A dozen years ago I had a conversation with Milton Friedman, former speechwriter for President Gerald Ford. Friedman had come to the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, where I was on faculty, to study creative writing. We sat in the lobby of the Iowa House Hotel talking about the role of writing in politics, and I asked him, with all due respect, why presidents and other politicians don't write their own speeches.
"Well," Friedman said, laughing at my naiveté, "that would be preposterous."
He explained that the president doesn't have the time to research all he would need to know about, say, the economy, let alone put together a speech about it.
"Right," I said, "so why not have the Treasury secretary give that speech? Wouldn't it be better to hear from the expert?"
"People want to hear from the president," Friedman said.
"But they aren't hearing from the president," I said. "They are hearing from the president's speechwriter, who got it from the Treasury secretary."
"This is preposterous," Friedman said again, laughing.
In the summer of 2004, when this conversation took place, George W. Bush was running for reelection against John Kerry. Bush, who was not good at forming sentences, had better speechwriters than Kerry, something Stanley Fish convincingly demonstrated in the New York Times. The Republican incumbent was being furnished with stump speeches that, for clarity, force, and cohesion, outclassed those of his Democratic opponent, whose speeches were disorganized and repetitive. I wondered: To what extent would sought-after independents be voting for speechwriters, and not the candidates themselves, much the way some juries vote for the better lawyer, rather than the truth?
It was probably more naïve to suggest to Friedman that, when politicians give speeches they didn't write, a kind of plagiarism is going on. When President John F. Kennedy said, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country," they were not his words. Kennedy tried to disguise the extent to which he relied on speechwriters (very good ones), which showed more conscience than we have nowadays, when plagiarism, so lethal in the worlds of authorship and scholarship, seems not to apply to politics.
An exception occurred this summer, when Melania Trump practically lip-synched Michelle Obama at the Republican convention. Chris Matthews, MSNBC host and former speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, jumped on it, blaming whoever wrote that speech for plagiarizing the first lady. Matthews got it half right: Trump's speechwriter plagiarized Obama's speechwriter, not Michelle Obama.
It is somewhat ironic that this would happen to the campaign of Donald Trump, the least scripted presidential candidate imaginable - something that benefited him immensely in the primaries. While the rest of the Republican field tried to stay on message, he was dancing around and bopping them over the heads with a salami. Now that he's in the general election, Trump's free-wheeling style earns him honesty points, according to polling. By showing the electorate how he actually thinks and speaks, unlike the über scripted Hillary Clinton, Trump may be doing America a great service.
But Trump's brand of candor is, more accurately, custom-tailored messaging for social media and reality TV, low-attention span environments that reward sensationalism and fresh controversy. Trump's campaign, which has no ground game, is an air war of headline-grabbing shockers, lies, half-truths, conspiracy theories, hate speech, dog whistling, and ever-shifting policies, a barrage that has bamboozled opponents. If opponents come into his carnival arena (as Sen. Marco Rubio briefly tried), they commit image suicide in exchange for a round of mud wrestling. If they stay out, Trump roams free, saying and doing outrageous things with an impunity they wish they had.
As polls tighten, we see Clinton loosening up, exposing herself to press conferences and "availabilities." The day after her seemingly offhanded "basket of deplorables" comment garnered laughter from a New York crowd, and Scarlet O'Hara-esque outrage from the Trump camp, she had to apologize, though the line had been well-rehearsed at previous fund-raisers.
We've seen this scripted candor before, most notably during the 2008 Democratic primaries, when Clinton gave a bizarre explanation to a newspaper editorial board of her refusal to get out of the race: "We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California." (You want to talk about a dog whistle?) Barack Obama had been receiving death threats regularly, so she quickly apologized for the impromptu remark, which wasn't impromptu. Two months earlier she'd said the same thing to Time magazine.
Now Trump relies on speechwriters when he wants to appear self-disciplined and presidential, while Clinton feigns openness to seem more personable and presidential. As for their policies and their histories, so many questions remain, and voters deserve actual answers. Judging from the lightweight "Commander-in-Chief" forum moderated by Matt Lauer, and Fox News' Chris Wallace's callow assertion that it's not his job to point out misinformation and lies (causing Mike Wallace to roll in his grave), the chances of the debates penetrating Clinton's formulated script, or Trump's reality show, appear slim.
No wonder we look for gaffes.