Safire's Death Prompts Change in Speechwriters' Group

White House speechwriters group tries to regroup after leader Bill Safire's death.

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By Paul Bedard, Washington Whispers

Not that there was ever a question, but famed former White House speechwriter and conservative New York Times columnist Bill Safire,who died last month, just can't be replaced. On many levels. And one of those is as the founder and leader of the exclusive Judson Welliver Society of former White House speechwriters.

"I miss Bill terribly," says Gordon Stewart, a former Carter speechwriter who's taking over Safire's role as chairman of the group. "I don't want to describe myself as a successor," he added. "I'm carrying on. I still feel very sad, but I'm carrying on," he told Whispers.

We understand from members that Stewart, who has long been the secretary of the group, was voted in by acclamation, in part because he handled the meeting and membership issues for Safire and was such a good friend of Safire's. "We had huge differences about everything in the world," Stewart said about the former Nixon speechwriter. "But we were great friends."

An E-mail to members said that Stewart was already planning the group's next meeting and said he was operating "in the wake of Bill's wake." Group members include former speechwriters like Bushie and former U.S. News-er Michael Gerson, the Carter era's Rick Hertzberg, and the Kennedy era's Ted Sorensen.

Stewart, however, might not keep his chairman role in the group, he said. Describing himself as a caretaker for now, he suggested that a future meeting of the members might decide if they want to elect a permanent chairman or just leave the administration in his hands as the group's secretary.

In his book White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters, U.S. News Opinion Editor Robert Schlesinger details Stewart's role in Jimmy Carter's "malaise" speech. Both Stewart and Hertzberg wrote the address, and Stewart hassled Carter during a rehearsal session to give the speech with feeling. "He told the president, 'I don't have to listen to you just because you're the president. If I'm in a bar, I can and will change the channel. You have to care whether I listen to you.'" It was a trick he taught actors when he was a Broadway director. Of note, the word malaise was never uttered in the speech, but Carter's mood and dour message led headline writers to use the word, which has stuck over time on the speech some think helped to doom his presidency.