Pres­i­dents and speech­writ­ers: The right style for mass me­dia

The Washington Times Weekly - - World -

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.

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