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American Today



Speechwriters Have Their Say on PunditWire

By Mike Unger

If I were a slick-talking politician, chances are the words you are now reading would have been written by someone else. 

Speeches, talking points, and newspaper op-eds “by” politicians routinely are penned by speechwriters. But these ghostwriters are not ghosts, they’re living, breathing people with plenty of insightful opinions of their own.

Now they have a place to share their thoughts, in their own voices. is a new online forum founded by Professors Leonard Steinhorn and Robert Lehrman. Sponsored by American University’s School of Communication, the site features commentary from current and former professional political speechwriters.

“I look at this as a national op-ed page built on people who have inside knowledge on how the system works, on how rhetoric is shaped, and who understand the connection between policy and message,” Steinhorn said. “We have so much opinion in our society, but not enough knowledge. What speechwriters were trained to do early on was to combine knowledge and argument and to build your arguments not just on what you feel, but what you know. That’s why I’m not calling this a blog, I’m calling this a commentary site. If we can serve a public role of helping explain who we are as a nation, this is what the contributors enjoy doing. It adds to the mission of elevating the debate.”

In addition to opinion pieces, the site features a quote of the day provided by American University’s Simpson Fellows. SOC has a competitive graduate fellowship in the public communication program dedicated to PunditWire, and this year Mary Robbins, SOC/MA ’11, will serve as the editor.

“My hope is for PunditWire to become a daily stop for anyone interested in incisive, thoughtful commentary on the news,” she said. “Our contributors have worked at every level of politics, from Capitol Hill and the White House to state and local offices. They’ve written for people of all political stripes and will be commenting on a wide array of topics. But the unifying quality in all that variety is centered around insightful, engaging prose.”

The site went live on Sept. 13, and topics explored in the opening days included “Obama’s Fenty Problem,” “‘Alien Religions’ in America,” and the Tea Party movement (or protest, as Carol Whitney, strategist for the 1986 winning campaign of Kay Orr, the first Republican woman governor in U.S. history, argues).

“You can be a very good journalist with good sources, but even a skillful journalist doesn’t know the way that things work from the inside,” said Lehrman, former White House chief speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore. “These people not only write well, but they have the practical political experience from the inside.”

New content will be added to the site daily, and its roster of contributors—now 10—will continue to grow.

“Speechwriters are people for whom ideas and inspiration come naturally,” Steinhorn said. “They want to express themselves, and this is an opportunity for them to do that. Ultimately our goal is to create a publication of consequence where people around the country are going to read columns that will help them make sense of our culture, society, and political world.”