The Books Briefing: The Legacy of a Political Speech

Reflecting on the art of speechwriting during the Democratic National Convention: Your weekly guide to the best in books

illustration of a podium
The Atlantic

Political speeches make up a strange genre of writing. This year’s Democratic National Convention has showcased their breadth, featuring Barack Obama’s fearful warning, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s self-aggrandizing remarks, a disjointed keynote from 17 “rising stars,” and Michelle Obama’s forceful call to action.

Speeches such as these can influence a figure’s legacy. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words highlight his eloquence and vision. Obama’s recent eulogy for John Lewis offered a striking tribute to the former representative and American founder. By contrast, as the historian Kevin Mattson writes in What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?, former President Jimmy Carter’s famous “malaise” address seems to have led a long-term decline in his approval ratings and is now considered to have been a mistake. Most oration, however, is less momentous. The Speechwriter, by Barton Swaim, and Speech-less: Tales of a White House Survivor, by Matt Latimer, describe the often-mundane work of writing remarks for events such as the opening of a ketchup factory or a gathering of square dancers.

David Sedaris’s 2013 collection, Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls: Essays, Etc., focuses on a different type of speech. It includes six humorous monologues for high-school forensics tournaments and shows the value that levity brings to public speaking.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

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What We’re Reading



‘All Labor Has Dignity’: Martin Luther King Jr.’s fight for economic justice
“The book shows an eerily prescient Dr. King, a clear-eyed visionary who speaks prophetically about the host of issues facing our nation today.”

Barack Obama and John Lewis hug


Read Barack Obama’s eulogy for John Lewis
“He, as much as anyone in our history, brought this country a little bit closer to our highest ideals.”

📚 “Eulogy for John Lewis,” by Barack Obama

photo of Donald Trump


How presidents speak
“Far too often...we look to the president for answers. The presidential address—the most formal approach a president can choose to convey those answers—has long been central to a president’s success.”

📚 What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?, by Kevin Mattson

photograph of a man at a messy desk


What it’s really like to be a political speechwriter
“Being a speechwriter is like being a novelist, only with more behind-the-scenes power and fewer accolades. The one thing being a speechwriter does not provide is fame—that is, until you leave your job and write a tell-all book about your old boss.”

David Sedaris


David Sedaris’s sorta-secret side career as a speechwriter for high schoolers
“Why has Sedaris partially ditched his mega-successful formula to write zany stock speeches for teenage theatrical types to perform in front of their classroom Dry-Erase boards?”

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Kate Cray. The book she’s reading next is Autobiography of Red, by Anne Carson.

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