As I watched President Donald Trump deliver his address to Congress on Tuesday, my mind often flashed back to President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address in January 1961.
What happened in the wake of that address would forever change the way I think about the character of the nation’s political leaders.
I will never forget my initial favorable reaction to Kennedy delivering lines that included “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans” and “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
Then 13, I had no doubt Kennedy was a man of great character, a brilliant writer.
Needless to say, when journalists and historians revealed compelling information suggesting that Kennedy aide Theodore Sorensen had written what was memorable in the inaugural address, I was stunned. Sickened.
Kennedy taking credit for someone else’s lines? It even turned out that historian Herbert Parmet uncovered evidence arguing that Sorensen wrote the meat of “Profiles in Courage,” the book for which Kennedy received the Pulitzer Prize as a solo author.
Today, I suspect Kennedy saved his best lines to get Marilyn Monroe and Judith Campbell Exner into bed.
Did Trump write the speech he delivered by teleprompter to Congress? Though White House press secretary Sean Spicer noted that senior advisers had offered suggestions, he said the president wrote solo.
While the degree of help on his speech will no doubt be judged by historians, what’s clear now is President Trump’s speech was far different in tone and style from his others.
As Americans, we want to believe that our leaders are exceptional and that the soaring words are their own. But most today don’t expect presidents to write all of their speeches. People believe they’re too busy, even as they’re regularly spotted playing golf.
Still, those who do care about authorship debate what the definition of “write” is.
Both John Tuman, the chair of UNLV’s political science department, and his brother Joe Tuman, a professor of speech communication at San Francisco State University, say contemporary presidents often give speechwriters or advisers a framework of ideas upon which they write an address.
The brothers say politicians then generally add to or subtract from drafts during editing.
“Then the president is responsible for and accountable for what he says,” Joe Tuman said. “They become his words.”
For instance, it was the speech Peggy Noonan wrote for President Ronald Reagan after the Challenger space shuttle exploded — “The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them” — that moved us. Yes, it was delivered with the polish of the Great Communicator, but Noonan’s message struck just the right chord.
What David McGrath, a Florida Southwestern State College academic, says about political speech writing makes sense:
“We frown on and legally prohibit plagiarism in publishing, journalism and academia, but we make an exception, inexplicably, for politics.”
It shouldn’t be standard practice to deliver a speech and leave someone else’s work without acknowledgement.
If a politician is helped writing, there’s no reason historians must dig it out later. Signal it in the talk:
“With the help of my fine wordsmith staffers John and Sue Doe, I’m able to share these observations with you today.”
Giving credit where credit is due says a lot about character.
Paul Harasim’s column runs Sunday, Tuesday and Friday in the Nevada section and Monday in the Health section. Contact him at email@example.com or 702-387-5273. Follow @paulharasim on Twitter.