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.