‘There comes a time when patience is no longer a virtue.’ These seventy-year-old words hovered over the dunes during a misty run along the North Sea coast. It was a Tuesday morning in October. Green leaves turned into brown. In the silence I pondered the words Prime Minister Louis Beel solemnly spoke to the Dutch people in 1947. Words that prepared our small country for war in Indonesia — police actions as they where called. The Prime Minister, one journalist observed, ‘moves through political language like a poisonous snake cunningly stalking his prey in a tropical jungle’.
A new voice arose as I ran on. It was President Jimmy Carter’s, diagnosing America with a crisis of confidence. ‘It strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.’
Phrases, anecdotes, fragments of political language — simmering in the back my head, bursting into song as soon as I start to run.
In the beginning was the word, I learned as a little boy, the word was with God and the word was God. It is a mystical truth, ringing more true each time I open my Twitter feed. These god-like qualities may sound overblown too many. They are taken deadly serious however by a small group of craftspeople (of which I am one): speechwriters. Practitioners of the oldest literary craft: the spoken word. What started as sagas whispered around campfires is now a well-oiled profession where politics and literature collide.
A speechwriter helps others — especially politicians — turn emotions, ideals and truths into understanding. From the shallow wordplay during election time to the word therapy in the wake of a national disaster. Politicians’ words flow like cement and then cure within the joints of society. Political rhetoric is ‘art for democracy’ — for God and country, one could say.
A speechwriter’s life often is the schizophrenic’s life. Being John Malkovich meets Ground Hog Day: crawling under someone’s skin and into his or her head — over and over again. You are part of ‘the political sphere’, but half of you stands outside as well. You are in that world, but not of that world.
‘You’ve got to be one to become one’, I once said — a fumbling answer to the question how one lands such a job. Grotesque as it may sound, there is some truth to it. One can hold a degree in rhetoric, but being a speechwriter is different. The job just suits you or it just doesn’t.
It only suited me after years of dealing with an unfocused longing to write. I tried my hand at a novel which — according to the publisher — went off track somewhere half way. As one door shut, another opened. I was offered the chance to write a speech for the principal at the Ministry where I worked: an energetic and glib young man who could sell policy like a shiny sports car. A future Prime Minister according to many. I wrote about a new highway using phrases like a major endeavour and promising local residents a blissful future behind beautiful noise barriers. The speech was approved, but on his way to the event the Minister threw the eight single sided, double spaced pages through the car. All part of the job, I was told. The pages where quickly put back in the right order and the Minister spoke as if he had spent a week carefully crafting the speech himself.
After he had finished speaking I knew I had found my dream job. This curious form of spoken nonfiction — leadership by speech, governmental performance art, political spoken word artistry, call it what you will — had somehow fulfilled the longing.
Every speechwriter silently wants to be Sam Seaborn, the idealistic word wizard from The West Wing. Reality bites, though. Nine days out of ten are spent brooding behind a computer screen. Every speech starts with a stack of horribly written policy papers, one or two cues from your speaker and a head full of words and lines. And a looming deadline.
After the flashy young Minister left I went on to write for his successor: an introverted, easy-going liberal lady who carefully weighed her words. She excelled behind the scenes and accepted public speaking as an unavoidable task. Whenever I offered her a penny for her thoughts, she happily obliged. But when pressed for a story or anecdote, she offered an apologetic look. ‘I’m sorry, but I always forget those…’ And on we went, two Dutch people practicing the correct pronunciation of the word drought.
The office next to the minister was occupied by her colleague, the State Secretary. She was a social democrat and before entering government largely unknown in government quarters. Her policy portfolio was heavy, ranging from global warming to failing trains.
She helped us take the leap inside her head by taking a photo of her book shelves, from which I picked the novel Open City by Teju Cole — a slowly meandering story of a psychologist from Nigeria with a grandmother in Brussels and a life in New York City. My boss had not yet read the book. But after I finished it I saw a fitting metaphor for her aviation and public transport policies.
Two years later she resigned. As in every good story — I now knew — political tension built for about a year until it hit boiling point somewhere in October. She was seen as ‘out of control’ and ‘mired in governmental quicksand’. It was a ritual of political penance. Parliament demanded a sacrificial lamb. Then, a press conference — I stood silently in a corner of the room, back against the wall. The magical word was spoken, blood was shed, the ritual completed. Living rooms across the country went back to regular order. And I had lost my voice.
All the while our Minister was still going strong. During the strange days — in which political ritual and business as usual intertwined — I started to see myself from a distance: whispering behind my computer screen, trying out new words or sitting in the Minister’s office talk her through a draft. Or I found myself sitting anonymously in a packed conference room, feeling the stage fright my boss was supposed to have. Sometimes I did catch myself muttering through the studied silences in her speeches — as if she needed me as her prompter.
I started to detect a parallel with the short stories I wrote before. Just like then I thought up words that befitted a character. But now they were characters made of flesh and bones, with morning moods and their own peculiarities. But I also realized that for most people they were just faces vaguely recognized during the eight o’clock news.
Maybe I hadn’t failed at literature after all, but unexpectedly found it in the bloodless realm of a governmental office space. A story with living characters wanting to shape their world with political acts and public words. Introverts and extraverts, consensus builders or humming with joy at the sight of conflict. Confidently moving or carefully treading.
Almost unconsciously a strange relationship is built between a speaker and his or her writer. Sometimes there’s a professional intimacy, at other times there’s nothing like that. Sometimes there’s a slip of the tongue like: ‘moral leadership… The term means practically nothing to me…’ Sometimes a speaker treats a staffer horribly — with me lacking the courage to stand up against indecency.
But despite these rough edges life around the bully pulpit seldom is black and white. Faulty leadership, political cynicism, insensitive and shallow behaviour go hand in hand with enormous political pressure, hard choices between two evils, honesty, insecurity and dreams. Even when struggling I felt drawn to the ideas and ideals that shimmered through the dust. Almost every speaker I’ve worked with truly strove for something bigger than his- or herself: a world without drought and flooding, a society in which everyone has a fair chance, ‘an incredibly cool country.’
‘I can’t remember a speech I heard in five years that was actually meant to persuade, though I heard dozens that faithfully recited party talking points’, wrote Canadian academic Michael Ignatieff in Fire and Ashes — a brutally honest account of his failed political career. One only has to watch the evening news to see that what goes for Canada, goes for the entire western world. Too often political language is just a cheap Tweet or a flat sound bite. Moreover, my own country lacks a strong public speaking culture.
But all who wander are not lost. We still hear memorable words from political leaders, even in The Netherlands. Almost thirty years after Louis Beel another prime minister — Joop den Uyl in December 1973 — announced another sobering reality. ‘The world before the oil crisis is not returning. This will certainly change our way of life. Certain prospects will disappear. But it should not necessarily make us less happy.’ Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers (whom we just lost last month) announced the Gulf War in January 1991 as if the fighting happened in the streets of Amsterdam. ‘Now, the weapons speak… Let us hold each other… praying that this violence will not last long; praying that as few people as possible will die, as few as possible too of the poor people of Iraq.’ And I can still feel the disbelief hitting Prime Minister Wim Kok, gasping for breath after the murder of the up-and-coming populist Pim Fortuyn in 2002. ‘Words totally fail me… I am broken. I am truly broken after what happened here, today, in this country…’
To supply these words and increase their value is the speechwriter’s mission. Despite the noise we soldier on believing that words remain man’s best way to express ourselves. Even in the small middle class country full off ‘ordinary people acting normal because that’s crazy enough.’ A good speech remains a beautiful way to show your hand. It is, to use an antiquated word, a confession of faith. To paraphrase George H.W. Bush: true words are a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.
I went on to write speeches for a Minister who concurred. She constantly challenged her advisors, dared to doubt out loud, showed her emotions and wanted her words to bridge gaps in society. Her words offered vulnerability, curiosity and courage. We leaned on great thinkers and on small words, like Franklin D. Roosevelt’s I hate war.
Together, speaker and speechwriter mould words into reality. You ditch grammar rules, ponder the needed style, grasp for an alliteration or a fine chiasmus. Then you scramble the structure or screw up a sentence. Sometimes whole paragraphs are crossed out, including the joke that took you hours to get right.
On many days you harvest a meagre applause. Sometimes words are really lacking. At other times it all works out. You feel like you have the words on a string and your speech is turned into pure poetry.
The morning mist grew thicker and thicker while I ran down the winding path. I thought about the speakers I worked with so far. Ten or so voices blended in my mind’s ear. Half of them were ready to pass the baton to a new government. Their successors, new characters, waited on the wings. I remembered T.S. Eliot: For last year’s words belong to last year’s language / and next year’s words await another voice.
It was just a hop step jump from Eliot to W.H. Auden, whose words from 1939 — what a year for political rhetoric that was — came to mind. I suppressed the crosswinds and accelerated. Through gritted teeth I whispered words that rendered beautifully the vulnerability of the spoken word: All I have is a voice / to undo the folded lie.
Jan Sonneveld in a speechwriter from The Hague (Netherlands). This essay was originally published in Liter, a Dutch literary magazine.