Friday, December 19, 2008

On speechwriting, and writing

Ann Althouse plows through a gushing WaPo article about 27-year-old Obama speechwriter Jonathan Favreau and suggests we should be jealous of Favreau. I'm not.

When I hear bad speeches, like the ones President Bush has stumbled through the past eight years, I sometimes think I should have been a speechwriter. But after reading Matthew Scully's account of the Bush speechwriting shop -- and reading the insipid goo written by Michael Gerson over the past several months -- I realize I'm temperamentally unsuited for that kind of gig. Speechwriting seems to require a combination of masochism and extreme earnestness that I lack.

When I was 27, I was a sports editor at a twice-weekly newspaper in Calhoun, Ga. Except on football Fridays, I wrote practically every word in the sports section -- often more than a dozen bylines a week -- and also took most of the photos. Being a one-man sports section sort of accustomed me to working solo. I became utterly addicted to the byline and the proprietary sense of authorship the byline implies -- my story, damn it.

Cranking out thousands upon thousands of words week after week teaches you to write quick and forces you to discover every possible shortcut in reporting. And meeting deadline after deadline fills you with a certain fearless bravado as a writer: "What can I do? Ho-ho! What can't I do?"

Fame? If you've never been a small-town sports editor, buddy, you don't know what fame is. Tom Wolfe in all his white-suited glory was never adored like I was in Calhoun, Ga. Get habituated to that at age 27, and it becomes impossible to be satisfied writing without credit, as the speechwriter necessarily must.

Fast-forward a decade. Having gone to a daily, turned my attention to politics, conquered about every journalistic mountain within reach and won a national award, I came to Washington an accomplished 37-year-old -- and discovered I was nobody.

Whatever you did before you got to Washington may have been good enough to get you to Washington, but Washington is not impressed by your mere presence. Being the top speechwriter for the incoming administration elevates Favreau several notches above my own lowly sphere, but he's nobody in Washington, either. And he's just five years out of college.

Envy him? No. Pity him. If Favreau lasts two years in this vicious town, he'll have so many knives in his back he'll feel like a pin cushion. Worst of all, he's a True Believer. The falsehood and cruelty of Washington can shock even a thoroughgoing cynic, but what it does to True Believers . . . oh, pity him.

UPDATE: Tom Smith: "I think the speeches sound like they were written by a twenty something with a knack for writing speeches but who doesn't really know much. If [Favreau] is responsible for Hope, he has a lot to answer for." BTW, Tom, it wasn't Peggy Noonan who wrote "Tear down this wall," it was Peter Robinson.

UPDATE II: James Fallow, ex-wunderkind, objects to a factual error.

1 comment:

  1. I have to ask this as I don't know the answer: When did presidents stop writing speeches? When you examine presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt, Lincoln, Jefferson, they wrote what they spoke. What happened? In this day and age, we have presidents that don't even write their own books (Profiles in Courage), but get pulitzers for them. It's a sad state of affairs.