Santorum’s War on Speechwriters

As a former (and very occasionally current) political speechwriter, I must protest Rick Santorum’s job-killing, discriminatory remarks against the time-honored craft, as reported by CNN’s Chris Welch:

Republican Rick Santorum has for quite a while taken issue with candidates on the trail who use a teleprompter. It’s a dig on President Barack Obama, and more recently has been used to attack Mitt Romney – a man who’s also been known to use a prompter or two.

But campaigning along the Gulf Coast in the Tuesday primary state of Mississippi, Santorum took it a step further, saying use of the digital word machine should be outlawed.

“See, I always believed that when you run for president of the United States, it should be illegal to read off a teleprompter,” Santorum said at a Gulfport restaurant. “Because all you’re doing is reading someone else’s words to people.”

He continued to elaborate on why he believes prompters should have no place in politics, saying that people should know that a candidate’s words haven’t been “focus-grouped” and that the words are the candidate’s – not those of “pollsters and speechwriters.”

So by this logic, not only teleprompters should be outlawed, but speechwriters and message consultants, too!

Now it would be very surprising if Rick Santorum has never employed the services of a speechwriter (or someone on his staff who contributes to speech copy), or used a poll- or focus-group tested phrase. But beyond the possible hypocrisy, he’s really, really playing with fire here. He should be aware that in criticizing any and all pols who don’t strictly use their own words he is not just dissing Obama (one of the least speechwriter-dependent of recent presidents, it appears to me) and Romney, but most federal and statewide elected officials in both parties, going back for decades. My God, St. Ronald Reagan had his famous index cards, a low-tech version of the ‘prompter! And Rick is implicitly saying that St. Ronald’s celebrity speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, should have been hunted down, arrested and jailed.

Even if you strictly construe Santorum’s words, it will give a major case of the willies to the people who are even now planning the Republican National Convention. As someone who has worked at the last six Democratic conventions, I can tell you that virtually no one (the only exceptions I’m aware of at Democratic events since 1988 have been Jimmy Carter and Al Sharpton) is allowed near the podium at a national convention without speech text being loaded on a teleprompter. It is how message discipline is ensured. I’d be shocked if the same or even stricter rules aren’t employed by the Daddy Party.

Perhaps Rick’s motto in this respect is “Extremism in the Defense of Liberty Is No Vice.” Oops, that line was written for Barry Goldwater by speechwriter Karl Hess! Is nothing sacred?

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.