A Sunday Thought

I’m reading Mitch Daniels’s book “Aiming Higher: Words That Changed a State.” It’s a collection of his speeches as Indiana governor, and in the introduction he talks about the writing of them: “The most perceptive statement I ever read about the task of writing was, ‘Writing is easy. I just sit down and write what occurs to me. It’s the occurring that’s hard.” Many of Daniels’s speeches “were weeks germinating” before he settled on exactly what he wanted to say, and how. That’s why his speeches are good: You sense the germinating.

All this made me think of David McCullough, who once noted that people tend of ask him how long it took to research a work of history and how long to write. They rarely ask him about the thinking, which is what really takes time. “To write is to think,” he said. “Good writing is good thinking.” I quoted him in a television interview the day of President Obama’s inaugural. The anchor had asked if the president and his speechwriter would have a lot of “good lines,” and were they busy thinking up “good lines.” I said I hoped not. I quoted McCullough and said I hoped they were thinking.

If you try to write “good lines” you’ll likely wind up with strings of dumb, unconnected applause lines. The audience will probably applaud—crowds of supporters are dutiful that way, and people want to be polite—but they’ll know they’re applauding an applause line, not a thought, and they’ll know they’re enacting enthusiasm, not feeling it. This accounts for some of the tinniness of much modern political experience.

At least the anchor didn’t say “soundbite,” a word that seems to be losing currency, thank goodness. I sometimes talk to young political writers about how they shouldn’t be thinking of them.

From the paperback edition of “On Speaking Well”:

What is now called a soundbite was once called a “sentence” or “paragraph” or “phrase.” Great soundbites of political history are great sentences and phrases of political history:

“Gentlemen may cry peace, peace, but there is no peace.”

“With malice toward none, with charity for all . . .”

“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

“We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Those are four of a hundred that would come to mind if you sat down and thought for an hour or two.

They were all created—they came to live in history—because their writers weren’t trying to write “a soundbite” or “a line.” They weren’t trying to self-consciously fashion a phrase that would grab the listener. They were simply trying to capture in words the essence of the thought they wished to communicate. And because some of their phrases and sentences were happily brief, they wound up in newspaper headlines. “In Bouyant Ceremony New President Declares ‘Nothing To Fear But Fear.’ ” Headlines and subheds were the soundbites of yesterday.

In Patrick Henry’s case, he was trying to say: We must finally admit that war is not only inevitable, it has in fact begun. In Churchill’s it was: Our resolve will see us through this darkness In FDR’s: Buck up, in times like this attitude is everything.

All of the famous phrases that came from these thoughts are ringing and memorable because they are natural. That is, they bubbled up from the creative process, they naturally emerged from the process of thinking and writing. They were a thought that emerged in a certain form from a sea of ideas, words, thoughts. They authentically emerged from thought.

Lincoln, when he wrote, ‘With malice toward none . . .” was not trying to write a soundbite—though that would have been the great soundbite from his second inaugural. He was trying, simply, to put into words his attitude toward all the people of a broken country as the end of the war approached. He wasn’t trying to write a “line” — he was trying to give voice to serious thoughts and serious policy.

When Ted Sorensen and John Kennedy were working on JFK’s inaugural, I am sure they did not think to themselves that “The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans” was a great soundbite—although it became one of the most famous soundbites of the century. I am sure they thought, instead, that they had created a ringing passage in an elegant speech, a passage that effectively and memorably trumpeted a truth: that the tone and style of American leadership was about to change.

They were serious.

You must be serious when you’re doing serious work.

So don’t “try to write a soundbite” when you write a speech. Don’t try to come up with a great line. Try to write well. Which means try to think well. Try to put clearly the position you’re advancing of the thought you’re explaining. Try to explain why your policy is the best one, your attitude the right one, your program the more just one. Lose yourself in the work and the words will come.

I wish I’d written, “Lose yourself in the thought and the words will come.” Anyway, “On Speaking Well” was published 15 years ago, and it seems to me still pertinent to the anchor’s question.