White House Speechwriters Share Craft Secrets

The minds behind political performance art spoke at a panel this weekend.

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Barack Obama once remarked that he is a better speechwriter than any of his speechwriters.

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President Bill Clinton enjoyed telling his speechwriters when they gathered in the Oval: "I used to give three speeches a day." The not-so-subtle message: He didn't need speechwriters. High-flown Woodrow Wilson, the last president to write his own speeches, lived and breathed in the White House one hundred years ago. Thus presidential speechwriters have been a fact of Washington political life for roughly a century. Since Peggy Noonan popularized her tale of what she saw at the Reagan Revolution, it's become one of the coolest jobs going. On the other coast, it's roughly akin to being a screenwriter on a dark cable drama, writing lines, scenes and backstory for the talent. And since so many of those shows are set in Washington, the special relationship with Hollywood is only getting closer. The distance between screenwriters and speechwriters may be narrowing as well.

In real life Washington, we have come to see the presidency as performance art since Ronald Reagan played the role so convincingly.

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Still, it's a rare treat to hear the finer points of presidential speechwriting aired in a forum, crossing over time and party lines. The editor of the Thomas Jefferson Street Opinion Blog, our own Robert Schlesinger, brought four former White House speechwriters together to talk about their craft and their bosses. The setting, aptly, was a stage under the roof of the storied Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. The benefit evening first featured a new political play, "The Totalitarians" which was followed by the panel Robert moderated.

The beauty of it was that the last four administrations, two Democratic and two Republican, were represented – Clinton, Barack Obama, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. Through their speechwriters, these leading men were in a way in the room, as their speaking styles were conjured like ghosts. As it happens, Robert is the author of a wonderful book, "White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters," a study of presidential speechwriters from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the second Bush.

First up was Mary Kate Cary, who spoke cordially of her old boss, Bush 41, who wanted his speeches done 48 hours ahead of time – he knew he needed time to prepare. All was locked in. Bush was in awe of Reagan's easy showy talent before audiences, but the Connecticut WASP never cohered a smooth style. Further, he got no joy out of tinkering with the substance of what his wordsmiths gave him.

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Nor did his son, but he developed a more practicable public presence. Noam Neusner worked for Bush 43, noted for his blunt staccato speaking as a governor and president. The "rhetorical arts" were not the Texan's favorite thing, but he did work on and practice his well-structured speeches, sometimes salting them repetition or responding to a nicely constructed section with a well-timed "yeah!" Neusner told the story of getting a call at his desk at 6:30 a.m. from the president himself. Off to the Oval he walked while Washington was waking up. The personal relationship is worth pausing over, because rapport and understanding are part of the job.

As Jeff Shesol, a Clinton speechwriter observed, it's not just knowing how a president talks that matters, but knowing how he thinks on major and minor issues. "It's not just stenography," he said, adding that Clinton's voice lived somewhere within him. "I could almost write a parody." Whatever the speechwriters wrote on a final draft for Clinton, he said, the president kept making revisions. They never knew what he was going to say until he delivered the speech, using the words on paper as a jumping-off point for inspiration. Loving language and policy and history as he did, he often improvised a kind of jazz master mix.

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Even for the most momentous speeches, Clinton's process was to keep scribbling changes in the margins up until showtime, giving his speechwriters a certain amount of angst.

Obama is also one to write copious notes in the margins of speeches, Adam Frankel, a former speechwriter, said. The current president, author of a literary memoir, once remarked that he is a better speechwriter than any of his speechwriters. He probably got elected in 2008 on the strength of his soaring oratory and cadences, despite a short and slender resume as a lawmaker. Yet Frankel noted that the the theme of inclusiveness, which ran through the candidate's utterances, is ironically gone today. Beautiful words matter for lifting morale, especially after eight years of strangled syntax, but Obama's presidency may become a case study of how far they take a president with the people. Ultimately, even the most lyrical words lose their political power.

Howard Shalwitz, Woolly Mammoth's artistic director, said the company chooses original plays as platforms for civic discourse such as the Schlesinger panel. Mainstream political speech is the lifeblood of democracy, last I looked, and nothing could be more timely for the frozen fix we're in.