Post by Jenny
Today we commemorate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose speeches still humble and inspire us nearly 43 years after his death. As an orator, Dr. King combined eloquent writing with a passionate and persuasive delivery. His seventeen minute “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered in 1963, is woven into the very fabric of this country, and rightly so.
Great speeches stand the test of time. Time Magazine’s Top 10 Greatest Speeches goes back to the 4th century B.C. and the Apology of Socrates. Naturally, the list also includes “I Have a Dream.” But I know that, unlike Dr. King, not all speakers write their own speeches, and this list made me wonder…what about the less-recognized contributors throughout history? What about the speechwriters?
Writing something to be read aloud by someone else seems like a whole other ballgame to me. I have trouble putting words into my own mouth and can’t imagine trying to put them in, say, the President’s, especially in emotionally-charged times of triumph and tragedy. But speechwriters have a long, if rather unsung, history in American politics. (In his book of the same name, Robert Schlesinger calls presidential speechwriters White House Ghosts.)
Although previous presidents had help in the speechwriting department, Warren G. Harding was the first president to hire someone to do it full-time, a “literary clerk” named Judson Welliver. Apparently, he needed one. H.L. Mencken said of Harding’s inaugural address, “It reminds me of a string of wet sponges…of stale bean soup…of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it.” Ouch. But Mencken liked Welliver, whom he called “a journalist of the highest skill…who knows how to write simply and charmingly.”
Not all speechwriters fade into anonymity. Ben Stein (yes, the actor/game show host/lawyer/political commentator) wrote speeches for Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Newsman Chris Matthews wrote for President Carter. Peggy Noonan wrote for Reagan and the elder Bush. But do you remember Michael Waldman (Clinton) or David Frum (G.W. Bush)? I didn’t.
When I hear amazing speeches such as “I Have a Dream” or JFK’s inaugural address, I am reminded to never underestimate the power of spoken words—or the person who wrote them, be it the speaker him/herself or one of the unsung Judson Wellivers of the world. (Mr. Welliver, I’m happy to say, has a society named after him, a bipartisan social club of former speechwriters.)
Do you have a favorite inspirational speech? Do you know who wrote it?