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The unseen art of political ventriloquism

Most senior politicians are too busy to write long articles and speeches all by themselves, says Tom Switzer

5 November 2008

12:00 AM

5 November 2008

12:00 AM

At last month’s launch of his book Churchill and Australia, Graham Freudenberg was genuinely shocked that some people were genuinely shocked ‘that some politicians don’t actually write their own speeches and articles’. He was responding to a 29 October Sydney Morning Herald report that revealed some senior Liberals had not, alas, written their own contributions to a new book on the future of the party.

No wonder Freudenberg was taken aback. He is the doyen of Australian political speechwriting. As a wordsmith for Labor icons from Arthur Calwell and Gough Whitlam to Bob Hawke and Bob Carr, he has such gravitas in ALP circles that virtually everyone in the party has, at one point or another during the past 40 years, talked like him.

Nothing surprising or wrong about this; the art of speechwriting has been an established practice for generations. The demands of high-profile public life — from conducting daily radio, television and newspaper interviews to non-stop meetings with all segments of society, great and small — are so rigid that it is very difficult for party leaders to sit down for days and weeks to reflect and write long, considered speeches or articles all by themselves. Only the naive or ignorant would think otherwise. Gone are the days when leaders such as Robert Menzies could take advantage of lengthy sea voyages to pen their own 5,000-word theses.

I mention all this because the aforementioned report also revealed that I wrote the then Liberal leader Brendan Nelson’s chapter, and that parts of it had appeared in these pages under my own name. (Full disclosure: I was originally commissioned to write a chapter for the book, but once I accepted employment in the opposition leader’s office and found out that the leader himself had not been solicited, I decided to withdraw my piece under my name and, as senior adviser, write the Nelson chapter after consultation with the boss. Regrettably, other sentences and phrases from that chapter have appeared in my own speeches and other articles over the past year or so.)

Nelson, ironically, delivered few set speeches. Like John Howard and Peter Costello, he was a rare political breed: an off-the-cuff speaker, and a good one at that. Rarely — the May budget reply, for instance — would he revert to script. For Howard’s part, he was primarily the master of his own oratory, delivering not only brilliant speeches without any notes, as he did in Bali following the terrorist attacks in October 2002 (‘The young of Australia will always travel’), but also penning personal moving tributes in op-ed format as he did in the Australian following the Gipper’s death in June 2004 (‘I was wrong about Ronald Reagan’).

At any rate, the controversy has thrown the relationship between speechwriter and politician once again sharply into the spotlight, raising the issue of who’s really speaking here: politician or adviser? Leaving aside this and the issue of plagiarism, which has a long and undistinguished history, the point here is that this recent episode is hardly novel.

John Curtin’s New Year Message of 1941 in which the Labor PM said Australia ‘looks to America’ was drafted by his adviser Don Rodgers. Ming wrote most of his own work, but his successors Harold Holt, John Gorton and Bill McMahon relied heavily on their offsiders such as Tony Eggleton and Graham Fell. Malcolm Fraser leaned on Owen Harries, David Kemp and Alan Jones. Mark Latham, Wayne Swan, Simon Crean have all used the academic Dennis Glover’s pen.

Keating once said of his close relationship with Don Watson: ‘It’s a very personal sort of matter to have someone who writes for you because anyone who writes for you is thinking for you, too. I found when I spoke to him that a lot of my views about Australia were shared by him. We shared common views about the nature of the place, the antecedents of its history, the threads of its history, its complexion.’

Nor is speechwriting merely an Australian phenomenon. The two most memorable US presidential inaugural addresses of the 20th century were Franklin Roosevelt’s in 1933 and John F. Kennedy’s in 1961. Neither was exclusively the product of the speaker. In FDR’s case (‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself’), it was the combined work of Louis Howe and Sam Rosenman. And JFK’s address (‘Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country’) was principally written by his adviser Ted Sorensen, who also drafted Kennedy’s Pulitizer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage. A substantial part of Sorensen’s new memoirs are dedicated to — wait for it — writing speeches for a president.

The columnist Peggy Noonan — think of the speech to mark the loss of space shuttle Challenger and its crew in January 1986 — was the most influential wordsmith for the Great Communicator. David Frum broke his anonymity and boasted that he wrote George W. Bush’s post-9/11 address, in which he warned: ‘Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.’ And Barry Goldwater’s book The Conscience of a Conservative was written by Brent Bozell, and his acceptance speech at the 1964 Republican convention was so polarising (‘Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice! Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue’ — later revealed as a paraphrase of a passage from Cicero) that the real author, Karl Hess, joined the New Left.

Of course, not all modern-day political speeches and articles are ghost-written. During the decade I was a newspaper opinion editor, I published hundreds of politicians’ articles. Most were written by offsiders; but notable exceptions come to mind: Tony Abbott, Tony Smith and Malcolm Turnbull on the Liberal side, and Lindsay Tanner, Mark Latham and Kevin Rudd on the Labor side. Uninspiring though he is as a public speaker, the PM wrote his own op-eds when he was a relentlessly self-promoting opposition backbencher.

The truth, though, is that most senior politicians don’t write their own work, and those who do the ghost-writing are often very proud of their copy. Consider this: in 1995, a former speechwriter revealed he was the author of a memorable address by a Liberal leader. ‘I wrote [Andrew] Peacock’s 1983 Deakin Lecture and I’ve heard people quote that lecture endlessly since,’ he lamented. ‘When I hear them, I think, “Little do they know they’re quoting me.” Some of them would be appalled if they knew. Nevertheless, Peacock signed off on it and that goes down in history as Peacock’s work, not my work.’ The aggrieved writer: Alexander Downer.

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