05 October 2007

Political Speechwriters ????-2007

The death of Political Speechwriters is today being reported in blogs, in newspapers and on the television - but not in any political speeches - following the barnstorming, "unscripted" performance by Conservative leader David Cameron at the end of his party conference.

There have long been disagreements between the experts over the dating of the birth of the first Political Speechwriter. Some have suggested that speechwriting goes back to the very dawn of humanity itself, with Ug the Chieftain's brilliant "Ug smash!" oration(1) actually being written by Ug the Speechwriter - though the fact that Ug the Speechwriter could not, in fact, write anything at all and usually contented himself with trying to rub two rocks together in a futile attempt to create fire admittedly militates against this theory.

Others claim the Political Speechwriter was born during the Roman Republic, suggesting that Julius Caesar could not have "come, seen and conquered" without considerable help from his favourite Greek slave - though whether this theory refers to Caesar's famous "Veni, vedi, vici" report to the Senate following his battle with Pharnaces at Zela or merely to the Roman leader's activities at a particularly eventful orgy is still disputed.

There have, of course, been suggestions that the first Political Speechwriter was born during the time of the Tudors. Many believe that Queen Elizabeth I's announcement that she had "the body of a weak and feeble woman(2); but ... the heart of a king, and of a king of England too" was in truth ghost-written by William Shakespeare ... though given that many believe that Shakespeare himself was ghosted by Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby, Edward de Vere and/or Dr Who mean this theory advances debate very little.

What is certainly true is that even by the middle of the 20th century, many politicians still felt it incumbent on them to write their own speeches. Any doubts as to Churchill having dictated his most famous speeches to his secretary were recently allayed by the discovery of the first draft of his first speech to the Commons as Prime Minister, which reads "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and ... oh bloody Hell! I've knocked over the Johnnie Walker".

By the Presidency of John F Kennedy however, the Political Speechwriter had come to the fore. Without the work of his Special Counsel and Adviser, Ted Sorenson, the President would never have asked the Americans to "Ask not what your country can do for you (3), ask what you can do for your country(4)" or informed the people of Berlin that he was a doughnut(5).

Soon Political Speechwriters were informing us that Margaret Thatcher was "not for turning", Ronald Reagan wanted us to "win one for the Gipper" and John Major wanted to "get back to basics" (such as losing elections). At the same time the dangers of not employing a Speechwriter were also being made clear, not least in the notorious speech by former Labour leader Neil Kinnock, which reached its second day before it closed its first sentence(7). So it was that the Speechwriter came to dominate the political scene. Brilliant words and phrases were focus-grouped and honed before being permitted to issue forth from the lips of great communicators such as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Verbs were abandoned, "people's Princesses" were born. All seemed to augur well for the Speechwriters.

And yet, and yet. Some time in the noughties, people across the globe began to tire of the slick and well-honed phrase and began to question the sincerity of those who delivered them. Matters came to a head in Britain in September 2007, when - during his scripted speech to his party conference - Prime Minister Gordon Brown seemed to have been taken over by dark forces, calling for "British jobs for British workers" and the instant deportiation of "newcomers" who "sell drugs to our children or use guns" ... though, fortunately, he managed to stop himself before mentioning that, "like the Roman, I seem to see 'the River Tiber foaming with much blood'".

Political Speechwriters might perhaps have limped on even after this debacle, had it not been for the arrival of that knight in shining armour, David Cameron, who sought at one stroke to do away with political spin and deception by delivering his speech to the 2007 Conservative Conference unscripted and aided only by a few notes and an arcane process known only as "learning by heart" - a process which enables any politician to bestride the political stage like a colossus, exhibiting unspun sincerity and deep engagement with the issues of concern to the British people even as they dole out the same bland platitudes, feel-good-phrases and dog-whistle buzzwords that they have studiously workshopped with their presentation teams for the past three weeks.

With the country enraptured by Mr Cameron's performance and the new "learning by heart" process becoming all the rage, there was no more room for Political Speechwriters. They passed away, unloved and unmourned, with not even a single memorable phrase to mark their departure.

Political Speechwriters will be buried at the Church of St Soapbox on the Speakers' Corner. The funeral oration will be entirely spontaneous and unrehearsed, which is to say ill-thought-through and rambling and the congregation will sing Hymn 117 A Little Bit of Politics (Music: Andrew Lloyd-Webber; Lyrics: Ben Elton).

Political Speechwriters are survived by a bounce for the Conservatives in the polls and a worried Gordon Brown.

(1) Later shamelessly plagiarised by The Incredible Hulk during a stump speech to a large number of tanks he was, er, smashing.
(2) believed to be Mary, Queen of Scots
(3) definitely not provide affordable medical care, for one thing.
(4) if you are poor, this will conventionally involve dying in a foreign country of which you know little.
(5) Ich bin ein Berliner(6)
(6) There is, of course, no truth in the myth that the phrase translated in context into "I am a doughnut" but, dammit, it's funny.
(7) Though cf. John Prescott, for whom Speechwriters did their best best but were sadly thwarted by Mr Prescott's insistence on trying to read out a minimum of three separate lines of his prepared text at the same time.

1 Comment:

Tony said...

Damn. And just as I thought I had a chance to getting a few paragraphs in the next Cameron speech...