Saturday, August 11, 2007

Speechwriting and attribution

Discussions of attribution in the legal literature often make special mention of speechwriting as an instance in which norms affirmatively resist attribution to the author, because the aim is to associate the speaker-politician with the words her speechwriter chose to articulate her positions. But in a highly individualistic (and exposure-driven) culture, can that norm survive? Slate's article on the recent charges of credit-hogging by a Bush speechwriter suggests that the norm we law professors take for granted is malleable, even as the author wishes it would stay put:
[S]peechwriting is supposed to be the opposite of what Gerson stands accused of doing. By definition, it's a profession based on self-denial, not self-promotion. Far from taking credit for the work of others, a speechwriter's job is to write words that others can stand to claim as their own. Most speechwriters soon learn the basic pleasure-pain principle of the craft: Satisfaction comes from finding words the boss can use, but taking credit for those words can only embarrass the very person you're supposed to be helping.

At times, it can feel slightly disingenuous to write words for someone else to deliver. But more often, the person you're writing for gives a far better speech than you wrote. For the speechwriter or any other White House aide, it is truly dishonorable to look for credit – even for words which (unlike Gerson) one has actually written.

Despite the condemnation, we still see stories about the speechwriters. The virtue of norms is they provide an alternative to law; but they are changeable and may not always provide the alternatives we like.

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