Editor at Large Politics

Obama, Ambassadors, and Me

Writing political speeches is a cloak-and-dagger profession that is all cloak and no dagger. Speechwriters are the unsung heroes of the campaign season–propriety prevents them from claiming credit for their work, and they are rarely acknowledged by their august employers.

To me, sitting in Berlin and writing my little English blog, they are as sidereal as celebrities. Someday I hope to join their ranks.

That’s why I dared to speak to a former US Ambassador after he delivered an hourlong assessment of the current situation in Afghanistan. The Iranian Ambassador to Germany presented a retort. The Afghani Minister for Education added his own judgement. I sat on my hands.

At the end of the evening, standing by the door, I found myself face-to-face with the US Ambassador. Cringing, I asked him–no, I couldn’t ask. I complimented his speech.

Then I hedged: “I’m trying to break into speechwriting, and ghostwriting, and I know that you’re now retired as a diplomat, and I know this is an awkward question–”

And then I just came out and said it. I asked if he had written his speech himself.

The former US Ambassador’s answer was cheerful, even generous. He had written the speech himself, and even showed me all of the last-minute changes he’d made as a result of conversations just prior to taking the podium. Green carets and cross-outs blotted the page.

Only as an independent could he have altered his prepared words so freely.”If I were still representing the Department of State,” he said, someone else might have written my speech.”

I make this point because of Barack Obama’s speech this week, called the best this year by NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof. Although the jury is still out, it looks as though his oration Tuesday will work to his campaign’s advantage. In the speech, Senator Obama addressed the controversy over his relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah White, whose fiery sermons have been burning up YouTube for a week. The Democratic presidential candidate faced the accusations directly while at the same time reminding the public of the personal racial divides he has transcended in his own life.

Eloquent speeches like this one have played a large role in Obama’s audacious rise, particularly among young people. But it’s not only the quality of Obama’s speeches that stands out: it’s his campaign’s willingness to share the credit for them. I know that his chief speechwriter Jon Favreau is twenty-six years old, thanks to a profile which appeared in the New York Times in January. I know that David Axelrod, Obama’s campaign mastermind, says that “Barack trusts him.” Perhaps the senator’s background as a lawyer, academic and independent author gives him the confidence to acknowledge the support team that most other politicians play down.

Parenthetically: A Cambridge professor of mine first worked at the White House as a speechwriter in the Nixon administration. His worst mistake? Running up to his boss immediately after a speech, in front of the entire Beltway audience, and audibly thanking the official for keeping in a paragraph that the neophyte had written. Kiss. Of. Death.

I’ll get into the substance of Obama’s speech in a later post, as I monitor reactions on and off the web. Today I just want to celebrate the fact that such an excellent speaker can still admit that he gets a little help.

Confidential to editing nerds: yes, the title of this post uses a serial comma. We’ll get into that some other time.

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