A Mouthpiece for Mr. Schaefer

September 26, 1990|By William F. Gavin

WASHINGTON. — GOVERNOR SCHAEFER has taken an interesting, and, so far as I am aware, unprecedented step in his search for a speech writer -- advertising in the ''Help Wanted'' section of the newspaper.

Things have certainly changed since the days when I began to practice the speech writer's craft, more than 20 years ago. Except for a few celebrities like Ted Sorenson, speech writers were then neither seen nor heard, but hidden among the filing cabinets, for fear some cynic might not believe those beautiful words were written by the illustrious political figure who delivered them. Governor Schaefer's want ad and Peggy Noonan's best-seller are definitive proofs that speech writers are yet another group engaged in that quintessential political and social exercise of our times, coming out of the closet.

As my contribution to the governor's search, I offer the following list of speech-writer types, in the hope it might offer Mr. Schaefer some idea of what to look for:

The Confidant. T.S. Eliot in ''The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,'' described this kind of speech writer as one who can:

Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,

Deferential, glad to be of use,

Politic, cautious, and meticulous;

Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;

At times, indeed, almost ridiculous --

Almost, at times, the Fool . . .

Deferential, useful, politic, cautious and meticulous -- it sounds like the name of one of the high-priced consulting firms, which is exactly where so many confidants finish their careers.

The Loyalist. Loyalty is to a speech writer what skepticism is to an investigative reporter, the necessary, but not sufficient, virtue of the craft. But when loyalty to a leader becomes an absolute political imperative, transcending basic moral principles, indictments cannot be far behind. Like any other admirable human trait, loyalty needs to be balanced by and often give way to other, higher, virtues if it is to serve ultimate political purposes.

One of the most accurate portraits of servile political loyalty ever written can be found in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's ''The First Circle'':

''Aleksandr Nikolayevich Poskrebyshev . . . chief of Stalin's personal secretariat for 15 years . . . still considered himself a nonentity before the Boss, tittering boastfully whenever they clinked glasses in a toast . . . When he dealt with subordinates, this balding courtier with the air of a simpleton acquired enormous self-importance.''

The Observer-Technician. Jack Burden, the narrator of Robert Penn Warren's ''All the King's Men,'' typifies the writer who provides a service, but is really an observer of the boss' psyche, always a little bit removed from the rest of the staff's devotion, capable of ironic detachment and candid advice. Other staffers love the boss because, in their eyes, he has no faults; the observer-technician likes him partly because of the faults he alone may see.

The Hired Hand. In the movie ''Ada,'' seen occasionally on television, character actor Martin Balsam plays Steve, a speech writer for the character played by Dean Martin, a good-ol'-boy Southern governor whose mental powers are not of the highest quality. Steve, we are told, ''let education go to his head,'' but the governor ''can't make a speech without him.''

Steve looks on in disbelief as the governor ultimately gets enough gumption to confront the political bosses who manipulate him. At the film's climax, the governor gives a speech off the top of his head and from the bottom of his heart (it's that kind of movie) and Steve says, ''The best speech you ever gave and I didn't write it,'' a line which is a fairly good working definition of a speech writer's ultimate nightmare.

The Hero. On June 17, 1934, German Vice Chancellor Franz Von Papen addressed a distinguished academic audience at Marburg University. As part of a coalition government headed by Chancellor Adolf Hitler, Von Papen, (as he records in his memoirs, a work which gives the phrase ''self-serving'' deeper, richer meaning) had decided he ''was not prepared to accept further responsibility for things as they were.''

The speech, critical of aspects of the Nazi Party's policies, was greeted by a ''roar of applause . . . completely drowning the shouts of protest from some of the Nazis present . . . as if the very soul of the German people had given tongue.''

Nine days later, Von Papen was informed that Edgar Jung, a lawyer who had written the speech draft, had been arrested by the Gestapo. After undergoing interrogation about the origins of the speech, Jung was murdered in the ''underground cells of the Gestapo prison in the Prinz Albrechtstrasse.''

Poor Jung, murdered by Nazi criminals for the crime of having drafted a speech. Given the nature of the Nazis, he must have known the risk in helping Von Papen make what amounted to a futile gesture against the Hitler gang. But he wrote the speech draft and died for it.

It is not given to most speech writers to become martyrs for their calling. But Jung's story suggests that buried beneath the ambition and the anonymity, the necessary but often disturbing sacrifice of ego in the service of another, there can be, in certain circumstances, a quiet, hidden glory. As Rubashov, the old Bolshevik hero of Arthur Koestler's ''Darkness At Noon,'' put it, ''Honor is to be useful without vanity'' -- a fitting epitaph for any speech writer.

Mr. Gavin is special assistant to Rep. Robert H. Michel, R-Ill.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.