Good Writer's Disease?

I’m not sure I’ve ever enjoyed reading a collection of speeches. This may be due to the fact that most or maybe all I’ve read are political, and political speeches, even those authored by literate and capable politicians, lose their significance almost immediately. But perhaps the more important reason speeches don’t work as published products is that their authors typically aren’t writers. Writers don’t give many speeches, for one thing, and for another their writings are the things people care about, not their public addresses. With only a few exceptions, collections of speeches are for statesmen or agitators or celebrities or maybe tycoons—not for writers.

Scalia Speaks, by contrast, somehow works. That it does so is partly the result of a circumstantial oddity Christopher Scalia mentions in his introduction: His father, the late justice Antonin Scalia, was a terrific writer, as even his adversaries readily concede. But his writing is mostly bound up in Supreme Court opinions. I’ve read some of his decisions and dissents, and feel they are probably masterpieces of the genre, but I’m not a lawyer, and anyhow most court opinions aren’t written for general readers but for lawyers and judges and journalists.

In this collection we have, in essence, the great man’s essays. He delivered scores of speeches over the course of his career, and as a conscientious orator he wrote out the script of what he wanted to say (though in delivery, his son explains, he felt free to depart from his own text). Here are addresses on Christianity, on American society, on political principle, on the lives of friends and heroes, on law and the Constitution, and much else. In one wonderful talk on the arts, for instance—he was a great fan of opera and twice appeared, together with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as an extra in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos—Scalia contended that they only thrive in the context of law. Not court decisions on First Amendment protections, but statutory law—contract law especially, but also even rationally debated laws on obscenity. “The First Amendment says what it says,” he argues, “not what we lovers of the arts would like it to say. And frankly, I find it impossible to stretch ‘the freedom of speech and of the press’ beyond those symbols (including even symbolic actions) that convey thought as opposed to aesthetic, or for that matter erotic, emotion.”

These addresses are beautifully constructed in their rhetorical expression and logical development, as satisfying to read as they must have been to hear. There’s a warm lucidity about Scalia’s writing that nicely complements the oral form: He’s always clear but treats his readers as people, not reasoning machines; his aim is to express his argument as cleanly and efficiently as he can, but he’s happy to stop and ensure you’re following the logic. And happy to crack a joke, too. Scalia’s wit is legendary, but I was unprepared to laugh as much as I did. One example of many, on the absence of “soccer moms” in the Brooklyn of his youth: “There were no soccer moms because there was no soccer,” he writes. “Americans overwhelmingly preferred baseball, a game in which a lot of players stand around while not much happens, to soccer, a game in which people run back and forth furiously while not much happens.” There are people who write jokes for a living who’d consider that their best work.

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Scalia’s adversaries admitted that he was a gifted writer but often said so in a way that implied he wasn’t a fine legal mind. I’ve heard Justice Stephen Breyer do this more than once in public forums. Some people suffer from “good writer’s disease,” Breyer likes to say; the people who suffer from this disease (he means Scalia) happen upon a felicitous phrase and can’t help using it. The line gets a chuckle, but it’s meant to suggest that the force of Scalia’s writing derives from mere phrasemaking and that he wasn’t sufficiently discerning to see that his felicitous phrases didn’t amount to good arguments.

Wrong. Scalia had a talent for writing, for sure, but his writing hits you as hard as it does because he worked at it, relentlessly, always refining his language in order more efficiently and accurately to convey his thought. In the book’s introduction, his son recalls once asking Scalia whether he found writing easy. “No,” was the reply. “It’s hard as hell.”

In a little address titled “Writing Well,” Scalia concludes by rejecting the idea that good writing requires only intellect. To write well, he says, primarily requires “the ability to place oneself in the shoes of one’s audience; to assume only what they assume; to anticipate what they anticipate; to explain what they need explained; to think what they must be thinking; to feel what they must be feeling.” That’s anguishing work, as any competent writer will tell you. But there is one connection between writing well and intellect, he says, and it’s this: “A careless, sloppy writer has a careless, sloppy mind.”

I suspect there’s another reason for Scalia’s ability to write so clearly and cogently, and it has to do with his conception of the law and the role of the judge. Justice Scalia believed the judge’s job is to interpret the law according to the meaning it had when it was written. That put him in the minority—partly owing to the contemporary fashion to treat the Constitution’s meaning as malleable, but partly also because Scalia’s originalism necessarily puts a judge at odds with the majority. He alludes to this point several times in these pages. “If we assume (as is surely correct),” he says in one lecture, “that a judge’s personal predilections will usually be those of the majority (he was, after all, elected by the majority, or appointed by officials who were elected), his nonadherence to the law will more often disadvantage the minority members and the downtrodden.”

To put it differently: Judges are generally going to share the opinions of the powerful and influential people of their time; otherwise they couldn’t have gotten themselves appointed as judges. (Elsewhere he repeats the old joke: “A judge is a lawyer who knows the governor.”) But a good judge, a judge who only cares what the law actually says and refuses to channel the dominant opinions of his age (very likely his own opinions) into the decisions he issues in court, will often find himself in an adversarial relationship with the culture around him. And that’s the proper stance of a writer: an adversarial one. When the writer knows his reasoning won’t be accepted by most of the great and good members of the literate society of his time, he’s compelled to work at it a few more hours and fashion his words into something better than the complacent fluff of consensus.

It’s not a knack or a “disease,” Justice Breyer. It’s just hard as hell.

Barton Swaim, the opinion editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the author of the memoir The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics.

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