Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Speech Writer’s Tale

This profile of White House speech writer Ben Rhodes in today’s Washington Post, fascinates me on so many levels.

First, it chronicles his path to becoming a speech writer, one I suspect is familiar to most other practitioners of the craft. It’s the kind of thing you sort of fall into, because other people discover you have a talent for it. Yes, there are courses of study you can pursue, as I have. Writing courses certainly help. But those mainly hone an innate talent.

Second, it’s a rather extended profile for someone who isn’t even the Chief White House speech writer.

Finally, I can’t help wonder if this isn’t a violation of one of the cardinal rules of those in the public relations field - and certainly speech writing falls beneath that penumbra - “don’t let yourself become the story.”

Some fascinating insights into the way this administration values President Obama’s speeches are revealed:
“Rhodes said all the speechwriters were aware of the critical role they shared in an administration that depends so much on Obama's speeches to move the agenda forward.”

This elicits a counter view:
“Not everyone thinks that's the best way to govern.
‘Obama's instinct to save himself with a big speech is not a good instinct,’ said David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush. ‘People get a sense of you and they stop hearing you. People do tune you out.’”

But what really stood out in my mind was this quote from Rhodes: “I drank the Kool-Aid hard after the '04 convention speech,” according to the Post.

“Drank the Kool Aid,” seems to me a rather loaded phrase, since it refers to the Reverend Jim Jones and the mass suicide at Jonestown. It’s a phrase which indicates a belief in something one shouldn’t, with disastrous results. If that’s what he really means, why is he working for this President?

That’s why letting yourself become part of the story is dangerous.

Still it’s a fascinating read for anyone interested in how speech writers work.

From the Bully Pulpit - Tom


  1. Brilliant, Tom. I also appreciated this article and how much in-depth attention it devotes to our often-clandestine craft, especially the differences between the language of campaigning and the language of governing. Agree with you about the Kool-Aid comment, too. I wonder if Rhodes picked up on the negative connotation once he saw his words in print?

  2. Allison, thanks for joining in with a comment. Yes, I wonder if he understood what he said, once it was published, as well. I have a sneaking suspicion someone in the communications office has pointed it out to him by now. I hope you'll connect as a follower and continue to comment here.