Should Politicians Not Use Speechwriters?


“Royal typewriter” by phooky is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Elisha V

Words have power. In the case of politics, speeches are one of the most important ways that a politician or candidate established their public image and can change the course of campaigns and careers. It was Barack Obama’s 2004 Democratic National Convention speech – where he famously first uttered his rejection of “red states” and “blue states,” only the “United States” – which propelled him into the national spotlight for the 2008 presidential race. Just last month, we saw Trump incite a deadly insurrection through his rhetoric of “fighting”  the election results.


Being a leader means being able to effectively, truthfully, and charismatically communicate. Great oratory prompts voters to form positive assumptions about the candidate: that they are intelligent, sharp, caring, and above all, worth listening to. Engaging speeches and delivery can make otherwise mind-numbing discussions of policy seem interesting and digestible in a simplified way. Whether we are awestruck or repelled by certain political speeches or campaign slogans, we often forget that there is usually a whole team of speechwriters and advisers behind the words. Just like policymaking and political decisions are group processes, speech writing is not a one-person task. But should it be? 


In today’s political landscape politicians often publicly say who their speech writers are, but this hasn’t always been the case. In US history, speechwriting (or at least publicly known ones) only began around the 1920s. Before that shift, it was shameful to use one because people thought it compromised authenticity and integrity. Even Abraham Lincoln allegedly wrote his acclaimed Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope on a train.  But as mass media in the mid-20th century made it infinitely easier to broadcast and distribute speeches and live events, it also became easier and quicker to scrutinize mistakes, so perfect speeches became even more vital. 


Politicians are indeed humans, just like us. They experience stress, make mistakes, and have probably had stage fright at some point. The stakes for delivering a well written speech are incredibly high not only at grand inaugural speeches but at small campaign events too. If a politician makes one misstep or incorrectly pronounces one word, opponents and news media attack and nit-pick their intelligence and competency. Such was the case when Trump mocked Biden’s stutter when Biden said “We hold these truths to be self-evident. All men and women are created, by the, you know, you know the thing” during a campaign event last year. Speechwriters and planning can avoid these forgetful moments and embarrassing gaffes.


Politicians have incredibly tight schedules and responsibilities. Being an effective politician is not only about being a good orator – the true test of success is whether or not they take action behind the scenes to turn their promises into policies. So why mandate them hours of writing and revising articulate speeches when this would detract from the actual legislative work they need to do? The politician may have produced the core ideas of a speech and merely needed help with weaving it all together in the right tone. In the context of competitive elections, speechwriters can be seen as another tool to help a politician present the best version of themselves to the public while sparing any rushed writing or errors. 


While it is idealistic to expect every politician to write every speech themselves, there is a valid argument against speechwriters – if a politician’s words are not their own, then do we really know them? If speeches really do have profound impacts on voters’ perceptions of candidates, then political success could be strongly connected to who hires the best speechwriters, yet another example of how money may be able to buy success. With the knowledge that politicians extensively use speechwriters, it’s up to voters to try to not make all of their judgements based on either good or bad moments of public speaking. 


Although speeches often attract the most public attention, there are still plenty of instances where politicians aren’t spoon fed eloquent speeches to read off of. In debates and media interviews, for example, they have to think on the spot and form their own words, so we do get to see the authentic politician at times. 


Ultimately, a politician can have someone write speeches for them, but at the end of the day, they can’t hire someone to do their entire job. They may be able to fake it at times, but sooner or later people will discern whether or not they are the politician they made themselves appear to be in their speeches.