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.