This next posting about a former speechwriter for President Carter focuses on her educational preparation, and on how an unlikely series of events placed her in the White House. Her story is similar to that of the Clinton speechwriter in that political operatives seem keenly intent on searching for the kind of peculiar talent demanded of such writing within an administration’s lower ranks. These two are also similar in the way they link their talents to the broad liberal arts education they received as undergraduates.
Like Carter, our subject of southern origin was an interesting mix of pride in accomplishment and studied self-deprecation. (Although her career in Washington was obviously both varied and lengthy, an outline of it was only obtained in bits and pieces, through conversation and responses to the e-mail questions. It was a “story” she wasn’t necessarily interested in telling, at least not in a self-consciously chronological fashion.) When asked about the abilities necessary to success as a speech writer, she wrote: “I had been writing, and doing it fairly well, since I was in 4th grade or so. There is the storyteller aspect of writing. There is the organizing your priorities part of writing. The organizing principle can be learned. The ability to tell a good story is learned but not in a formal way, I think. Maybe it could be learned, not sure. But the ear for words and the rhythm of speech—how to string it together conversationally—I am not sure that can be learned formally—it may just come from how you grow up—around readers and talkers and storytellers—or not. Around people who have a gift for language, or not. … I think I learned all of my skills and abilities that were not inborn within my extended family as a child, growing up. I think those things were merely refined by the academic processes and training—buffed and polished as it were.”
The subject had written for both her high school and her college newspapers, experiences which had helped her learn to compose under deadline, had taken Advanced English as a high school senior and Advanced Freshman Composition at Auburn. “I was a history major, traveled and lived abroad as a child, read a lot, daydreamed a lot.” She apparently was one of those facile linguistic talents who can simultaneously charm and irritate teachers. “When I studied Spanish, I had to write about the conquest of Mexico City by Cortez in Spanish. I wrote 12 pages or so. Even in Spanish, I was able to tell stories. I aced my history finals and always brought my grade up one letter on the final (much to the irritation of my history professors, who knew I slacked off during the term and overachieved on the final—made them mad, but they couldn’t deny that I knew my material and how to present it on the final.)”
Her career in the federal government began thirty years prior to the interview, with “a series of coincidences that included my four-year-old daughter’s Sunday school teacher here and a party at the Fort Myer Officers Club and some people who lived in Georgetown who were from Missouri and a friend of mine’s cousin who was in Missouri and I forget what else.” The subject landed, through all these connections, in the Department of Transportation, researching ways of lowering oil consumption and discovering alternative sources of energy. (Some of this narrative, I admit, is a piecing together of quick anecdotes related by the subject, and may be more accurate in describing the shape of her experiences than the exact chronological order in which they occurred.) At this same time, the time of “stagflation,” oil boycotts, and lines at gasoline pumps, President Carter was interested in programs or initiatives focusing exactly on our subject’s area of work. Through contact with the office of Esther Peterson, the president’s special assistant for consumer affairs, the subject began contributing information to planned Carter speeches. During a speech in New Brunswick, New Jersey, she actually heard the president use “some of the stuff I had given the speech writers, which I couldn’t believe. … So, when I got back I went down to the speech writing offices to see this guy and tell him; he said, ‘oh no, it was really good stuff, really appreciated it and, would you be interested in doing more of this?’” And that was how our subject became a White House speech writer. “The first speech I ever wrote in my life was in high school when I ran for office. The second speech I ever wrote in my life was in the White House for President Carter. The way I got from A to B with that is convoluted, unlikely, ridiculous and if you put it in a movie or a book, no one would believe it.”
Along with the abilities she absorbed in her family of adept linguists and story tellers, “refined” through her schooling, the subject attributed her career to her liberal arts education. “If you’ve got a good one, you probably know something about a lot of things. It’s not that hard to pick up where you left off in high school or college. … But I do think you have to have enthusiasm in learning about everything and anything.” After Carter’s defeat she worked for a Democratic congressman from Wisconsin who was “a guru of copyright. And I learned all kinds of stuff about intellectual property because I worked in his office. Now I wasn’t on his sub-committee, that wasn’t an issue that I handled but … I did his press, media stuff, I did all the media for his sub-committee on judiciary as well as for the personal office. I handled some legislative areas, too. So you just learn it and I learn fast.” In her position with the Department of Energy under Clinton, she worked for the nuclear weapons program. “I didn’t know anything about nuclear weapons. Well, I mean I knew something about nuclear. I knew that it was incredibly, as a history major, okay, it’s a big intersection between history and science. It’s the ultimate defense issue. And so I knew that and I knew it split atoms or it fused them. I mean I had this thing in my mind that everybody has, which is that sort of like a cartoon bomb with a fuse on it. … [But] if you have some scientific interest and … I do, you can kind of glom onto it. I can’t do the calculations, but I can get the ideas.”