In the Words of My Speechwriter . . .
By David McGrath
Thursday, September 4, 2008; WP Page A15
The year was 1972, and an ad in Chicago Today ("Wanted: Writers. Flexible hours.") led me to an upper floor of a building on LaSalle Street. I was 21, desperate for a job and wearing the Montgomery Ward suit I'd gotten for graduation. Before long, I was shaking hands with the president of Termpapers Inc., who hired me without bothering to look at the portfolio I brought along.
That day, I accepted orders for a 15-page paper on Bantu education in Africa and a 10-pager on the Attica prison riot. I earned $2 per page for the prison paper and $3 per page for the Bantu report, since it was for a graduate course.
Six weeks and approximately 50 term papers later, I showed up at LaSalle Street to collect another assignment, only to find a notice taped to the door: "Closed by order of the U.S. Marshal."
Government lawyers had gotten a cease-and-desist order on the basis of fraud, forgery, plagiarism and subversion of the educational system. Harvard University vowed to follow up with lawsuits against term-paper mills for breaking "an implicit educational contract" between colleges and students.
Standing before that sealed door, I was in mild shock. Yes, the work had felt nefarious at first, but I had been assured by the company president that it was all aboveboard. We writers were agreeing to let someone else use our words for fair compensation. "Just like political speechwriters," was his rationale.
Today, selling term papers to students to use as their own is still illegal, but selling speeches to politicians to use as their own remains a legitimate enterprise.
How can that be?
Consider how we react to college students who buy term papers, to author Alex Haley plagiarizing in "Roots" or to Sen. Joe Biden cribbing a few lines from a British politician in 1987. All are judged to be acting improperly because they used others' words without attribution. Yet those using the words of unacknowledged speechwriters get a free pass.
What's the difference?
The fact that the writers give permission to the speakers to pretend it's their own work does not make it okay. That's exactly what happens with term-paper mills. Just ask Jacksonville State University President William Meehan, who in 2007 was publicly embarrassed and officially denounced after it was discovered that his weekly column in a local paper had routinely been ghostwritten by the college's publicist.
Nor can second-party speechwriting be justified because it isn't journalism or scholastic scholarship. Some speechwriters have likened their profession to screenwriting, penning dialogue to be spoken by others. But in the entertainment world, the audience buys seats to witness a fiction. They know the actors don't write their own material, and authors are acknowledged in screen credits or theater programs.
When was the last time you saw or heard a writer credited at the end of a speech by John McCain or Barack Obama?
Nor can the difference be that political audiences are already aware that politicians employ speechwriters. Granted, it can be easy to determine when President Bush is reciting from someone else's script and when he is ad libbing in his own fractured English. But how can we know whether a line, or an entire speech, comes from the brains of McCain or Obama, or from hired staffers?
All those years ago, Harvard's lawyer referred to the implicit understanding between teachers and students. Isn't it even more important that there be a contract of honesty between candidates for high office and voters?
When Richard Nixon used to recite the essays of his speechwriter William Safire, you ended up knowing quite a bit about Safire and little or nothing about Nixon. Think how much more we might have known, and how history might even have been different, had Nixon spoken his mind from the start.
Can voters this year be sure they learned something about the real Sarah Palin from her GOP vice presidential nomination acceptance speech last night, considering news that it was originally written by speechwriter Matthew Scully over a week ago for an unknown male nominee? The commissioned draft was subsequently customized by Palin and a team of McCain staffers in the 48 hours leading up to its presentation.
Psychologists, composition teachers, college admissions officers and personnel directors all know that when it comes to extracting truth and character, there is no more reliable indicator than a person's original, written words. Why, then, as we watch two finalists compete for the most important job in the world, do we tolerate their lip-syncing of someone else's creation?
If contemporary political candidates cannot find time to write all their speeches, the way Teddy Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln did, they should at least craft the major ones. And when they must use speechwriters, they should credit the writer at the conclusion so the public knows the true source of the work.
David McGrath teaches English at the University of South Alabama. His e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you David.