Bush, Clinton, JFK Scribes Recall Presidents Behind the Scenes

Who was easy, who wasn't, and how one ghost saw a future first lady's underwear.


Life on the inside as a presidential speechwriter isn't always what it's cracked up to be. Michael Gerson, a former U.S. News staffer who was President George W. Bush's guy, says his nerves were so bad after handing over major speeches that he couldn't bear to see them delivered. TV's Chris Matthews, who toiled for Jimmy Carter, says the prez rarely liked anything that was written for him. Bill Clinton, reports speechwriter Michael Waldman, would cross out fancy phrases and mutter, "Words, words, words."

"You are really the first draft," says Matthews, who joined the others recently at the Smithsonian Insitution to talk about speechwriting. "It's not ventriloquist work. It's anticipation."

Well, not always. There are awkward moments you just can't predict, say two of the nation's most prominent presidential writers, John F. Kennedy's Ted Sorensen and Landon Parvin, who wrote for Ronald Reagan and both Bushes. Sorensen recalls how, during the 1960 presidential campaign, he had written a speech about the Tennessee Valley Authority that Kennedy flew to Tennessee to give. At the airport, JFK got into one car, and Sorensen into another. Sorensen's car got delayed, so he suggested the driver turn on the radio. "I hear the president being introduced and think, 'Uh-oh. I've got his speech right here and it's the only copy.' My, what that man knew about TVA."

Parvin's story was more embarrassing. He recalls being asked by former President George H. W. Bush to help ghostwrite a joke-filled 1998 speech for his son to give at the annual Alfalfa Club dinner, a Washington rite-of-passage event for presidential candidates.

The day of the dinner, Parvin went to a Washington townhouse, where several Bush family members were staying, to help the future president rehearse his punchlines. As he got to the second floor, he came across former first lady Barbara Bush in a towel, before the elder Bush introduced him to Laura, who was in bed in her robe. As he worked with the then-Texas governor, he felt they needed more space. "He couldn't project. It wasn't working. It was too close," Parvin recalls. So Bush told him to walk into his bedroom and sit next to Laura, still in bed. As Parvin started to sit, he froze: On the chair were her black panties. "I didn't know what to do," he says. Making matters worse, Bush barked: "Landon, sit down. Laura's not going to bite you." Fortunately, he says, "as I dithered, Mrs. Bush got up and grabbed them." Still, he considered holding them and asking Bush, "Pardon me, are these yours?"

Illustration by Ed Wexler for USN&WR.

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