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.