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HARVARD COMMENCEMENT guests, you are about to witness something remarkable. You may never again hear speeches as special as the ones you will hear today. Now I won't guarantee that the speakers' delivery will be especially skillful, their ideas especially trenchant or their wit especially sparkling. Hell, I won't even guarantee that they'll keep you awake.
But I will guarantee one thing: today's Commencement speakers wrote their own speeches, and submitted them to a grueling competition to boot. (OK, they had a little help from the expository writing director, too, but it's their work in essence.)
Even President Derek C. Bok writes his own material, even if he doesn't mean it 90 percent of the time.
The remarkable thing is that so few public figures ever speak their own words. "Ghostwriting," the polite term for plagiarism, has overtaken American public life.
The symptoms are everywhere. Sports stars who can't string together a grammatical sentence in a post-game interview show up on the covers of hardback autobiographies written "with" a ghostwriter (whose name appears in small print at the bottom).
Even reasonably intelligent people, such as Washington influence peddler Clark Clifford, no longer trouble themselves to write their own "memoirs."
During the Reagan administration, we learned that not only did a White House spokesman routinely invent quotes and attribute them to the President, but that America's chief executive could not say "It certainly is a pleasure to have you here" without looking at notecards.
Ghostwriting is so firmly implanted in public life that a politician who routinely wrote his own speeches--or better yet, spoke off the cuff--would become an instant national celebrity.
IT WASN'T ALWAYS this way. In the last century, American politicians were expected to "speechify" for hours on end, without benefit of speechwriters, teleprompters, or even notes. The great orators of the day--Webster, Clay and Calhoun--effortlesly infused their speeches with Biblical allegory and allusions to the classics.
Before the age of mass communications, a candidate could tour the country, delivering the same well-worn speech at every whistle stop, improving and embellishing it with every delivery. Today, a candidate is expected to produce a continuous fountain of new and original speeches--a difficult task even for someone who isn't busy courting PAC donations and dodging the ethics committee.
The advent of mass communications technology changed speechmaking in another way. Before mechanical reproduction, few reporters could truly record a speech verbatim; thus, the hesitations and minor lapses of grammar that characterize everyday speech were never seen by the newspaper audience.
At the same time tape recorders were capturing every word of speeches, rapid communication introduced the possibility that a fatal "gaffe" could, in a matter of hours, be disseminated across the entire country. More recently, the 30-second TV commercial placed a high premium on packing as much emotional impact into as few words as possible--something few people are capable of doing extemporaneously.
MASS COMMUNICATIONS technology meant the imperative of perfection--a perfection most easily achieved with speechwriters and teleprompters. But is there really anything wrong with a division of labor between the person who conceives the speech and the person who puts it into words?
In some ways, there isn't. There's no law of nature that says only gifted speakers can be good statesmen. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, never overcame his stuttering. Ghostwriting, then, could be seen as just a way of leveling the political playing field--allowing voters to choose on the basis of issues, not speaking ability.
On the other hand, there is a certain value to attaching words to the men and women who spoke them. Can you imagine learning that Daniel Webster or Winston Churchill had some 24-year-old Ivy. League weenie on the staff churning out lines like, "Liberty and union, one and inseparable, now and forever!" and "We have nothing to offer except blood, sweat and tears"?
Of course not. Yet virtually all of the memorable speeches of the 1980s were ghostwritten. As historians of the next century attempt to delve the psyche's of George Bush and Ronald Reagan, will have to base their conclusions on the remarks of an obscure housewife named Peggy Noonan.
OUR CULTURE OF ghostwriting is, in essence, a reversion to the pre Enlightenment concept of authorship. In classical Greek civilization, it was perfectly acceptable for an unknown member of a philosophical school to use the name of his more famous mentor in disseminating his writings.
Plato wrote Socratic dialogues long after the death of Socrates. The Christian Gospels were almost certainly not written by guys named Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And Moses' death is recorded in the second of the five Books of Moses.
Somewhere between the Scientific Revolution and the Reagan Revolution, we abandoned the expectation that people should actually write the words that they speak and publish.
For a while, the organs of the "respectable press" held out and refused to print ghost-written work. But the cause was probably lost when the New York Times Magazine published a ghost-written piece by Jimmy Carter. A few months ago, Time ran a ghostwritten cover story with George Bush's byline--and even had the gall to run a full page photo that purported to show the President "putting the finishing touches" on the piece at his Oval Office desk.
College students are supposed to be idealists. That's what I thought, anyway, when I received a ghostwritten "open letter from the President" that the White House P.R. machine sent to every college newspaper in the country.
As editorial chair of The Crimson, I refused to publish it. A reporter from The Chicago Tribune called and asked me why. I told her that it was not because I disagreed with Bush (though I did), but because an editor should mininally insist that his writers not plagiarize.
The story was printed in the Tribune. It was picked up by the AP wire. Soon I had calls from half a dozen media organs; all apparently regarded our obstinacy as an arrogant, archaic, even quixotic gesture, something akin to kicking the pope out of a restaurant because he wasn't wearing a jacket and tie.
Is mine a lost cause? Is the notion of authorship destined to lose all meaning in our culture?
MAYBE NOT. When I was 12, I lost the state 4-H public speaking contest because one of the judges didn't think I could have written that speech about radioactive waste all by myself. (I did.) I hated him for it at the time, but at least his heart was in the right place.
And then there are the practical pitfalls of relying on others to put words in your mouth. A friend of mine, a speechwriter for Sen. Tom Harkin, asked my advice on writing a speech for the West Virginia AFL-CIO. I suggested that he discuss the history of the labor movement in West Virginia, including the famous, bloody massacre at Paint Creek. Because of my faint Appalachian lilt, my friend understood it as "Pink Creek." Only a last-minute phone call saved the senator from certain humiliation.
Finally, there is the story of the obnoxious politician who tormented his overworked speechwriter. One day, the politician grabbed a speech from the ghostwriter's hands and mounted the stage to speak--without any rehearsal, as usual.
He read from the typewritten pages, "My opponent says we can't solve the budget deficit without raising taxes or cutting spending. Well we can, and I'm going to tell you how. He says we can't improve education or the environment without spending more money. Well we can, and I'm going to tell you how."
Continuing on for a few minutes, he read, "And how exactly are we going to do all this? I'm going to tell you."
Then turning the page, he saw only "You're on your own, you son of a bitch. I quit!"
John L. Larew '91 was editorial chair of The Crimson. He would like to say hello to his dad, too.
Welcome to the Age of Ventriloquism.
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