Fake It ‘til You Make It: Editors and Speechwriters in 2016 Politics

Now that the horror of the election season media takeover is done, I thought I’d throw my thoughts into the pit of despair known as the 2016 election coverage. Instead of focusing on the events of the campaigns themselves, I want to focus on the way the media has covered the election as a whole and how we as readers and watchers have consumed that coverage. More than possibly any election in American history, the media we consume has affected the course of this election. As this slog of an election season has shown us, the words we hear have power over us… and it's not just the words: there is power in the way those words are said.

A common lament of contemporary culture is that no one pays attention to important events. We always hear that “people these days” only pay attention to their television shows and Snapchat. The past 18 months have shown these claims to be wrong. It has certainly been an unreal, overdramatic election straight out of TV shows like House of Cards, but we’ve all been paying attention. In fact, a common narrative throughout has been that even the most dissatisfied members of the electorate are now involved, on both sides. There have been countless discussions about what made this year’s election different than every other before it; I’m most interested in one aspect that is not often discussed: the effect, or lack of, that speechwriters have on political thought.

People like political speechwriters and other “behind-the-scenes” campaign members are seen as doing their jobs right when they don’t attract attention. Presidents are given full credit for their speeches; no one is congratulating speechwriters on stirring speeches given at the national conventions this year. If the media is asking who wrote a political speech, it’s because the speech has offended, or was plagiarized—as we’ve seen this year.

Speechwriting has been an essential part of elections for decades. It is commonly noted that Ronald Reagan went from “just” a successful politician to a force to be reckoned with after he agreed to work with Peggy Noonan, who authored several of his most memorable speeches including his national address after the Challenger explosion. Jon Favreau, who became Barack Obama’s Director of Speechwriting, would work with Obama personally during the campaign to discuss writing theory and what groups of people they need to reach out to.

Politicians, and their speechwriters, have always been mindful of the words they use to convey meanings. Using the right words can shift the way the media will react and how people will think about the issues being discussed. But using wrong words can draw attention too…maybe even more so. Reagan and Obama are examples of what using the right words will do. The idea of wrong words brings me back to the present.

It’s been a good year for fans of wrong words. Every election involves mudslinging and at least some degree of speaking negatively of the other party’s plans, but we left behind the typical measure a long time ago. Choosing to read off the cuff at all times, with a few scribbled notes at most, our favorite angry Cheeto has become the embodiment of America’s id. His initial campaign announcement was certainly not scripted. No one would have agreed it was a good idea at the time to say what followed about Mexicans…or any of the rest of what he said, to be honest. But as we all saw from the outcome of the election, the American majority seems to respond to those wrong words with a “Hell yeah!” …

Does this mean speechwriting is a pointless, unnecessary job? After all, this election proved that politicians could get a long way without them. Maybe the first statement out of our mouths is the best one, and changing that or making it more appealing turns it false somehow.  But this isn’t honesty either; I could write whatever I wanted, but if I gave a speech I would be necessarily concerned about the accuracy of my information. Also, your first thought isn’t always “true,” and as we have seen in this election season, some first thoughts often lack empathy, sympathy, and common decency. We all need our words and ideas to be edited. If we reject logic and empathy, we start to consider illogical plans, like building giant walls, as ways to solve our problems.  

Everyone needs an editor: a second voice to offer comments and criticism.

Don’t get me wrong. The oversized Oompa Loompa has a speechwriter now; you don’t get to be a party nominee—and elected President of the United States—without one assigned to you. Everyone, including the President, needs an editor—or at least a speechwriter—who knows that editing is necessary in order to check for factual accuracy and keeping the public informed. The country is about to discover what happens when a man who has ignored information not in sync with his rhetoric is in charge. He clearly doesn’t know what he’s doing, leaving the power of the executive branch in the hands of his staff. The next presidential speechwriter will have more power than any of his or her predecessors.  I can only hope that that speechwriter will know the value of editing, empathy, and common decency… 

Without those values, all we have are the wrong words—words of fear, of hate, and of ignorance.

--Jake Van Baale, '17