Monday, June 19, 2006

The Man With the Hardest Job in America

Michael Gerson is leaving his job. Though few knew his name, his words have been widely disseminated. Over the past six years, he has served as George W. Bush's speechwriter. In other words, his job was to make our Mispronouncer-in-Chief sound presidential.

Former Clinton speechwriter David Kusnet discusses Gerson's legacy at TNR Online. He notes that in 2000 Bush's reputation as a public speaker was lacking, and his countless gaffes imposed limitations on his speechwriters: "...[F]ew listeners would have believed that he would naturally speak in complex sentences, use long words, or quote from an array of famous writers and thinkers."

Not every speechwriter acknowledges his/her employer's weaknesses and works within them. Kusnet mentions that Dan Quayle's speeches included quotes from Albert Einstein and the Talmud, which were comically incongruous with the way Quayle was seen by the masses -- he was not believable as a well-read man.
Wisely, Gerson did what speechwriters are supposed to do: He created the best possible plausible voice for his boss. With Gerson's texts, Bush speaks in short sentences, using simple words that are easily uttered and understood.
The trouble with Gerson, however, is that Bush's speeches have become legendary for candy-coating and outright deception. I suppose Karl Rove wouldn't have it any other way, so it isn't really Gerson's fault. But people look back on the speeches Gerson wrote and note that his words contradicted the Bush administration's actions.
[Bush] presented policies that would benefit a privileged few as if they were intended to help women, minorities, and the poor; and he embedded his most controversial policies (the Iraq war, tax cuts for the rich) in the most popular initiatives (the fight against terrorism, tax cuts for the middle class). As his presidency has dragged on, these disconnects have become more and more glaring.
I could cite a dozen more examples, as could anyone who has been paying attention for the past six years. One might expect me to name Gerson as "Bastard of the Day" for engaging in Rovian doublespeak. But I admire his skill too much for that. He not only accepted and worked within the constraints of his speaker's abilities, but he made his speaker look good in the process. And it's not easy to "dumb down" one's writing into clear, concise language. Look at how many authors fail in deceptively simple genres such as children's books. It takes a special kind of intellect to write below one's normal comprehension level. As a speechwriter, Gerson has been a true craftsman, regardless of how his words have provided cover for incredibly bad policies.

No comments: