Presidents and speechwriters: The right style for mass media
It was FDR, writes Robert Schlesinger, who first grasped the potential of an emerging mass media and developed in his fireside chats and speeches a process that required the services of speechwriters. “Roosevelt’s gift,” Mr. Schlesinger says, “was to find people who could catch and augment his own style, aides who could, to use a sports metaphor, help the president elevate his own game.”
Such people aren’t easy to find. Good speechwriters tend to be good writers, but good writers are not always good speechwriters, as witness John Steinbeck’s embarrassing efforts, recorded by Mr. Schlesinger, to contribute to LBJ’s speeches. The best speechwriters can hear the person they’re writing for in their minds, and as they write, they become the speaker — and more, the speaker as he’d like to be, saying it all in the way he’s always wanted to say it, the way he’s been reaching for, thereby elevating the speaker’s game. And despite writers being writers, and bylines being the literary equivalent of applause, they’re expected to do it anonymously. But with occasional exceptions, most recently a public dustup among three top Bush writers, treated without editorial comment by Mr. Schlesinger, anonymity has been the rule of thumb — albeit a rather large thumb.
LBJ, Mr. Schlesinger tells us, had strong feelings on the subject: “‘Remember those assistants of FDR who had a ‘passion for anonymity,’” Johnson told speechwriter Robert Hardesty when he joined the staff. “‘That’s what I want you to have: a passion for anonymity. Speechwriters especially.’”
With the possible exception of Richard Goodwin, Mr. Schlesinger says, the anonymity of his writers posed few problems for LBJ. But he posed problems for them. “Perhaps the writers’ biggest problem was that they could not write to LBJ’s speaking strengths.”
LBJ, Schlesinger reports, summed it up this way: “‘The g[--]damn draft they’ve given me wouldn’t make chickens cackle if you waved it at ’em in the dark.”
And that, in a nutshell — or perhaps an eggshell — is what this thoroughly researched, smoothly written and frequently witty book is all about — how presidents and their speechwriters work together to make the chickens cackle.
To that end, Mr. Schlesinger interviewed some 90 speechwriters (this writer was one of them, having come to the Nixon staff, as Mr. Schlesinger puts it, after my “previous position as an Agnew speechwriter disappeared with the vice president.”), former and present key administration officials; and drew on a wealth of documents, both public and private, including materials accumulated by his father, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Given the pedigree, one might suspect a trace of bias. But there’s none here. Mr. Schlesinger has no political or ideological axes to grind, treating Richard Nixon and George Bush just as objectively as Lyndon John- son or John Kennedy.
Harry Truman, he tells us, struggling to emerge from FDR’s extraordinary shadow, finally found speechwriters, overseen by Clark Clifford, able to put his remarks into “Missouri English — plain, short, direct sentences that suited his style.” (And, one might add, that defined the man.) Eisenhower, like Truman, eschewed high rhetoric, employing a speaking style that was “unpretentious, matter of fact,” marked by “a plain sincerity.”
JFK, the first television president, relied heavily on his chief speechwriter, Ted Sorenson, “a territorial writer” who believed “the number of people who had to clear a speech was one: the president.” On LBJ, Mr. Schlesinger quotes Jack Valenti: “Johnson was always intimidated by Banquo’s ghost, this specter of Kennedy, this urbane, cool, witty, marvelously elegant man.” As a result of this, and his own “conflicted, contradictory personality,” Johnson never quite succeeded in making those chickens cackle.
Richard Nixon had what may have been the strongest and most diverse of the White speechwriting staffs since such staffs came into existence — Ray Price, the writer Nixon went to for the big, personal speech; Pat Buchanan, conservatism’s finest polemicist; William Safire, who balanced Mr. Buchanan ideologically, William Gavin, responsible for the striking trainwhistle imagery of the first inaugural; Noel Koch and Lee Huebner, and David Gergen, who succeeded Ray Price as head of the writing operation. There was Ken Khachigian, now a respected GOP consultant; Vera Hirschberg, the first female member of the White House writing staff; Ben Stein, writer, lawyer, economist and actor; and Aram Bakshian, the best and fastest big-picture speechwriter in Washington, who went on to serve both Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan with distinction.
Nixon, Mr. Safire tells Mr. Schlesinger, “was a pleasure to work with as a writer. He was a real collaborator when it came to a speech and made you feel like a collaborator. So the speechwriters for Nixon were generally happy men. And, I should say, none of us went to jail”
“My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.” Gerald Ford, says Mr. Schlesinger, will be remembered for those nine words, written by long-time aide Robert Hartmann. Ford’s successor, Jimmy Carter, “did not particularly value or see the importance of [speechwriters]” Neither did Bill Clinton. Nor did Mr. Carter or Mr. Clinton leave us with memorable speeches.
“Ronald Reagan,” writes Mr. Schlesinger, “was known as ‘the Great Communicator,’ and had a deep appreciation of the power of words.” This appreciation extended to his writers, among them Tony Dolan, Landon Parvin, Dana Rohrbacher, Peggy Noonan and Aram Bakshian. The feeling was mutual. As a writer, says Mr. Bakshian, Reagan took his speeches very seriously, “a craftsman in this field and heavily involved in the process, especially the important speeches.”
“‘I am not President Reagan’ [President George H.W.] Bush told his speechwriters. ‘I couldn’t be if I wanted to.’” Says Mr. Schlesinger: “In the Bush Administration, image would flow from substance — no special crafting would be required.” It wasn’t required, and despite the efforts of fine writers like Peggy Noonan, it wasn’t forthcoming. And that may account for the single term.
In the end, president-speechwriter relationships can be complex, at times involving policy, pride of authorship, and ownership. But as Mr. Schlesinger puts it, “The president must ultimately have ownership of his words . . . not only because he will be held responsible for them, but to suggest otherwise risks the possibility that he may not.”
John Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author with Linda Bridges of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement,” published by Wiley.