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.