Posts Tagged ‘speechwriting’

The Speechwriters’ Hall of Martyrs

Posted in General, On This Day on December 9th, 2010 by Eugene Finerman – 3 Comments

December 9, 1674:  Edward Hyde’s Permanent Writer’s Block

Edward Hyde (1609-1674) may have been the most miserable speechwriter in history. I don’t mean that he was the worst: a fifth century Roman orator named Sidonius Apollinarus has that distinction and could be the reason that “ad nauseum” is a Latin term. No, Edward Hyde was likely the most frustrated, unappreciated and persecuted practitioner of “executive communications.” (That is the corporate designation for speechwriters; it sounds impressive but discreetly vague, avoiding the impression that our clients require ventriloquists.)

Our poor, sorry Hyde wrote speeches for Britain’s King Charles I. If you are familiar with his Majesty’s autopsy report, you can deduce that the speeches obviously were not a success. No, Hyde was not beheaded, too; speechwriters are never worth killing. But Hyde endured humiliation, disgrace and exile–and that was by his fellow Royalists.

Charles I felt that he had the Divine Right to bully and suppress Parliament; however, he also felt that good manners required some justification for his conduct. Of course, you can not expect a busy King to spend hours scribbling on parchment, nor could you really expect a Stuart to write an intelligible paragraph. So Edward Hyde offered his literary assistance to the King. Hyde had been one of Parliament’s few moderates. He was neither an obtuse Royalist nor a fulminating Puritan. When the Civil War began, however, he preferred traditional tyranny to the unforeseen excesses of a Parliamentary mob.

Working with Hyde, the King issued a series of proclamations and pamphlets that justified the Royalist cause in a persuasive and moderate voice. Charles may even have believed those balanced and temperate words while he was with Hyde. However, when Charles was in the company of his more belligerent advisors–particularly his battle-axe of a wife, the malleable monarch did what they told him. That created a dismaying dichotomy: Charles had the voice of reason and the actions of a thug. Worse for Charles, his belligerent advisors were far better at starting wars than winning them.

But the war faction did have one success: blaming Hyde. His moderate writings allegedly sullied the the dignity of the monarchy: a king does not need reason. If you believed the Queen, Hyde was as great a danger as Cromwell. For his demeaning rationality and treacherous temperance, Hyde became a pariah at the Court. A man of Hyde’s character was obviously unfit for government, but he did seem a suitable choice as the official guardian (babysitter) for the Prince of Wales.

Unfortunately, being the moral authority to the future Charles II, Hyde had another hopeless task. At least, Hyde was not required to write speeches to justify and rationalize the young Prince’s misadventures in Britain and France, the debts and the illegitimate offspring. (If only he had, Hyde would have been the pioneer of Restoration Comedy. ) In fact, after the restoration of the monarchy, Charles II bestowed an earldom on his hapless but loyal guardian. The new Earl of Clarendon was further appointed to the Royal Council where he once again proved a political naif but a convenient scapegoat. Hyde ended up in exile again; he had plenty of free time to write his memoirs. On this day in 1674, Hyde had a permanent writer’s block.

At least Hyde died with an Earl’s title and income. Most of us will not have that comforting a retirement package. Edward Hyde may have been most miserable speechwriter in history but he was a successful failure.

A Profession of Martyrs

Posted in General on August 10th, 2007 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

The speechwriter is a hostage to the speaker. In the best of circumstances, we might like our speakers and agree with their opinions. (Josef Goebbels was lucky that way.) Of course, most of us are never so consistently fortunate. We will be confronted with a speaker who is an ogre, a bore or an idiot. What can we do? Endure and write the damn speech. We must embellish the speaker’s thoughts, fulfill his whims and indulge his vanity. If the speaker is determined to make a fool of himself, then we must ghostwrite the suicide note.

Most of us have the consolation of obscurity. Our hare-brained speaker will do no worse than ruin a Rotarian lunch. Unfortunately, some speakers will command a national audience, and their rhetorical binge would be a public disaster. Yet, if that is the speaker’s intent, then we must resign ourselves to the ensuing notoriety. In the history of speechwriters, perhaps our most hapless martyrs were Theodore Joslin, French Strother and Gertrude Lane. During Prohibition, when this masochistic trio could have used a drink, they wrote speeches for President Hoover.

Herbert Hoover was a remarkable man, whose life proves that there is no correlation between intelligence and common sense. He was an accomplished engineer, a brilliant administrator and an incredible buffoon. History has blamed him for the Great Depression; that seems unfair since he barely noticed it. As a speaker, he was never content simply to be inane, callous and offensive. He instinctively chose the worst time to say the worst thing.

As the nation plunged into Depression, we had a President who expressed this heartfelt conviction: “If a man has not made a million dollars by the time he is forty, he is not worth much.”  When twenty-five percent of the workforce was unemployed, Hoover offered this distinctly optimistic view.   “Many people have left their jobs for the more profitable one of selling apples.”  By October 1932, President Hoover finally acknowledged a Depression: his own. He knew that he was about to be voted out of office, and in a speech at Ft. Wayne, Indiana, he upbraided the public for its ingratitude and insensitivity.

“I shall say now the only harsh word that I have uttered in public office. I hope that it will be the last I shall have to say. When you are told that the President of the United States, who by the most sacred trust of our nation is the President of all the people, a man of your own blood and upbringing, has sat in the White House for the last three years of your misfortune without troubling to know your burdens, without heartaches over your miseries and casualties, without summoning every avenue of skillful assistance irrespective of party or view, without using every ounce of his strength and straining his every nerve to protect and help, without putting aside personal ambition and humbling his pride of opinion, if that would serve–then I say to you that such statements are deliberate, intolerable falsehoods.”

One can only imagine his tantrum before his speechwriters polished it. Indeed, despite the writers’ efforts, the speech remains an embarrassment. It is petulant, pompous and oblivious to the public; but that might be a fitting description of the Hoover presidency. The speech certainly was an accurate representation of the speaker; and what more could his writers do? It is not the writer’s responsibility to save the speaker from himself; we can only guarantee that the self-destruction is grammatical.

There are times when speechwriters and mercenaries seem to have the same job description; and A.E. Houseman wrote an epitaph suitable for either profession.

These, in the day when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling
And took their wages and are dead.
What God abandoned, these defended….