Early last summer, a former Mitt Romney speechwriter got a call from an official who sounded her out about working for a candidate who was planning a run for president in 2016.
The caller told speechwriter Lindsay Hayes, “I’m calling on behalf of someone, and I can’t tell you who they are. But it’s a businessman, and he’s from New York. And he’s thinking of running for president.”
She remembers thinking, “OK, that narrows it down.”
She declined, but the story, which she recently told as a panel member at a Ragan speechwriting conference in Washington, D.C., captures some of the puzzle of Donald J. Trump, the likely source of the call. In a field filled with poll-tested messages and scripted candidates, Trump is famous—his critics say notorious—for off-the-cuff speaking and bare-knuckles verbal sparring. Who knew he even had a speechwriter?
His candidacy—and his success—are so unexpected that it’s no wonder speechwriters are scratching their heads over what it all means.
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If Trump wins the presidency, or even the party nomination, will that usher in a new era of ad-libbing informality—even among politicians who aren’t seeking to replicate Trump’s put-downs, recitations of poll numbers and commentary on the events of the day?
If he loses, is that a reaffirmation of the need for the loftier, more wordsmithed approach that traditionally has marked the speechwriting trade?
The Trump campaign did not respond to interview requests. However, the panel event, available on Ragan Training, raises questions about what will follow the Trump campaign tornado:
Will America’s id trump its super-ego?
“He’s like America’s id,” Megan Rooney, a Hillary Clinton speechwriter, said of Trump. “No filter at all.”
Rooney, who naturally has a low view of Trump’s content, nevertheless says people like the sense of spontaneity and authenticity from Trump. They tell each other, “This is the thing that no one’s supposed to say, and he’s saying it in this way,” she says.
Hayes wonders whether political pros will begin to say, “Speechwriting is dead, and all you’ve got to do is get up and ad-lib it and wing it. And people will be rewarded for not necessarily diving deep into the issues and just having this conversation that’s entertaining.”
That could lead to a boost for joke writers and people who specialize in one-liners, rather than those who craft deep policy articulations. (This, of course, assumes anybody but Trump could be Trump. When Republican opponent Marco Rubio tried to match Trump insult for insult, it coincided with the rapid demise of his campaign.)
What will Trump do about the loftier moments?
Trump thrives on jabbing his foes: Fox News journalist “Crazy” Megyn Kelly, Republican nemesis “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz, deflated GOP hopeful Jeb “Low Energy” Bush. Still, Obama speechwriter Stephen Krupin notes, leadership often demands a more respectful tone.
Would Trump fire zingers at journalists by name in his inaugural address? Bash Democrat foes at the U.N.? How would voters respond?
“The question will be how much longer he can maintain this kind of tone as people start picturing him in the White House or at least on a ballot to put him in the White House,” Krupin said, “and whether that sobers the conversation in any way.”
Does he even have a speechwriter?
In the Ragan Training session, based on a panel held in Washington D.C. last week, Hayes found herself wondering whether The Donald has anyone in a role considered central to every other campaign.
“I’m not sure if they ended up with a speechwriter, but if they do have a speechwriter, I have a vision of what that person’s day is like,” she says.
Speechwriting involves a lot of time writing and meticulously fact-checking. The last thing a writer wants to do is get the candidate dinged in the press for a factual error. Trump seems not to worry about that, perhaps because his brand is all about battling and denigrating what the candidate deems a hostile press.
This week—after the Ragan panel—Trump showed that he could deliver a formal speech during a convention for the pro-Israel group AIPAC in Washington, D.C. The address drew headlines such as one from CBS News: “Donald Trump sticks to the script in AIPAC speech.”
The Washington Examiner noted:
Anyone who has ever watched a Trump speech knows he doesn’t do prepared texts. But there Trump was, on the floor of the Verizon Center in downtown Washington, looking from side to side as he read his speech from a teleprompter.
Yes, Trump ad-libbed a lot. But as he glanced at the prompter’s glass panels, he was delivering a speech just like the politicians he has mocked over the course of the campaign.
Reassured? The downside was that he still delivered some verbal punches so controversial that AIPAC’s leadership issued an “unprecedented” apology to President Barack Obama for Trump’s tone.
What about the need to reach consensus?
Trump may be the most free-swinging candidate in recent memory, but he is not alone in using public events to bash his foes. Other politicians, right up to Obama, have used speeches to take a swing at adversaries.
Mary Kate Cary, a former Bush/Quayle speechwriter, notes a difference these days from the past. She learned to write speeches by calling for a goal everyone agrees on—clean air or water, for instance—and then outlining the best way to achieve it, she says.
Once the audience was nodding along, the speaker would affirm, “Yes, we all agree on clean air. Here are the means that are going to get us there best. And let me explain these means.”
“In current politics today, you would trash everybody else’s means,” Cary says. “We didn’t do that.”
She cites Nixon speechwriter and former New York Times columnist William Safire, who used to caution that speechwriters don’t want the audience saying, “That guy was a great speaker.” You want them to say, “Let us march.”