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From Advisor to Functionary

My apologies again for going a long stretch, once the school term start, for not making a post for five weeks.  Anyway, we need to finish up our profile of the former speechwriter in the Carter administration.  This time, within the larger discussion of the pressures and concerns that influence a speechwriter while composing, comes an interesting reflection on how the role of speechwriter within a president’s administration over the past 50 years or so.

While the subject thought the most successful speech writers were also advisors, a la Theodore Sorensen, the closest she thought they got to policy making was through their style choices.  The most memorable contribution she thinks she made to the energy policy debate was for a speech she isn’t sure was ever used, because the botched 1980 attempt to rescue the Iranian hostages occurred around the same time.  “It did eventually get used because I’ve heard this quoted, not quoted from him, but I’ve heard this used by others and it was where it went into the 12,000 mile pipeline.  Half the oil we use is at the other end.  And that’s a real simple thing but up until then I had not heard anybody make that analogy or that comparison.  But it was true and it was … to illustrate the dangers; it’s a vulnerability when half of something you use so much every day is 12,000 miles away, half a world away.  And when you get over there that, it trickling down, it’s even less stable than it was then, although it wasn’t too great.  … And I think he used it at some point.  I don’t know, but anyways it was not an attempt to try to change what he was communicating.  It was an attempt to reinforce it.  Cause people … were not buying into the idea that this was in fact a legitimate crisis.”

The other possible source of influence comes in the form of prevention, of avoiding the kind of statement that could seriously damage a policy initiative.  The subject illustrated this point with the story of her current boss’s (an engineer like Jimmy Carter) trip to a “defense writer’s group breakfast” in Las Vegas to discuss a proposed “experimental plan for the Nevada test site, to explode a large amount of ammonium fertilizer basically and fuel oil,” a mixture similar to the infamous 1995 Oklahoma City truck bomb.  “They need, it’s not nuclear weapons, it’s that they need to understand what ground shock does if you blow something.  So they have this big pit of stuff that they were gonna blow up and there were tunnels underneath.  Well, he says, ‘Oh, we’re going to do this experiment at the test site.  So this is going to be the first time since we’ve tested nuclear weapons we’re going to see a mushroom cloud over Las Vegas.’”  Given Nevada’s history with nuclear bomb testing, and the concomitant issues of environmental damage and fallout injurious to health, there was an immediate uproar over the remark.  The test was put on hold and hadn’t happened by the time of our interview.  “People … don’t understand that lots of explosives make little mushroom clouds; it’s not simply a nuclear weapon but everybody associates that with nuclear weapons certainly. … Nobody in Las Vegas is upset when they blow up an old hotel and right in front of everybody and dirt and dust and god knows what.  They don’t worry about that, so that would have been a better comparison.  Like blowing up the Stardust … .  It would have been better to put it in those terms.  It’ll be bigger; it’ll be like blowing up five Stardust hotels or something.  You know, that would have been okay.  It was ‘mushroom cloud’ that did it.”  In seeking to explain the gaffe, perhaps to herself most of all, the subject said her boss was “really a sharp, sharp, sharp guy,” and “very good on his feet;” which may explain his lack of “patience with coaching.”

The functions of style were to convey information accurately, and in an appropriate manner, which making the content attractive and memorable.  Speech writing had in common with journalism that the writer has to “get rid of the fluff and make sure you’ve got the meat and maybe some parsley, but be sure you have stuff.”

*How White House speechwriting became distanced from policy creation has been chronicled in an article that appeared in the Spring, 1998 issue of the journal Polity.  (“Policymakers and Wordsmiths: Writing for the President under Johnson and Nixon” by Karen M. Hult and Charles E. Walcott.)  Through the Kennedy administration, the presidents after Hoover (“the last E. Walcott.)  Through the Kennedy administration, the presidents after Hoover (“the last president to do most of his own writing”) relied on close advisors to also function as their principal speechwriters.  But the demands for presidential communication were exploding with the increasing presence of television, with advances in transportation making it easier for presidents to travel and speak to various groups, and with the enormous amount of policy initiatives Lyndon Johnson needed to explain to both Congress and the public.  So Johnson created three tiers of writers—senior advisers, writers who specialized in particular policy areas (like our Clinton speechwriter), and “a separate staff writing minor presidential messages,” disdainfully labeled “Rose Garden rubbish” during Johnson’s presidency.  Communication among these groups was often strained or non-existent, poisoned by turf battles. Nixon momentarily reversed this trend, but “in all subsequent administrations … writers have become largely technicians, with expertise in crafting speeches and promoting presidents rather than in policy. … Nixon’s successors have followed the practice of placing writers in a distinct unit located at a relatively low level of the White House hierarchy.”  Moreover, this separation between policy and writers seems to have trickled down to the less rarefied political strata.  By our own subjects’ testimony, speech writers commonly seek out policy makers as part of researching a speech.  The writer at the Washington Metro, who had never worked at the White House, struggled to separate the functions of policy making and speech writing.  Our two subjects who had written in the Carter and Clinton White Houses were clearly distant from the presidents’ circles of policy advisors. According to Hult and Walcott, Carter’s “writers were excluded from senior policy discussions, the president rarely met with writers, and internal policy conflicts prevailed …”  Even our Pittsburgh speechwriter appeared to have much more contact with a layer of close advisors than with the candidates themselves when preparing a speech.

 

The Writing Before the Writing

We’re back to a profile of the former Carter speech writer who had also worked for the Department of Energy and Northrop Grumman.  In this posting we’ll explore the writer’s ideas on process and research.

Like many writers, it was clear the subject hadn’t devoted much time to thinking about her composing process.  She agreed with my definition of her as a “head editor,” someone who works much material out in her head before beginning to commit words to paper.  Her scholastic experience with journalism had taught her to “write fast clearly. … I’ve always, I’ve never had any time, no luxury for that, I’ve always been on short turn arounds and deadlines.”  But this approach can also be a matter of preference, and of personality, similar to the Creative Writing graduate who told us he didn’t adhere to the “write every day” dictum because he wanted to have a sense of his content before composing.  “The thinking is done before I start writing,” said the subject.  “If you know what it is you want to say, it’s pretty easy to say it.  If you don’t know, then you spend a lot of time figuring that out and waste a lot of paper that way, I guess. … It’s like people who say they can write a screenplay, ‘Oh, how long did it take you to write Casablanca.’ ‘Well, it took me about thirty days.’  But the truth is, it’s been written over a longer period of time before they put it on paper.  That’s two different things.” 

While the Clinton speech writer could cite Peter Elbow, think of writing as discovery and a form of cognition, and only know what was to be said through the act of composition, the Carter speech writer would probably lose patience with an Elbow approach in a hurry.  It’s not that the subject wished to wrap the act of writing in mystification, or to advocate a romantic image of inspiration illuminating the dark sky of consciousness like bursts of lightning.  But like many writers whose professional lives are made up of supplied rhetorical tasks that need a hurried response, she preferred an instrumentalist approach that seemed to fit her experience.

Much of what she said about preparation was strikingly similar to the depictions of the other interviewed speech writers, a formulation of the “rhetorical situation” through an intense, yet systematic, discovery of the will of the speaker, the expectations of the audience, and the subject matter at hand.  When asked in an e-mail to describe her processes, the subject replied: “First, you panic.  Then you figure out who actually knows about your topic and you go after facts and figures—‘factoids’ I call ‘em.  You research the audience—talk to someone from the group if possible.  Search online news clips, etc.  Be aware of daily news and general events in the world.”  In the interview the subject spoke of spending a lot of time on the phone.  “You go to people who are the senior advisors if you’re in an agency, who are the program officers.  What is it that they want to, they want to focus on, that you want them to focus on.” 

Like the others, she mentioned acquainting herself “with the speaker’s point of view as much as possible through personal interactions and other research sources.”  Again, she would adjust to a speaker’s particular persona and preferences.  Hazel O’Leary, Clinton’s Secretary of Energy, liked “talking points” and a “point of view” that often showed up in the speech’s title.  “It was like journalism, you want to put the most amazing, interesting thing up front.  …Well, she used this theme more than once, but I know she used it with the society of environmental journalists. … And it was ‘Not your father’s DOE.’  And she liked to use a lot of graphics and she didn’t use power point, but she used big like sports pictures of stuff.  And then we’d key the target points to the different boards.  … It was, you know, a bunch of old white guys, and now it’s Hazel O’Leary, African American and all these other sort of women and different groups.  … In other words, things had changed and so forth.  And then … you kind of then go from there to, from general to particular, I guess.  And then come back around and sort of re-state it again. … You try not to have more than three, one-two-three.  [The value of triadic amplification seems to be a given, as we have previously observed.]  It’s not your father’s DOE because bum, bum, bum.  This is not rocket science.”  

While O’Leary liked a centralizing “point of view,” the subject’s job was to find, at times, the element in popular culture, like Oldsmobile’s ill-fated attempt to lure younger customers to its brand, that would make the theme stick in the audience’s memory.  For instance, she discovered a way to present a “here’s the problem, we’ve got this solution” structure within the film “Speed.”  O’Leary, the subject said, “wouldn’t go for movie things,” but “I wanted her to realize … that she didn’t necessarily have to know all about it because she was going to tap into their [the audience’s] general consciousness and that movie was so big that year.”  In the film Dennis Hopper, as the deranged villain who has planted a bomb on a Los Angeles city bus, talks to the hero periodically by phone, taunting him with the question, “What do you do?”  “You know, you’ve got this, you’ve got that, dadadada, ‘What do you do?’”  That question, following the description of a problem and preceding the articulation of a solution became the motif around which the speech was structured. 

Perhaps this was an example of how writing takes place before the writer ever begins composing, through an absorption of cultural artifacts that can be drawn upon later.  And it is this generalized awareness, possibly the product of a liberal arts education, that combines with diligent research to allow the speech writer to create even when knowledge of the subject matter is initially negligible.  “Good research is essential.  Get a great understanding of your topic—talk to geeks, or whomever—they will talk on and on, and you will learn a lot.  Then, since you are not an expert, think about how you can explain the topic to other non-experts—how did it come alive for you?”  Another benefit of that liberal arts education was in sorting through what solo research yielded, like the subject’s once frequent use of the Lexis Nexis data base and the web sites of advocacy groups.  “You have to understand what those are and what they aren’t.”  Students, and writers generally, “have to learn the difference between gathering information and analyzing information for weaknesses and strengths.” 

The subject clearly had a strong personality, one she was willing to assert on occasion with her clients.  At the same time, she recognized the limitations of her own knowledge (“There are a lot of things I don’t necessarily have an opinion on too; I don’t know enough to have one.”) and didn’t seem troubled when the argument she had to construct for a speaker didn’t dovetail with her own position.  “You kind of deal with these people as individuals really.”  Since persuasive argument must absorb, refute, or finesse alternative positions, a professional speech writer can adjust to the speaker’s point of view, as long as it is not too far distant from her own.  In her current job, the subject may not be as “proactive” regarding weapons of mass destruction as her Republican colleagues, but at the same time she didn’t agree with Secretary O’Leary decision to “shut down nuclear testing” during the Clinton administration.  She once helped with press relations for women members of peace groups at a summit in Geneva, even though she thought such groups could be “wooly headed.”  “Admirable, maybe, but realistic, not necessarily.  You know it’s not always the same thing.  And so I wasn’t necessarily madly in agreement with them, but I had no problem helping them getting their message out.  I don’t object to peace groups, you know.”  And even though she wasn’t against the death penalty, she wrote a quite successful argument against the practice for the Wisconsin congressmen she once worked for.  “It appeared in a bunch of papers. … I don’t think they have the death penalty in Wisconsin.  So it’s a logical position for him to have.”  Whatever the argument, you try to find “an unassailable way to state it so that there is no counter-argument, or you’ve already de-fused it.”

 

From Storyteller to Speechwriter

This next posting about a former speechwriter for President Carter focuses on her educational preparation, and on how an unlikely series of events placed her in the White House.  Her story is similar to that of the Clinton speechwriter in that political operatives seem keenly intent on searching for the kind of peculiar talent demanded of such writing within an administration’s lower ranks.  These two are also similar in the way they link their talents to the broad liberal arts education they received as undergraduates.

Like Carter, our subject of southern origin was an interesting mix of pride in accomplishment and studied self-deprecation.  (Although her career in Washington was obviously both varied and lengthy, an outline of it was only obtained in bits and pieces, through conversation and responses to the e-mail questions. It was a “story” she wasn’t necessarily interested in telling, at least not in a self-consciously chronological fashion.)  When asked about the abilities necessary to success as a speech writer, she wrote: “I had been writing, and doing it fairly well, since I was in 4th grade or so.  There is the storyteller aspect of writing.  There is the organizing your priorities part of writing.  The organizing principle can be learned.  The ability to tell a good story is learned but not in a formal way, I think.  Maybe it could be learned, not sure.  But the ear for words and the rhythm of speech—how to string it together conversationally—I am not sure that can be learned formally—it may just come from how you grow up—around readers and talkers and storytellers—or not.  Around people who have a gift for language, or not. … I think I learned all of my skills and abilities that were not inborn within my extended family as a child, growing up.  I think those things were merely refined by the academic processes and training—buffed and polished as it were.” 

The subject had written for both her high school and her college newspapers, experiences which had helped her learn to compose under deadline, had taken Advanced English as a high school senior and Advanced Freshman Composition at Auburn.  “I was a history major, traveled and lived abroad as a child, read a lot, daydreamed a lot.”  She apparently was one of those facile linguistic talents who can simultaneously charm and irritate teachers.  “When I studied Spanish, I had to write about the conquest of Mexico City by Cortez in Spanish.  I wrote 12 pages or so.  Even in Spanish, I was able to tell stories.  I aced my history finals and always brought my grade up one letter on the final (much to the irritation of my history professors, who knew I slacked off during the term and overachieved on the final—made them mad, but they couldn’t deny that I knew my material and how to present it on the final.)”

Her career in the federal government began thirty years prior to the interview, with “a series of coincidences that included my four-year-old daughter’s Sunday school teacher here and a party at the Fort Myer Officers Club and some people who lived in Georgetown who were from Missouri and a friend of mine’s cousin who was in Missouri and I forget what else.”  The subject landed, through all these connections, in the Department of Transportation, researching ways of lowering oil consumption and discovering alternative sources of energy.  (Some of this narrative, I admit, is a piecing together of quick anecdotes related by the subject, and may be more accurate in describing the shape of her experiences than the exact chronological order in which they occurred.)  At this same time, the time of “stagflation,” oil boycotts, and lines at gasoline pumps, President Carter was interested in programs or initiatives focusing exactly on our subject’s area of work.  Through contact with the office of Esther Peterson, the president’s special assistant for consumer affairs, the subject began contributing information to planned Carter speeches.  During a speech in New Brunswick, New Jersey, she actually heard the president use “some of the stuff I had given the speech writers, which I couldn’t believe. … So, when I got back I went down to the speech writing offices to see this guy and tell him; he said, ‘oh no, it was really good stuff, really appreciated it and, would you be interested in doing more of this?’”  And that was how our subject became a White House speech writer.  “The first speech I ever wrote in my life was in high school when I ran for office.  The second speech I ever wrote in my life was in the White House for President Carter.  The way I got from A to B with that is convoluted, unlikely, ridiculous and if you put it in a movie or a book, no one would believe it.”

Along with the abilities she absorbed in her family of adept linguists and story tellers, “refined” through her schooling, the subject attributed her career to her liberal arts education.  “If you’ve got a good one, you probably know something about a lot of things.  It’s not that hard to pick up where you left off in high school or college. … But I do think you have to have enthusiasm in learning about everything and anything.”  After Carter’s defeat she worked for a Democratic congressman from Wisconsin who was “a guru of copyright.  And I learned all kinds of stuff about intellectual property because I worked in his office.  Now I wasn’t on his sub-committee, that wasn’t an issue that I handled but … I did his press, media stuff, I did all the media for his sub-committee on judiciary as well as for the personal office.  I handled some legislative areas, too.  So you just learn it and I learn fast.”  In her position with the Department of Energy under Clinton, she worked for the nuclear weapons program.  “I didn’t know anything about nuclear weapons.  Well, I mean I knew something about nuclear.  I knew that it was incredibly, as a history major, okay, it’s a big intersection between history and science.  It’s the ultimate defense issue.  And so I knew that and I knew it split atoms or it fused them.  I mean I had this thing in my mind that everybody has, which is that sort of like a cartoon bomb with a fuse on it.  … [But] if you have some scientific interest and … I do, you can kind of glom onto it.  I can’t do the calculations, but I can get the ideas.”

Advisors and Speechwriters

            With the end of our fall term, and the immersion in holiday activities that followed, I must admit to a neglect of this blog.  Today, we begin again, with a profile of a speechwriter who toiled in the Carter and Clinton administrations.  This posting and a few subsequent ones will be devoted to the above subject, who was both entertaining and knowledgeable.

            The interview took place in the backyard of the subject’s Alexandria home, and my recording has a sound track of continuous bird song.  While I had made my own way to the offices and home of the previous interviewees, this one’s home was not in easy walking distance, and so she picked me up at a train station in Alexandria’s business section.

            At the time of the interview, the subject was working as a “senior analyst” for Northrup Grumman, a job she obtained after gaining a “background in nuclear weapons” while working for the Department of Energy in the Clinton administration.  When asked if this position entailed speech writing, she replied, “some, but not exactly because our director doesn’t … want to do speeches.  When I came in that was one of the things they wanted help with.  And we had an acting director and … she didn’t really want to do speeches.  She didn’t want to take engagements.”  The subject could be quite elliptical in her responses but the conclusion could be drawn that she now worked for the permanent director, a male, in a department devoted to “advisory and assistance support contracts.”  “I do some briefings, power point briefings.  I do some sort of talking point type things” when the director meets with “industry kind of gatherings,” or appears at the National Defense University at Fort McNair, or travels overseas.  The subject had advised the director to seek out different gatherings, “to move out of such a small community.  Don’t worry about the foreign stuff.  Your money is here.  Your issues are here.  Get a better grade of forum.”  This was about the sum total of what was said regarding her current position, in part because the amount of speech writing involved wasn’t significant to her, in part because, I suspected, much of her subject matter was classified, and in part because she most wanted to discuss her work during the Carter and Clinton administrations.

            As in the interview of the Clinton speechwriter, the subject displayed considerable admiration for the president with whom she had the closest working relationship, Jimmy Carter.  Perhaps because she was older and not doing freelance work, she openly displayed her dislike for the president who succeeded him (“I did decide that if Ronald Reagan could be elected president, literally anybody could be elected president.”) and for George W. Bush, the president occupying the White House at the time of the interview (“And I think we can see that continues today.”)  She admired Carter’s intellect—“Carter’s so smart he already knew more about every program in the government than anybody else could possibly tell him anyhow.”—and his wit—“He was incredibly articulate on his feet and funny and everything else.”  She also felt a special bond with him as a fellow southerner—“I understand this man.”  She had graduated from Auburn University in Alabama, and had listened to country music on the Grand Ole Opry radio show as she was growing up.  “We didn’t call it country music; we just called it music.” 

The subject compared her feeling of kinship with Carter with Theodore Sorensen’s connection to President Kennedy.  “But you know he wasn’t really a speech writer and I think that’s the best thing, … when you can’t graft these things onto somebody.  It’s better if they see you as an advisor of some kind, that they value your thinking on substantive matters and then if you can also help them articulate what they … that’s how Sorensen became known as the best speech writer.”  This was another variation on the “identity” question.  The speech writer was not an alter ego, or the politician’s doppelganger, but an advisor who can both suggest and then execute an expression of the politician’s policy.

            Not that the subject was suggesting she had a similar relationship with Carter, although her comments implied she may be more of an advisor to her current director, and may have been more of one to Hazel O’Leary, the Secretary of Energy under President Clinton.  In fact, Carter appeared to be the first name to come into her mind when asked who was her “most challenging” audience and she replied “the speaker.”  She admitted that she never “got to talk to President Carter, nor did the chief speech writer.”*  As an engineer (“the driving principle behind his life … not religion”) he thought every problem had a solution.  Engineers, with Carter as her prototype, think “they can either figure it out or that they already know what it is.  And he felt, I believe, dishonest using other people’s words.  But he would use factoids.  If you gave him a fact of some sort, he would go for it.”  In another place in the interview the subject said it was “very hard” for Carter “to use these blurbs that someone else had prepared.  There was something about it that was uncomfortable.  And partly, and I will say this, that all people I have worked for have been very, very good on their feet.  And so I think that makes it even harder.  Cause they’re never gonna read it because they don’t do that.”  Clinton’s writer relished his ability to “ad lib,” but at the same time, the testimony of these two interviewees suggests he “stuck to the script” much more than Carter.

            One time Carter did appear to follow the subject’s lead was when he delivered the sample she provided, remarks prepared for the Kennedy Center honors that took place during his final months as president, after the November, 1980 election.  This speech would be considered ceremonial or epideictic by Aristotle, as its main intent was to pay homage to the honorees, to extol their virtues as artists, and to hold them up as models of human endeavor whose values others should emulate.  (“Each of the men and women we honor tonight have that special gift—the gift of creation.  As they use it in the service of our lives they inspire others to perform, and so their gifts are re-created many times over.”)  That said, the speech writer was fully cognizant that the audience in the theatre was local and “decision makers with votes on the hill.”  In consequence, a brief part of the president’s remarks was an argument for federal funding of the arts “because you never miss an opportunity to reinforce the message of, you know, whatever it is.  It’s ceremonial, but remember it’s here … because we do this, this, and this.  And this is the way we can produce more of these people.”  Just a few sentences into the president’s remarks the argument began, which also served as an advertisement for one of the lame duck administration’s clear achievements: “Federal funding for the arts and federal awareness of the arts is greater than ever before.  Americans’ love of the arts is apart from politics, and support for the arts should not be subject to partisan pressures.  More and more cities and communities now recognize how much the arts mean to them.  They attract and retain businesses.  They generate additional commercial activity.  They are a rich economic as well as entertainment resource. Yet for all the social and economic importance of the arts, it is their spiritual value to us as human beings that is most fundamental—and irreplaceable.”

The primary reason the subject selected this sample for us was its use of humor, how it illustrated Carter’s own wit and sense of humility (“I personally think that humor is just about always appropriate and that’s a southern thing.  Carter always fuses things with humor because I’ve heard him lots of times.”), and how it helped connect the president to the honorees.  “To me when you’re singing people’s praises like that you can easily get kind of dull and boring and, you know, you’re so wonderful.  It [humor] does a couple of things.  First of all, there’s almost a kinship with the speaker to the individual, which is appropriate given that they’re outstanding in their own fields.  So there’s a camaraderie there that I think humor kind of gives a little expression of.  And … any time you can turn a phrase nicely, it’s more complimentary too.”

The most prominent example of this humor as camaraderie involved one of the honorees, Jimmy Cagney, an actor whose distinctive mannerisms and speech patterns every aspiring mimic thought they could capture.  A similar fate had befallen Carter, whose soft-spoken rectitude had been memorably rendered by comedian Dan Aykroyd during the ascendancy of Saturday Night Live’s brand of televised political satire.  “I promise I will refrain from giving you my version of ‘Jimmy’ this evening,” was the opening of the joke our subject had penned for him, “if he promises not to do his ‘Jimmy’ imitation.”  Time magazine highlighted the joke in a brief summation of the event in its issue of December 22, 1980, most likely a source of pride with the subject as well, a pride even Matthew Scully might excuse, given that the remarks had been delivered more than a quarter-century earlier.  The subject was exempt from any accusation that she was stealing the spotlight from her “client.”    

*How White House speechwriting became distanced from policy creation has been chronicled in an article that appeared in the Spring, 1998 issue of the journal Polity.  (“Policymakers and Wordsmiths: Writing for the President under Johnson and Nixon” by Karen M. Hult and Charles E. Walcott.)  Through the Kennedy administration, the presidents after Hoover (“the last president to do most of his own writing”) relied on close advisors to also function as their principal speechwriters.  But the demands for presidential communication were exploding with the increasing presence of television, with advances in transportation making it easier for presidents to travel and speak to various groups, and with the enormous amount of policy initiatives Lyndon Johnson needed to explain to both Congress and the public.  So Johnson created three tiers of writers—senior advisers, writers who specialized in particular policy areas (like our Clinton speechwriter), and “a separate staff writing minor presidential messages,” disdainfully labeled “Rose Garden rubbish” during Johnson’s presidency.

 Communication among these groups was often strained or non-existent, poisoned by turf battles. Nixon momentarily reversed this trend, but “in all subsequent administrations … writers have become largely technicians, with expertise in crafting speeches and promoting presidents rather than in policy. … Nixon’s successors have followed the practice of placing writers in a distinct unit located at a relatively low level of the White House hierarchy.”  Moreover, this separation between policy and writers seems to have trickled down to the less rarefied political strata.  By our own subjects’ testimony, speech writers commonly seek out policy makers as part of researching a speech.  The writer at the Washington Metro, who had never worked at the White House, struggled to separate the functions of policy making and speech writing.  Our two subjects who had written in the Carter and Clinton White Houses were clearly distant from the presidents’ circles of policy advisors. According to Hult and Walcott, Carter’s “writers were excluded from senior policy discussions, the president rarely met with writers, and internal policy conflicts prevailed …”  Even our Pittsburgh speechwriter, profiled a few months ago, appears to have had much more contact with a layer of close advisors than with the candidates themselves when preparing a speech.

 

 

 

 

A Workable System

            Our last posting on the speechwriter who is currently freelancing and once wrote for President Clinton, we explore how she developed a speech.  As earlier mentioned, the subject had much to say about her process, which she laid out in a careful sequence in her e-mailed responses prior to our interview.

            Under some questioning about possible recursiveness in her process during the interview she was first slightly defensive: “I’ve been doing this for a long time now.  So for me it is a fairly orderly process, now.  Some speeches are harder to write than others.  Some clients are harder to write for, some issues are more difficult, but in general I feel like the process of writing a speech is a very natural and a fairly fluid one and I go about it more or less the same way every time.  And so, so yes.  At this stage in my career, it does flow like that.”  But further prodding forced a more complex depiction.  “The process is often that I’ll get something done and I’ll look and I’ll realize that page three should actually be page five. … I know exactly what to expect and that’s part of what I expect, that there will be that revision and rejiggering.  And, you know, oftentimes part of that is the sentence that seems so brilliant to you in the first draft, you know you’ve got to kill by the time you get to the fourth draft.  Because it doesn’t fit anymore, or you know it wasn’t as good as you thought it was.”  The subject concurred with the interviewer that what she had developed could be characterized as a workable “system” or “approach.”  “It’s not like checking the boxes.  It’s not like step one, step two, step three.  But … in terms of how I go about it, it feels natural.”

            Those steps in the process could, nonetheless, be clearly matched up with what the subject said about the development of the Northern Ireland speech.  Like the employees at the Washington Metro and the FAA, her first move is to collect as much information about the occasion and the audience as possible.  What is the event’s purpose?  Why was the speaker invited?  Will there be other speakers on the program?  What are the demographics of the audience, and what are their “emotional” expectations?  “What issues are on their minds?  What do they think of this speaker?  What would they want this speaker to think/know about them?”

One can see the answers to these questions worked smoothly into the Belfast speech—the allusions to the “troubles” of the past 25 years in Northern Ireland and to the Christmas season, the acknowledgement of not just dignitaries but of the factory workers present, the awareness of not just the speaker’s position, but of his personality and of his public persona.  “I need to know … not just what they think on their issue or their policy or their little fiefdom, but who they are—where they grew up, what they like, what they care about, where they vacation, who they’re married to, how many kids they have … what’s on their bed side table, if I can get it.”  With all the material about Clinton in books and other media, “it was easy to just go read it, a biography.”  Other clients require more digging, and conversations with them and/or their staff.  Talking to the prospective speakers isn’t always possible, but it helps also to find out the cadence and phrasing of their speech, as well as the words “that they routinely stumble over,” like “nucular.”

            The second step is to discover the speech’s main topic, the “headline message,” usually in consultation with the client and her or his staff.  “What does the speaker want to get out of this event?  Is it a command performance (like an annual summit), a special occasion (like a ribbon cutting or commencement), or a policy platform?  Is the speaker’s goal to educate, persuade, inspire, mobilize, entertain?  Is it to take (or give) credit for a success?”  For the Belfast speech, the subject was in contact with the “advanced team that had gone to Northern Ireland and had scouted out places,” with the American charge in Belfast, and with “a lot people” who could help her with the content of the speech.

            Once the subject has all the information she needs, she creates a “basic framework” for the speech.  Unlike the writer at the FAA, she does not “generally work from detailed outlines,” nor is she good at working out a structure through talking to some interlocutor.  “If you asked me what the speech needs to be about, I would fumble all over myself, but if you would just give me an hour to sit on the computer and write a little bit, then I could come back and tell you,” she said during the interview.  “I find that writing and thinking go hand-in-hand;” she wrote in an e-mail. “Sometimes I need to be writing to figure out what it is I’m trying to say.” 

The subject knew the basic argument Clinton wanted to make in Belfast, so she wrote the speech “in the way that the argument made sense to me.”  The opening had to be upbeat.  “You wanted to start with the good stuff.  … I live on the other side of the ocean and here’s what I see when I look at your country.  I see these incredible things happening.”  The beginning and the end also had to contain certain required material, like the acknowledgement of Irish politicians who had been participating in the peace process.  The interviewer remarked on the speech’s structure resembling the classical model, with an opening that established the speaker’s good will followed by an exposition of the case for the peace process, then a refutation of those attitudes and behaviors that could set the process back, and a peroration with emotional appeals to stay the course.

            It is in the drafting that the subject tries to work in not just the “factual arguments” but also the “color that brings the best speeches to life—anecdotes, quotations, humor, real life examples, interesting factoids, etc.”  The client or speaker will provide “the policy substance for the speech; my job is to make it interesting, relevant, and memorable for the audience.”  The subject’s independent research appeared to focus on obtaining the “color.”  A forceful metaphor within the Belfast speech was inspired by the factory itself.  “The textile machines you make permit people to weave disparate threads into remarkable fabrics.  That is now what you must do here with the people of Northern Ireland.”  A search through newspaper reports of the previous March’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration yielded a quote from an Armagh bystander that “Even the normal is beginning to seem normal.”  A call to an Irish poet at Princeton, a friend of her parents, led her to a line by Louis MacNeice about Americans rejoicing “at things being various.”  The subject needed an appeal of particular power in the closing sentences of the speech, and found it among a selection of letters Irish schoolchildren had written to the president.  “One young girl from Ballymena wrote, and I quote, ‘It is not easy to forgive and forget, especially for those who have lost a family member or a close friend.  However, if people could look to the future with hope instead of the past with fear, we can only be moving in the right direction.’  I couldn’t have said it nearly as well.”  Particular care is taken with the beginning and ending of a speech, and the style has to “make the speech easy for the client to read and for the audience to hear.”  That means attention to “sentence length and structure, word play, strong verbs, interesting metaphors.” 

            As has been mentioned above, several drafts have probably been produced before one is sent to the client (“I am a rigorous self-editor.”), and then the clients will either be “content” or “get invested in the drafting process themselves.”  An exchange of drafts will often ensue “until the client is satisfied.”  Some traits the subject said a speech writer must have are the “ability to take criticism,” “strong self-editing skills,” and “self-discipline and grace under pressure.”  Like the others, she clearly saw her role as one of service and she was aware of gaps in her education, like a need to study more U.S. history.  A public speaking course as an undergraduate would have been “valuable,” she thought, “and it probably would have been helpful to take a creative writing course too, or at least to have received feedback from my professors on my writing style.”  Still, it would have been hard to ignore the obvious confidence the subject had in her ability to perform her chosen profession.  She was comfortable in her knowledge that she possessed the above mentioned traits, as well as others she listed, such as “excellent research skills,” and a “breadth of knowledge, curiosity, and imagination.”  Despite her mention of a curriculum she would have liked to have had, her e-mail responses prior to the interview concluded that “a broad-based, globally minded liberal arts education like the one I had was probably just the right preparation for what I do now.”  That assertion recalls the theory of Cicero’s Crassus in De Oratore that the complete rhetor has a perpetual hunger for knowledge of all the subjects (s)he might touch upon in her/his discourse, and can never settle on a narrow specialty.  It is not that a broad, shallow knowledge will suffice either.  The trenches of knowledge we dig must be as deep as we can make them before we shuffle off this mortal coil.

Bill Clinton: One Writer's Ideal Speaker

            In our last posting, we described the ascendant career path of a young speechwriter who ended up working for in the Clinton White House, writing speeches on foreign policy.  In the process she developed a strong admiration for Clinton as a deliverer of speeches.

            The writing sample the interviewee supplied was a speech made to employees of the Mackie Metal Plant, a manufacturer of textile machinery in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on November 30, 1995.  It was, according to the subject, “a pivotal moment in the peace process” when Clinton wanted to reassure the citizens of Northern Ireland that their prospects were hopeful and the necessity was to “stay the course to get through the last bit. … We didn’t know if the cease fire was going to hold, didn’t know if the twin-track agreement was going to work, didn’t know, we didn’t know anything.”  The subject’s admiration for Clinton, incidentally, was considerable, for his intelligence, his wide-ranging interests, and his ability to find the connection with whatever audience he might encounter.  He had taken considerable risks, she felt, to get to the point he had in helping the Irish towards peace, granting a visa to controversial Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams among other things. 

The setting was very important to the value of Clinton’s speech, in a plant where “the Protestant workers came in one door and the Catholic workers came in on the other, but on the shop floor, they worked together.”  Clinton had a habit, when giving a speech, of having someone “symbolic” introduce him, and in this instance it was two children dressed in their school uniforms, one a Protestant boy and the other a Catholic girl whose father had been killed in the “sectarian violence … so she got up there and she said, ‘I lost my first daddy in the troubles.’  You know, I mean just like, you could have heard a pin drop in this factory.”

            The subject so enjoyed writing for Clinton because his catholicity gave her a certain freedom when it came to allusions and metaphors.  “He had a tremendous grasp of history.  He was very contemporary. … you could use anything.  You could use pop culture, you could use the Bible, you could use jokes, you could use history, you could use world events, you could use literature. … my favorite speech of all time is Bobby Kennedy’s impromptu eulogy of Martin Luther King, which I think is so extraordinary.  And in it he quotes Aeschylus, you know, his poetry from memory.  Well, I mean, you think of George Bush quoting Aeschylus. … Not just that he couldn’t do it from memory, but a speech writer would never write it into his speech because it would seem so phony.  You know, no one would believe that George Bush is reading Aeschylus. … but with Clinton … he could make anything his own.”  This was an interesting variation on the theme of assumed identity.  The subject was not a southerner, not a politician, not a man of nearly fifty years old.  “I didn’t try to be him, but I did feel like, when I wrote for him I was very conscious of who I was writing for and it was exhilarating.  … you felt empowered to take chances, to take risks, to unleash your own creativity in ways that, you know that are really unusual and rare.” 

            Even those moments when Clinton would depart from the prepared speech impressed the subject because of their aptness and polish.  She called them his “ad libs,” and some were likely to be extemporaneous while others may have developed “on the stump” or been written in the margins of a speech draft.  An example of the former in the Belfast speech was the entire first paragraph, “because he was so moved” by the children who had introduced him.  “And anywhere in the text where you see him say, you know, ‘As those children reminded us today …,’ that was an ad lib based on what had happened with those children.”  An example of the latter was a paragraph uttered about two-thirds of the way through the speech.  The subject couldn’t be sure of the following paragraph’s provenance; her only certainty was that she hadn’t written it. 

“I grew up in the American South, in one of the States that tried to break from the American Union.  My forebears on my father’s side were soldiers in the Confederate Army.  I was reading the other day a book about our first Governor after the Civil War who fought for the Union Army and who lost members of his own family.  They lived the experience so many of you have lived.  When this Governor took office and looked out over a sea of his fellow citizens who fought on the other side, he said these words: ‘We have all done wrong.  No one can say his heart is altogether clean and his hands altogether pure.  Thus, as we wish to be forgiven, let us forgive those who have sinned against us and ours.’  That was the beginning of America’s reconciliation, and it must be the beginning of Northern Ireland’s reconciliation.”

            These words appear to be part of what the subject meant by Clinton making anything his own—the fact that he could work his own words, either formed on the spot or some time earlier, seamlessly into the words of the speech writer.  For her, this was part of the president’s identity to which she had become happily attuned, prompting one more comparison with Clinton’s successor.  “One thing that I think is interesting is, if you go back and read the transcripts of Clinton’s speeches, they’re not always so good, you know, but if you sat there and heard it, it was incredible, … and the Bush speeches are just the opposite.  They’re a snooze to listen to, but they’re great to read.”  Clinton improved upon his prepared texts through his delivery, his gift for improvisation, his very presence.  With Bush, the value of the words came from his scribes, of whom the subject mentioned one, “Michael Gerson, a phenomenal speech writer.”  (One can imagine Matthew Scully* cringing at that remark, likely considering it as yet another fruit of Gerson’s shameless self-promotion, and another example of the diminution of a boss he hero-worshipped, a degradation of the principal that inevitably occurs when the hired help exalt themselves.)

*Scully, Matthew. “Present at the Creation.” The Atlantic. September, 2007. 77-88.

 

One Road to the White House

            With this posting we will begin a profile of a former foreign policy speechwriter for President Clinton.  We trace here the career path that led an able young woman to the White House.

            The daughter of two Princeton University professors, one a former executive director of the Modern Language Association and the other a renowned literary critic, the subject understandably had more to say about her writing processes than others I interviewed and even knew something of the pedagogical theory of Peter Elbow.  Her innate abilities, capacity for hard work, and exceptional academic opportunities put her on a fast career path, resulting in her position as a foreign policy speech writer for President Clinton while still in her early thirties.  After three years in the White House she began, while awaiting the birth of her first child, “a professional speechwriting, ghostwriting, and editing firm that serves clients in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors in the United States and abroad.”  She was still engaged in that work when I interviewed her at the dining room table in the home she shared with her husband and two children, in northern D.C. just blocks from the state of Maryland.  Tracing her academic and work history may be an instructive reflection on the experiences of that segment of an American elite that has traditionally demonstrated a commitment to public service.

            The subject graduated from Yale with a degree in French and immediately entered a graduate program in international affairs at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, spending the first year of the program in Bologna, Italy and the second year in Washington, DC.  With a Masters degree in hand “I interned for a summer at Foreign Policy magazine and then began my first real job as a Legislative Correspondent (LC) for U.S. Senator Paul Simon, answering all the Senator’s mail on foreign policy issues.  LCs are close to the bottom of the congressional staff pyramid, but I proved to be a very fast and prolific writer and at a time when many of the Senator’s Polish-American and Baltic-American constituents were keen to correspond with the office about the dramatic transformation under way in Eastern Europe.”  This was when the Ceausescu government was collapsing in Romania, and the subject became something of an expert on the plight of that country’s orphans.  Attending Capitol Hill briefings about Romania, she learned of, applied for, and obtained a job as an “Eastern European human rights analyst at the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, a small independent government body better known as the Helsinki Commission.”

            The subject worked for the Commission from 1991 to 1994, serving as an international election monitor in Moldova and Romania, as a member of delegations to diplomatic meetings, and as a writer of “floor statements and speeches for Members of Congress, interventions for U.S. Ambassadors at multilateral conferences, and reports on human rights and democracy-building in Romania and Hungary.”  We wondered whether an “intervention” was a distinctly identifiable genre, but the subject dismissed the label as “a term of art. …it’s actually jargon that I’m always telling people not to use.”  When ambassadors attended multi-lateral negotiations they were each given five minutes to utter what could be summed up as “your government’s talking points.”  At meetings of international bodies like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, where a session might have to work its way through 48 ambassadors, participants were grateful to someone like the Canadian envoy when he would decline his turn.  The United States, given its position, could not be so gracious and so “we would try to make it [the intervention] a little bit interesting, to be a little, you know, poetic.  But it’s not a venue that lends itself to oratory. … I mean it’s kind of like floor statements on the floor of Congress.  You say it to put yourself on the record, but is anybody in the room actually listening.” 

Most likely they often were not, but the job put the subject in contact with “a number of senior diplomats and civil servants at the Department of State,” resulting in her becoming a speechwriter for Secretary of State Warren Christopher in 1994.  After a year “drafting remarks on subjects ranging from Haiti to the anniversary of the Berlin Airlift … I was recruited by the National Security Council to become one of President Clinton’s foreign policy speechwriters.”  In the next posting we will go deeply into the writing and delivery of a speech Clinton gave on the floor of a factory in Northern Ireland.

"I Will Live and Die by the Triad"

           

We conclude our profile of our speechwriter at the FAA with an exploration of her ideas concerning the importance of structure and certain approaches to style that would intrigue any classical rhetorician.  Her discussion of certain outlining techniques performed in the midst of her writing process might be of particular interest to writing teachers.

The subject felt that “structure and logic” were the most important elements for a speech writer to bring to the process, because the speaker “can’t go back and re-read it and look back and, I mean, it just has to be so, have such a logical organization.”  She backed up this assertion with a quote from a book on speech writing by Peggy Noonan, the renowned speechwriter for President Reagan: “The most moving thing in the speech is its logic.”  (This was clearly an appeal to authority by our subject, although she also shared with our Washington Metro subject a disapproval of speech writers becoming celebrated for their contributions.  “I always think that speech writers should be kind of anonymous. … You know, it’s not your job to [take credit]; anyway, I’m kinda stuffy that way.”)  The subject traced her ability to link a speech’s structure with its intent, as illustrated by the Aero Club speech, to the necessity in high school of doing well on the “subject A exam,” an hour-long writing test during which students had to expound on a given topic.  At stake was the avoidance of the “bone head English” course when matriculating at one of the University of California campuses.  “I had a high school English instructor, … who had us write an essay every day in class.  And his whole point was structure.  And then …, once I became a speech writer at U.S. Air, I took some workshops and they always tell you … you gotta tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em and then you tell them and then at the end you tell them what you told them.”  When I remarked that this approach sounded much like the “old five-paragraph theme,” she insisted speech writing was a “little different…. Because you’re writing for the ear, so it’s even more structure.”  The subject also retained the lessons of another high school teacher who made the students outline.  She said that, like me, she would do paragraph outlines when “stuck” but also will “take one sheet of paper and write down everything I know on the topic, you know, and I’ll see what order it should go in.”  And, if “really stuck,” she would actually resort to what is often called a formal outline, with the numeric itemizing of topics.

(While this set of influences and practices might give contemporary composition teachers pause, we should remember two things.  One is that her selection of outlining strategies appears based on where she is in the process, and her determination of how “stuck” she is at a given moment may be closely linked to considerable experience and practice.  Secondly, while her prototypical structure does sound like the kind too often drilled into high schoolers as the sole best strategy for surviving high-stakes writing examinations, we must also remember she associates its necessity more with speech-making than other forms of writing.  Moreover, to link the structure with the speech’s intent is of prime importance, something that both high school students and their teachers may be too often likely to forget when confronted with the need to prepare for writing tests.)      

     In keeping with her emphasis on structure and a speech’s internal logic, the subject focused stylistically on such techniques as anaphora, used to great effect at the Aero Club, and what she called “guideposts” that would consciously identify for the audience where they were in the speech.  For example, through repetition of an initial phrase the Aero Club speech sets up a contrast between the world of aviation on September 10, 2001 and that same world following the events of the next day.  Again, the overriding idea was that she was writing for the ear.  “I will live and die by the triad.  And I will purposely come up with Tom, Dick, and Harry cause that’s always, you know, Larry, Mo, and Curly, that’s always effective.  … Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.  Alliteration, shorter sentences, short paragraphs, repetition …, vivid imagery.”  (Other subjects also spoke of the “magical threes,” a stylistic technique as old as rhetoric itself and one they may have heard emphasized through instruction or simply absorbed through its prevalence in our own political oratory, the most famous exemplar being Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”*) The subject’s only experience as a public speaker herself had been recent, while serving as president of the Parent Teacher Association at the high school where her daughters attended.  “When issues come up that deal with the school board, you go to the school board meeting and you give your public statement and it has to, it can’t be longer than three minutes.  I had so much fun writing my public statements and the school board members really liked me because they knew at least it would be entertaining when I came.”

            This exchange led to the subject’s out loud wondering about helping kids learn to write in future, after an episode in which a fifth grade teacher acquaintance had her talk to the teacher’s class about the importance of rewriting and editing.  The interview concluded with her hearkening back to her high school instruction and the importance of constant practice, the exercising of the “writing muscle.”

*West, Michael and Myron Silberstein. “The Controversial Eloquence of Shakespeare’s

            Coriolanus—an Anti-Ciceronian Orator?” Modern Philology 102 (2005): 307-31.

 

Researching Information, Audience, and the Speaker's "Voice"

            In this second installment on our speechwriter at the Federal Aviation Administration, the subject explores her processes for research and capturing the speaker’s “voice.”

            As was the case with the subject at the Washington Metro, research into audiences and subject matter often occurred simultaneously.  In preparing a speech, the writer may begin by calling the president of the organization that will serve as the primary audience but also other sources within the audience about what they want the speaker to talk about, and what would they like to hear.  The subject put considerable emphasis on cultivating personal relationships, as a way to gain quick help with everything from audience analysis to pithy quotes to determining the accuracy of subject matter.  She has used fellow speech writers, the friends of prospective speakers, old speeches, libraries, and librarians like the one at the Air Transport Association.  (“I got a library degree after undergrad … and the main thing I learned from library school was that I couldn’t be a good librarian, but I should always know good librarians.”) 

For the Aero Club speech, delivered not long after the 9/11 attacks,  it was necessary to review the history of airplane hijackings.  For that history, the subject drew from her own files for previous speeches, from conversations with the “head of security at FAA for many years,” from documentation compiled by a White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security.  She sends thank you notes assiduously, and gave a book of poetry to the security chief when he retired. 

“There’s a guy at MIT who teaches statistics and he gets these different contracts and works on aviation statistics.  Now, he was quoted in USA Today last week … Well, I developed a relationship with _____ … when I was writing for ____ cause you’re always looking for factoids of how safe flying is.  So I’d call _____ and I’d say ‘Ok, she’s speaking here.’  You know, and he’s the one that gave me the line of ‘A child born today is more likely to grow up to be President than to perish in this next, you know, airplane flight.’ … Once you learn how to smooze these people you just don’t stop.  Last week he was quoted in USA Today and I wrote him an e-mail and said, ‘_____, nice sound bite in USA Today.’  And he writes back, and his last sentence in his e-mail is, ‘Well, aviation safety really is the eighth wonder of the world.’  And I thought, ‘Oh, my God, a good one too.’”

            Like the Washington Metro subject, our writer at the FAA was very scrupulous about ensuring what she wrote reflected the intended policy positions of the people she was representing, rather than changed those positions somehow.  She mentioned two examples where she “had to carefully craft the language.”  At the international colloquium we mentioned last post, her speaker was discussing new technology on aircraft that “can sense where other aircraft are … , you know, who needs controllers?”  Whether the technology will ever bring about a major decrease in the number of air traffic controllers remains to be seen, but the very wording of the possibility could create a stir.  The first Aero Club speech she wrote for the Administrator called for a non-punitive process for reporting flight data.  “If a pilot does an abrupt landing at National, we’d want to know about that and we’d want him to report it but see, he could lose his license if he reports it, so you needed this non-punitive thing cause everything is so litigious here.”  The subject makes sure experts “sign off” on what she has written, to the point where the administrator once said, “You’re having too many people read the speeches.”

            However, the FAA subject also disagreed emphatically about the notion of assuming the identity of the speaker for whom she was writing.  “No. I call it having channels.  I’ll turn to the ______ _______ channel in my head.  I’ll turn to the ____ ______ channel.  It’s just, my little note here says, ‘It’s a subconscious weird talent.  I’m tone deaf in music, but I can pick up a person’s style.’”  This may be a case of the connotations assigned by these two subjects to the words “personality” and “identity.”  (After all, “channeling” someone’s style might be regarded by some as the same thing as “assuming an identity.”)  Both subjects appear to take great pains to have personal contact with their speakers.  At U.S. Airways, the subject listened to audiotapes of the chair before writing speeches for him, after ghost-writing editorials for him that appeared in the in-flight magazine.  She went through copies of previous speeches given by the FAA’s first administrator before she began writing speeches for her.  After spending five years working for that administrator, writing numerous speeches, she definitely knew her style and her preferences.  That administrator liked “the perfect quotation,” while the next one “always wants the perfect story.”  And the subject would consistently ask “what do you want them to think when you leave the room?”

From Child Development to the FAA

Our second speechwriter in Washington, D.C.  provided communications for the Aviation Safety Branch of the Federal Aviation Administration.  In keeping with what we said in the last post about the interesting turns graduates lives can take once they receive their baccalaureate degree, this subject went from a Child Development major in college to an initial career in the airline industry, and then on to the FAA.  Her career is also notable for the variety of genres in which she has written.

            The subject’s first job in aviation was with U.S. Air, where she did “financial communications cause that was the annual report and communicating with Wall Street,” marketing and employee communications, and speech writing for executives.  Marketing communications included the in-flight magazine “and I was in charge of that.”  In 1997 she was hired by the FAA to write for the first FAA administrator, in the agency’s Office of Public Affairs.  The sample of her work she provided was a speech written for the administrator and delivered to the Aero Club of Washington in January, 2002.  The speech was intended to clearly describe the role of the agency in fighting air terrorism, and to differentiate that role from the one taken on by the newly formed Transportation Security Administration (TSA).  Eventually the speech was published in Vital Speeches, which the subject had submitted; she also made clear that such submissions were an avenue for self-promotion among speech writers.  “You’ve gotta hustle your stuff.  You want your clips for when you’re job hunting.  And you want to be able to show your boss that you got her speech in Vital Speeches.”

            The subject’s career at the FAA has swung between speech writing and other communication tasks, “cause five years of speech writing, seventy a year, burns you out and every October it’s those same associations and every February is Black American History Month and every, you know, … it’d get a little stale.”  Along with six years of working for two agency administrators, she has “led the team that launched the air traffic organization,” spent time in internal communications, and currently works for the aviation safety division, “the regulatory side of FAA, … the part that develops the rules, oversees the airlines, certifies the airplanes, … certifies the pilots.”  This position allows her to divide her time between forms of “technical writing” and 20 to 25 speeches a year for the “executive in charge of this division.”  When helping with the creation of the air traffic organization, which includes oversight of controllers, technicians, and support staff (“FAA is 50,000 people and 38,000 of them are the people that run the air traffic control.”), she did speech writing, internal communication to “front line employees” and “your leadership team,” and customer communications—“outreach to airlines and other users of the air traffic control system.”

            With the variety of genres came a variety of audiences.  The FAA administrator would speak to audiences more heterogeneous than those of the safety division executive, which are more technically oriented.  The administrator will speak to people in aviation, such as the “Wings Club in New York,” and to business groups like the “Town Hall in California and the Economic Club in Detroit.”  The Aero Club seemed a combination—“three or four hundred people in the room.”  The subject described this outfit as “mostly lawyers and lobbyists. … most major airlines, if not all of them, have a Washington office.  So that would be their government affairs people.  And then, here in Washington, there’s the Air Transport Association, that’s the major lobbying arm of the airlines.  So it’d be people from the lobbyists with the airlines and it’d also be the law firms that represent the airlines.  So, it’s all the movers and shakers that deal with aviation policy that mostly affects the airlines.”  The Aero Club speech would also be aimed at a more general public, since aviation reporters would be there from the New York Times and the Washington Post, as would other reporters—“the major news outlets have people based in Washington who cover transportation.  They would likely be there.”  The intent of the speech warranted the forming of a “public,” as Michael Warner* has described, a public beyond “the assemblage of lawyers, lobbyists, and policy wonks in the room.” 

The problem facing the administrator in January, 2002, as the subject saw it, “was to set the record straight because people didn’t understand aviation security.  And it’s easy when you’re the government agency for everybody to say, ‘It’s the FAA’s fault. [Referring to the events of the previous September 11th.]  You know, why didn’t the regulator do more?’  But aviation security was paid for and operated by the airlines, and the same people that were in the room at the Aero Club were the ones that would go running up to Capitol Hill saying, ‘Well, this is too expensive; we can’t pay for these machines to be at every airport.  We can’t pay for screeners to do this.  That will add cost, you know, that will add price to the cost of an airline.’”  The hope, therefore, was that the speech would be reported in a major newspaper or on a network or cable news program.  If that didn’t happen, then maybe the reporter would file the material for use in a future story.  “There was an article in USA Today last week about aviation safety and they quoted … my boss, but it was a speech he had given a couple of months ago.”  Another challenge involving the subject and her first FAA administrator was to prepare for testimony before the National Commission on Terrorism, again regarding the events of September 11th.  As the subject put it, “the reputation of the agency was at stake,” even though the speaker was now the former administrator.

            Her current boss, the head of the safety division, has spoken to groups like the Aircraft Electronics Association, the National Business Aviation Organization, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, and an international air traffic automation colloquium in France. Preparing for an international audience posed particular difficulties.  “You write differently when you’re writing for an international audience cause you can’t use all your U.S. colloquialisms.  And stuff doesn’t always translate, like if you’d make a light comment in the U.S. it might be an insult or just boring or inappropriate somewhere else.  And it was technical and the third reason it was so challenging was that he cared so much about this that he wanted to really come across as the ‘visionary thinker.’”  When the stakes are high, as in the testimony or at the international gathering, the speakers themselves become particularly tough audiences for the speech writer.  “He’d call me every, ‘How’s it coming?  How’s it coming? Have you got that draft yet?’”

*Warner, Michael. Publics and Counterpublics. New York: Zone Books, 2005.

 

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