The profile we begin with this posting is based on four interviews I did in July, 2006 with members of the D.C. Speechwriters Roundtable. The subject discussed below was a freelance speechwriter and an employee for the Washington area transportation authority. In this posting he describes his career path and the unique demands of freelance speechwriting.
The subject does speechwriting for the Metro and as a free lance—“60 percent writing for metro and 40 percent for free lance clients.” In his written responses he took pains to explain the importance of following specific laws to keep the free lance work separate from one’s regular employment. This scrupulous approach was of particular importance when the subject was working for the mayor of Washington. “You’ve got to be aware of FEC [Federal Election Commission] law and the Hatch Act. Those laws are very clear about what you can and cannot do, down to whose printer you can print your speech on. For example, I wrote the Mayor’s political speeches on my personal printer. Then, in my off time, I walked that personal laptop around to people, who were also on their off-time, for approval. Why? Because government officials can’t be using government equipment or paid time for political purposes.”
The subject supplied us with two examples of his speechwriting. One was “remarks” prepared for delivery by Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey at the 2000 Democratic National Convention, during which Senator Bradley would pledge his support and his delegates to Vice-President Al Gore, the party’s prospective nominee. (This speech was never given. “I think he got about ten or fifteen different speech drafts and he went through them and he just decided he didn’t like any of them and did his own thing, … which actually happens a lot of times with free lance clients. They get a draft and either they don’t like it or they ask for it to be re-drafted and re-drafted and re-drafted until it’s so different that it’s … like something I didn’t write in the first place. Or they just get a draft and they don’t like it and they do something different, which is fine. I don’t care.” A second possibility was based on Bradley’s reputation as “a notorious editor. … He’s got an incredibly heavy pen. And I don’t know how much of the thing he even read or how much of it he might have read and went through with a heavy pen, but between one thing and the next, it just wasn’t used.”) The second was an acceptance speech for an award presented to the subject by the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University in July, 2001. (The subject graduated that month from the political management program, having previously received a bachelor’s degree in English with an emphasis in creative writing.)
Following college the subject had writing jobs doing “online content for NBC-TV in Burbank, CA and then for an online retailer called express.com (they had a magazine for which I wrote).” He returned to school at George Washington because he “didn’t much care about celebrity gossip and the goings-on in Hollywood. But I felt very strongly about public service.” Then he discovered speechwriting. “I didn’t even know you could learn that. But I’d always thought my local pols stunk at speaking. They might have great stuff to say but the way they said it was terrible.” Through an internship at the Clinton White House, the subject heard of a speechwriting position in the Washington, D.C. mayor’s office. The internship helped him realize “I’d sort of found my calling. It was the perfect balance of writing and public service for me.” The subject also identified other career paths pursued by people who graduated from the same program at George Washington—some working on Capitol Hill, others at lobbying firms, one a “Senior Political Field Director for the National Association of Home Builders,” another director of “international fund raising events for the Woodrow Wilson Center.”
The subject was very definite about the role of the speechwriter and of the clear boundaries that constrained his “calling.” “You are supposed to be invisible. You are supposed to write the remarks so they sound like someone else. And when they’re given, they are supposed to be that person’s remarks. They’re not yours.” For speechwriters to reveal what they have written is to destroy “the illusion. It’s sort of like an actor breaking that … third wall or the fourth wall. Like in the middle of a performance … an actor turning to the audience and saying, ‘hi, how you doing’ … in that person’s normal voice. That is not your job. Your job is to stay behind the curtain.” For the subject, speechwriting requires a willingness to subsume one’s personality to that of the speaker. “If you are unable to assume the voice, character and identity of the other person you’re writing for, then you are just simply unable to be a speech writer because you are not writing what you think you should say or what you think, what sounds good to you. You are writing what the other person would say.”
The speechwriter had to be part psychologist, part policy maker, and part creative writer—“giving that person a memorable way to articulate themselves but one that sounds like them in the first place.” The subject admitted to having written “for someone whose ideology and policy decisions are or were in direct opposition to your own,” as my question put it. “I have and I hate it.” He said he couldn’t write for President Bush because his policies were so opposed to his own positions but that other differences he had with clients were more subtle. As an example, he cited the struggle with the D.C. city council to obtain funding for a major league baseball stadium, finally resolved by the mayor’s idea to offer council members a 450 million dollar “community benefits package.” On the one hand, the subject characterized the package as a “big slush fund … it was just earmarks. And I thought it was horrible.” On the other hand, he could make the argument that the package was “an opportunity to tie baseball to each of their individual wards. They’ve made the case that these are things that were needs.” The subject described his way of reconciling his distaste with the job at hand in the following way:
“As a speech writer … I think the way you have to look at it is alright, number one, your job is not to have a personal opinion about this; it’s to write. So you separate the personal from the practical and you focus on the job. And number two, I think you look at it as a challenge in terms of how can I, knowing that some people on the outside are gonna disagree with this, present the best argument for doing it a particular way.”