bush speechwriting team, just didn't reveal this at that time because he thought the line would be removed.
Nor is it necessary that speechwriters be grizzled veterans of life and politics. Some of the best efforts come from young men of great passion but little experience. Two of Obama's principal speechwriters are barely 30. Probably because the President himself is so eloquent, he has confidence in them, even though, in the words of his advisor David Axelrod, "Barack doesn't trust too many folks with that - the notion of surrendering that much authority over his own words. "
In fact, there is a convivial, almost collegiate atmosphere in the White House speechwriting team. The President and his main flock are passionate supporters of rival baseball teams. The story goes that when Obama's Chicago White Sox beat Favreau's favoured Boston Red Sox, the President swept off Favreau's desk with a small broom. Another time, a picture of Favreau grabbing the breast of a cardboard cut-out of Hillary Clinton was posted online. A mortified Favreau called her office to apologise. They told him to not worry about it, saying, "Senator Clinton is pleased to learn of Jon's obvious interest in the state department, and is currently reviewing his application. "
As for our political culture, the speeches say it all. Pompous, hackneyed, and largely dishonest.
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