Who creates whom?

Posted by Helen Tuesday, November 20, 2007

It is not often that I do more on this blog than make announcements, mostly about the Journal (and yes, I am looking for articles, preferably very soon and, if possible, about the Anglosphere) but I was present at Jonathan Aitken's talk and was greatly intrigued by one or two things he said.

Mr Aitken told a number of highly entertaining stories, including one about a dinner at which there were present former Prime Minister Harold Wilson, former President Richard Nixon, Marcia Falkender (Baroness Falkender or Forkbender as Private Eye used to call her) and Mr Aitken himself.

The highlight of the dinner was, apparently, the two politicians singing, as a duet, Sir Joseph Porter's song from HMS Pinafore, "When I was a lad..". Clearly a dinner to remember.

Mr Aitken spoke at length about being a speechwriter (that being one half of the advertised title) and how seriously he took his duties when he wrote speeches for John Selwyn Lloyd, Chancellor of the Exchequer, political fixer and, later, Foreign Secretary.

Being a speechwriter is not easy, as one has to produce speeches that sound as if the person who is saying them wrote them himself (or herself, Margaret Thatcher famously went over her speeches many times, changing them and honing them till they became her own). The young Mr Aitken consulted the man who was then and probably until now the greatest speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, who worked for JFK.

The point Mr Aitken was making is that a speechwriter has to get into the speech-maker's head and that is what Ted Sorensen maintained he did. In question time I asked whether the movement was only one way or whether the speechwriter also shaped the speech-maker.

Mr Aitken thought about it and agreed that there was a great deal of it. For instance, JFK was not a particularly eloquent personality though he had a dry wit, whose flavour his speech writers managed to capture. But the great orator with vision and ideas was largely created by Ted Sorensen and Arthur Schlesinger.

The whole concept is fascinating. I see it as something like the famous Escher drawing of one hand drawing the other, which is drawing the first, the two in slightly different positions.


  1. Wasn't Selwyn Lloyd Foreign Secretary first, then Chancellor, not the other way around? If I remember correctly, he was Eden's Foreign Secretary and Macmillan's Chancellor.

  2. Helen Says:
  3. Mea culpa. You are quite right. And to show my humility and guilt I shall not do a stealth edit.

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