Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Elements of GOP style has an article this morning boasting the true-confessions title 'I Ghost-Wrote Letters to the Editor for the McCain Campaign."

The story isn't quite as deliciously tabloid as the title makes it sound. Expecting something Orwellian, what I found seemed mostly Keystone Kops:

The assignment is simple: We are going to write letters to the editor and we are allowed to make up whatever we want -- as long as it adds to the campaign. After today we are supposed to use our free moments at home to create a flow of fictional fan mail for McCain. "Your letters," says Phil Tuchman, "will be sent to our campaign offices in battle states. Ohio. Pennsylvania. Virginia. New Hampshire. There we'll place them in local newspapers."

Place them? I may be wrong, but I thought that in the USA only a newspaper's editors decided that.

"We will show your letters to our supporters in those states," explains Phil. "If they say: 'Yeah, he/she is right!' then we ask them to sign your letter. And then we send that letter to the local newspaper. That's how we send dozens of letters at once."

No newspaper can refuse a stream of articulate expressions of support, is the thought behind it. "This way, we will always get into some letters column."

Anyone who's ever tried getting an LTE accepted knows that using "always" and "get into some letters column" in the same sentence betrays a level of optimism approaching par with "the fundamentals of our economy are sound." But in a world where "we are allowed to make up whatever we want"--and you don't get much more in tune with the McCain campaign than that--optimism abounds.

The scheme isn't terribly intellectually honest--it's basically an online term-paper service for Republican-leaning LTEs--but I suppose it's a little late in the game to bring up "intellectual honesty" as a criterion for McCain-Palin 2008. And there's another problem: if a McCain supporter in a battleground state can't be bothered to write a 250-word letter on their own (although apparently they're at least willing to read and sign one), it makes you wonder how little they're expecting from the undecideds.

What I found more interesting, as a writer and editor, was the literary advice Tuchman provided to the new recruits in his little boiler room of prose.

From an accompanying document headlined "Guidelines," provided by the same Phil Tuchman quoted above:

During the General Election, John McCain 2008 is focused on reaching out to voters through a variety of mediums.

We should probably stop right there for a moment. Former Chicago mayor Richard Daley was known to use a variety of mediums to reach out to his voters, but even Daley only resorted to this when contacting registered voters who were dead

Continuing directly:

Besides producing television ads and making grass-roots phone calls, John McCain 2008 is focused on producing and writing "Letters to the Editor". Letters to the Editor allows John McCain another medium to reach voters.

Oh dear. The editor in me cringes as I read that completely superfluous second sentence, and the erroneous use of English-style punctuation in the sentence immediately before it (in the Colonies, we put the full stop inside the quote marks, thank you). Of course the bigger problem with that sentence isn't the period, it's that there shouldn't be quotation marks at all.

I could go on, making you feel my logophilic pain, but perhaps it's better just to quote the rest of the Guidelines in full, without comment, and leave the cleanup to the students as an exercise.

Continuing directly:

What do we try to accomplish in Letters to the Editor? Through writing the various letters, we focus on issues of the day - healthcare, energy, immigration, the economy, national security, etc… All of these issues are ongoing. These letters convey why John McCain would make a better President then [sic] Barack Obama.

How much can I criticize Senator Obama and Senator Biden? Of course, we at John McCain 2008 believe that we have a more comprehensive approach to problems facing Americans, but in thinking this, we cannot deliver an immature and out-of-line criticism that would look down on John McCain 2008.

I know, I know--I promised, but I'm pretty certain that Tuchman means "that would reflect badly on John McCain 2008."

Pressing ahead, the Guidelines turn from the rationale to the mechanics:

Letters to the Editor will not be more than 250 words. Therefore, count the number of words in your letter before submitting it.

Just a reminder to use comprehensive and logical writing. Please use short sentences, unless you know how to properly use a comma "," and/or semi-colon ";". Vary your syntax and diction, while avoiding repetition in your sentence structure. An example of this would be using "That" and "This" repetitively.

Lastly, if you wish to quote somebody, please follow these directions closely: include the date of the quotation the event where the quote was said, what your source is (Washington Post, Meet the Press, etc.), and who said the quote. The easiest way to go about this would be to go to This bibliography website is easy and simple to use. Also feel free to use ANYTHING (even copy from and ONLY from)

Upon submitting your final product, please proofread your letter. Then please submit it to my email account [redacted]. Save your Word.doc as a 2003 of previous edition [sic]. Let me know if you have any questions or concerns by either emailing or calling me at [redacted].

Thanks, Phil Tuchman

Perhaps the point here is that the Guidelines are part of an effort to distinguish McCain campaign's media outreach efforts at all levels from the intellectual elitism of the Obama campaign.

By floating advice ranging from the oddly arbitrary to the downright incomprehensible (what was that business about "That" and "This," anyway?), the Guidelines document might see itself as not only encouraging but modeling the rhetorical style of "the people."

It could be that Tuchman assumes that people who write like this are considered more authentic, and that people who prefer to read writing like this are more likely to pick a candidate based on who they'd rather have a beer--or a mooseburger--with.

And yet, Tuchman says that the point of the process is to produce "articulate letters of support," suggesting the grim possibility that this is what he thinks passes for articulate. But how could that be? How could someone who shows every sign of being a hack at his job (at best) get a job with a Republican presidential campaign? That would be like . . .

Oh. Wait. Never mind.


Anonymous said...

I know this Phil personally, and he is not a professional writer. I am surprised that he is responsible for such a potentially prominent part of the campaign.

Nothstine said...

Hi, Anonymous--

I confess I was sort of snarky about Phil--he was sort of an easy target.

But what's his resume that put him in this position?