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Persuasive and Public Writing Blog

WAC Conferences and the Paradox of the "Public Turn"

                Last week I trundled off to a Writing Across the Curriculum conference and the first session I attended on Thursday afternoon featured the recent progress of a writing program at a private university in North Carolina.  The presenters had managed, by leveraging requirements of their regional accreditation commission, to score money for reassigned time, for program assessment, for their writing center, and to hire a prominent figure in the field of writing studies as their Writing Across the University Director.

            In contrast, the next session I attended that afternoon was entitled “WAC in a Time of Budgetary Crisis,” in which all three presenters were from public universities experiencing funding cuts similar to those visited upon my own institution in recent years.  Their discussion was of various strategies for survival and for achieving small, incremental steps regarding writing instruction at their institutions.  Their narratives were similar to the one a colleague and I would recount the next morning about our own struggles at Slippery Rock University employing existing assessment structures to create some kind of coherent, and effective, approach to writing instruction within our undergraduate programs.

            The obvious lesson was that private institutions, usually with yearly tuition charges of $25,000 or more, could currently act in a far more nimble and visionary manner regarding WAC programs than could public institutions afflicted by dropping political support and the consequent budget shrinkage.  (The last session of the conference I attended, Saturday morning, included a presenter from a Jesuit college with class sizes for their first-semester, first-year written composition course of 17 to 18 students.  At Slippery Rock the minimum size of such classes is 25, and for years prior they had ranged from 27 to 28 students.)

            My purpose here is not to discuss that obvious contemporary contrast between public (ever dwindling) and private spheres but to reflect on the disconnect I experienced between the generally upbeat atmosphere of such events as the conference and the rather funereal state of my own consciousness, as I continue grimly to look for ways to strengthen my own school’s writing curriculum, a search that I might add is now entering its second quarter century.  My reflections are helped along by a book review in the most recent College Composition and Communication by Nancy Welch, entitled “The Point is to Change It: Problems and Prospects for Public Rhetors.”

            Welch discusses four books that “bear witness to the richness and the paradox of rhetoric’s public turn.”  (That phrase always strikes me as a little odd.  What would a “private turn” on the part of rhetoric look like, exactly?)  The paradox is that while academic “activists” believe “public rhetorical work can result in substantive, even transformational change” (701), those same activists almost invariably content themselves with employing “local” tactics that may have an immediate benefit for their own programs, their own institutions and, not surprisingly, their own careers.  Meanwhile, the external forces, most often represented by the “decision-making forums” (703) to which academic rhetoricians are denied access, remain notably untransformed by our efforts and continue to determine the conditions under which we struggle to make some small difference.  Elected officials, voters with a conscious interest in higher education, and even university functionaries in the upper reaches of administration clearly have other things on their mind than our utterances, or our goals and ambitions regarding our students.

            I get it that, given this situation, there doesn’t seem much point to the embrace of despair or rage or helpless frustration.  None of those reactions would appear to be “transformative” either.  Most of the attendees at last week’s conference are younger than I am, with lives to live and careers to pursue.  Many of them may aspire to accumulate a curriculum vitae like that possessed by one of our keynote speakers, a vitae his introducer said “resembled in length a Tolstoy novel.”  And in accumulating such vitae the attendees will possibly do a considerable amount of good, in terms of developing vital programs and educating many striving students.  In the meantime, however, resources will continue to shrink, class sizes to expand, trained scholars to languish in temporary positions, and public institutions to desperately struggle to retain some semblance of viability.  As Welch says, we prefer to “stress the primacy and even the exclusivity of the local, the subjective, and the discursive” (709), presumably because those are the elements of our professional lives upon which we can exercise some agency.

            There will be no material reward for hitting the streets, or for even mildly remarking upon an emperor’s nakedness.  Professional satisfaction seems equally unlikely.  Raging Against the Machine does have rewards for rock artists.  For academicians, we’ll always have our conferences.


Thank You for Still Reading
This is my first posting in nearly ten months.  I am writing it for two reasons--one is to explain why I can no longer keep up the blog as I did between January, 2010 and February, 2011; and the second is to express my gratitude to those readers who are still visiting the site and, in some cases, commenting on the entries.
I began the blog after returning from a sabbatical during which I studied the writing lives of folks who had graduated from Slippery Rock University between 2001 and 2008.  Much of the material had been drafted beforehand, which allowed me to sustain the blog even though I had returned to a variety of duties at the university, including teaching and co-chairing our institution's self-study for renewal of our regional accreditation.  Now I am back to full-time teaching, which entails four sections of writing classes per semester.  During those semesters most of my writing consists of responding to the work of my students.
People are still visiting the blog, reading entries, and occasionally commenting on their content or, more generally, on the educational value of the blog itself.  I am grateful for those readers and I hope they continue to appear.  For my part, I will continue to visit the site myself, to delete the spam comments and to respond when I can to queries and observations.  When I began the blog I was hoping it would contribute to ongoing conversations about public and persuasive writing by college graduates, and about what that writing could tell us about current undergraduate writing instruction.  I could have placed the blog on one of the commercial web log creation sites, but I wanted it to have a direct affiliation with my university.  The blog's URL hasn't helped its accessibility, which makes me doubly grateful to those who have found it and read postings.  Thank you again.
From Advisor to Functionary

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.


The Writing Before the Writing

We’re back to a profile of the former Carter speech writer who had also worked for the Department of Energy and Northrop Grumman.  In this posting we’ll explore the writer’s ideas on process and research.

Like many writers, it was clear the subject hadn’t devoted much time to thinking about her composing process.  She agreed with my definition of her as a “head editor,” someone who works much material out in her head before beginning to commit words to paper.  Her scholastic experience with journalism had taught her to “write fast clearly. … I’ve always, I’ve never had any time, no luxury for that, I’ve always been on short turn arounds and deadlines.”  But this approach can also be a matter of preference, and of personality, similar to the Creative Writing graduate who told us he didn’t adhere to the “write every day” dictum because he wanted to have a sense of his content before composing.  “The thinking is done before I start writing,” said the subject.  “If you know what it is you want to say, it’s pretty easy to say it.  If you don’t know, then you spend a lot of time figuring that out and waste a lot of paper that way, I guess. … It’s like people who say they can write a screenplay, ‘Oh, how long did it take you to write Casablanca.’ ‘Well, it took me about thirty days.’  But the truth is, it’s been written over a longer period of time before they put it on paper.  That’s two different things.” 

While the Clinton speech writer could cite Peter Elbow, think of writing as discovery and a form of cognition, and only know what was to be said through the act of composition, the Carter speech writer would probably lose patience with an Elbow approach in a hurry.  It’s not that the subject wished to wrap the act of writing in mystification, or to advocate a romantic image of inspiration illuminating the dark sky of consciousness like bursts of lightning.  But like many writers whose professional lives are made up of supplied rhetorical tasks that need a hurried response, she preferred an instrumentalist approach that seemed to fit her experience.

Much of what she said about preparation was strikingly similar to the depictions of the other interviewed speech writers, a formulation of the “rhetorical situation” through an intense, yet systematic, discovery of the will of the speaker, the expectations of the audience, and the subject matter at hand.  When asked in an e-mail to describe her processes, the subject replied: “First, you panic.  Then you figure out who actually knows about your topic and you go after facts and figures—‘factoids’ I call ‘em.  You research the audience—talk to someone from the group if possible.  Search online news clips, etc.  Be aware of daily news and general events in the world.”  In the interview the subject spoke of spending a lot of time on the phone.  “You go to people who are the senior advisors if you’re in an agency, who are the program officers.  What is it that they want to, they want to focus on, that you want them to focus on.” 

Like the others, she mentioned acquainting herself “with the speaker’s point of view as much as possible through personal interactions and other research sources.”  Again, she would adjust to a speaker’s particular persona and preferences.  Hazel O’Leary, Clinton’s Secretary of Energy, liked “talking points” and a “point of view” that often showed up in the speech’s title.  “It was like journalism, you want to put the most amazing, interesting thing up front.  …Well, she used this theme more than once, but I know she used it with the society of environmental journalists. … And it was ‘Not your father’s DOE.’  And she liked to use a lot of graphics and she didn’t use power point, but she used big like sports pictures of stuff.  And then we’d key the target points to the different boards.  … It was, you know, a bunch of old white guys, and now it’s Hazel O’Leary, African American and all these other sort of women and different groups.  … In other words, things had changed and so forth.  And then … you kind of then go from there to, from general to particular, I guess.  And then come back around and sort of re-state it again. … You try not to have more than three, one-two-three.  [The value of triadic amplification seems to be a given, as we have previously observed.]  It’s not your father’s DOE because bum, bum, bum.  This is not rocket science.”  

While O’Leary liked a centralizing “point of view,” the subject’s job was to find, at times, the element in popular culture, like Oldsmobile’s ill-fated attempt to lure younger customers to its brand, that would make the theme stick in the audience’s memory.  For instance, she discovered a way to present a “here’s the problem, we’ve got this solution” structure within the film “Speed.”  O’Leary, the subject said, “wouldn’t go for movie things,” but “I wanted her to realize … that she didn’t necessarily have to know all about it because she was going to tap into their [the audience’s] general consciousness and that movie was so big that year.”  In the film Dennis Hopper, as the deranged villain who has planted a bomb on a Los Angeles city bus, talks to the hero periodically by phone, taunting him with the question, “What do you do?”  “You know, you’ve got this, you’ve got that, dadadada, ‘What do you do?’”  That question, following the description of a problem and preceding the articulation of a solution became the motif around which the speech was structured. 

Perhaps this was an example of how writing takes place before the writer ever begins composing, through an absorption of cultural artifacts that can be drawn upon later.  And it is this generalized awareness, possibly the product of a liberal arts education, that combines with diligent research to allow the speech writer to create even when knowledge of the subject matter is initially negligible.  “Good research is essential.  Get a great understanding of your topic—talk to geeks, or whomever—they will talk on and on, and you will learn a lot.  Then, since you are not an expert, think about how you can explain the topic to other non-experts—how did it come alive for you?”  Another benefit of that liberal arts education was in sorting through what solo research yielded, like the subject’s once frequent use of the Lexis Nexis data base and the web sites of advocacy groups.  “You have to understand what those are and what they aren’t.”  Students, and writers generally, “have to learn the difference between gathering information and analyzing information for weaknesses and strengths.” 

The subject clearly had a strong personality, one she was willing to assert on occasion with her clients.  At the same time, she recognized the limitations of her own knowledge (“There are a lot of things I don’t necessarily have an opinion on too; I don’t know enough to have one.”) and didn’t seem troubled when the argument she had to construct for a speaker didn’t dovetail with her own position.  “You kind of deal with these people as individuals really.”  Since persuasive argument must absorb, refute, or finesse alternative positions, a professional speech writer can adjust to the speaker’s point of view, as long as it is not too far distant from her own.  In her current job, the subject may not be as “proactive” regarding weapons of mass destruction as her Republican colleagues, but at the same time she didn’t agree with Secretary O’Leary decision to “shut down nuclear testing” during the Clinton administration.  She once helped with press relations for women members of peace groups at a summit in Geneva, even though she thought such groups could be “wooly headed.”  “Admirable, maybe, but realistic, not necessarily.  You know it’s not always the same thing.  And so I wasn’t necessarily madly in agreement with them, but I had no problem helping them getting their message out.  I don’t object to peace groups, you know.”  And even though she wasn’t against the death penalty, she wrote a quite successful argument against the practice for the Wisconsin congressmen she once worked for.  “It appeared in a bunch of papers. … I don’t think they have the death penalty in Wisconsin.  So it’s a logical position for him to have.”  Whatever the argument, you try to find “an unassailable way to state it so that there is no counter-argument, or you’ve already de-fused it.”


Tucson and the Value of a Rhetorical Education

            Every once in a while I need to remind myself of the impetus behind the research that has been featured in this blog, and behind the blog itself.  The choice of interviewing political speechwriters and then graduates of programs that emphasized the development of writing was motivated to a significant degree by a desire to determine how undergraduate writing curriculum was influencing or could influence public discourse. That is why I cannot let the wide-ranging discussion of the nature of that discourse that has taken place in this country over the past week to occur without comment.

            In general my own conclusions concerning how a college curriculum might contribute to the effective functioning of American democracy involve the expansion and intensification of students’ rhetorical education.  The governing idea is that knowledge and awareness of how humans seek to persuade each other would help students reject jejune, fallacious, and egregiously manipulative arguments while attending closely, and employing themselves, those modes of argument and rules of evidence that might help the polity at least approach truth and discover the most appropriate policy choices.  Such an idea is admittedly an “ideal,” something to continuously reach for without fully grasping.  What is most interesting to me about the past week is that the horrific events of last Saturday in Tucson have probably driven home to Americans the idea’s value and relevance in a far more intense and extensive manner than could ever happen through the efforts of I and my colleagues in higher education.

            At first the discussion featured the predictable position-taking of folks on one end of the political spectrum denouncing words and images that employ gun and war metaphors, and folks on the other end of the spectrum critiquing the evidence (or lack of evidence) that would allow their opponents to make connections they considered dubious.  This debate had a value of its own, as it forced participants to consider the challenges involved in establishing cause, or even the mere correlations that may exist between the criticized rhetoric and the actions of the shooter.

            But what may be even more valuable about the past week’s discussion is that, even while the argument about the possible links between violence-tinged political rhetoric and the shooting of a Democratic congresswoman and a Republican-appointed federal judge began to recede, the discussion of how best to argue about policy differences did not.  Both Democrats and Republicans seemed to want to talk about the “tone” of political debate, about how differences in opinion should be explained and employed, and about how the participants in political discussion should be characterized and addressed.

            I have my own ideas about why this discussion about public discourse quickly and decisively moved beyond the usual posturing.  Here are a few:

·         President Obama, Speaker Boehner, and Senator McCain didn’t get to where they are in politics without possessing antennae highly sensitized to the shifts in mood among people who are not members of their core constituencies.  Their public statements of the last several days denote an awareness of what people who are not avid followers of the partisan avatars of Fox News and MSNBC are currently thinking.  I am always suspicious of both pundits and politicians who claim to speak for the “public mood.”  But I also have a fair amount of faith in the well-honed instincts of “career” politicians like Obama, Boehner, and McCain.  As Aristotle recommends, they know how to carefully and accurately assess just where the emotions of their audiences reside.

·         Death and grave injury do have a way of making conversation more somber and reflective.  The victims ranged from an elementary-school student to a youthful aide to elderly couples.  Their characteristics don’t fit easily into radically bifurcated political arguments.  Neither Judge Roll nor Representative Giffords are easily demonized by those who may not like their judicial or policy decisions. The shooting of these people forces onlookers to view them as complex individuals, not as constructs within feverishly imagined, and sometimes entertainingly fantastical, apocalyptic battles.  By the same token, President Obama in elegiac mode doesn’t align with the idea of him as Kenyan interloper or Marxian acolyte.

·         We are in a different political moment than that of six months ago.  Republicans were so thoroughly vanquished two years ago that they had nothing to lose when it came to how opposition to the Democrats and to Democratic initiatives might be expressed.  But now a great many of the citizens who voted for a Republican in November expect that person to govern, not simply to oppose.  On the other hand, Democrats can no longer ignore Republicans or their proposals, or characterize those proposals as the reality-challenged spouting of certifiable whack jobs.  (The face of a potentially certifiable whack job has been splattered all over the media for the past week.)

Well, we could go on.  And it isn’t being overly cynical to recognize that harshness, demonization, and mischaracterization will return to our political discourse quite soon.  Still, my own sense is that the value of a different kind of political argument has been imprinted onto much of the public by the week’s ongoing discussion.  Each time a politician returns to atavistic tribal language, someone else with prominence in the public sphere is going to recall what was said by politicians across the spectrum this week.  For academic rhetoricians like myself, it is important to articulate even more than before what we want our students to take away from our classes.  It is not, as Obama put it Wednesday evening, that “a lack of civility caused this tragedy,” but that “a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation.” 

From Storyteller to Speechwriter

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.”

College: Preparation for a Job or for Life?

            Since we began this blog a little less than a year ago we have profiled a variety of college graduates who were willing to discuss how they have applied their education to jobs in which writing plays a significant role.  Almost all emerged from programs that featured the development of writing abilities.  But it is also true that no set curriculum can anticipate all the possible turns and directions the careers of the profiled writers have taken and may take in the future.  Their college educations must provide them with the ability to both learn and embrace the unanticipated regarding knowledge and skills.  Research, analysis, and application are practices that must become habitual in the lives of our students.

            At Slippery Rock University recent graduates are surveyed annually by the Career Services Office to determine if they are pursuing further education, are employed, and are employed in a job of their “choice.”  It is difficult to determine the basis upon which a graduate determines she or he is employed in a “chosen” job, and a significant percentage of the graduates indicate they are employed in “another” rather than a “choice” position.  My instincts tell me that we shouldn’t be surprised if many graduates report they are employed in activities not anticipated by their college curriculum.  While the great majority of our students attend college for the expressed purpose of professional development, and often choose majors based on economic calculations, as well as a desire to pursue what holds their interest, those interests have a tendency to shift over time, as do the prospects for employment in certain areas.

            Right now our most popular undergraduate major is Exercise Science, which draws close to a tenth of the university’s current enrollment.  Upon reflection, it seems obvious that not all of those students will end up as employees or proprietors of fitness centers or athletic clubs, or as teachers of the field, or as trainers, or as physical therapists.  Many will, but many will not.  So it behooves those of us who contribute to the experiences those students have at Slippery Rock to make sure the curriculum provides them with flexibility and the ability to continually educate themselves.  If we so focus on the content of exercise science that the development of the aforementioned traits is neglected, then we have done a disservice. 

            It may be that even major programs more clearly oriented towards specific vocations than the ones traditionally associated with the humanities will come to function in ways similar to those humanities programs, as gateways to a larger world, a world of research, intellectual deliberation, and knowledge formation, but not necessarily as gateways to a lifelong career.  In doing the research, in doing the deliberation, in understanding varied material, students will become valuable, first to themselves and also to others.  That experience will have economic value, but that value will not be a simple correspondence between course work in an undergraduate major and paid work.

            I sometimes share with students my own interesting path through my twenties.  During college I was a History major.  It was study I enjoyed—the reading, the research, the writing.  But when I got to my senior year I experienced something of a crisis.  Did I really want to go on to graduate school in that subject?  Instead, I applied for and was accepted into a Masters program in Journalism, following that up with employment at a couple of newspapers.  In the meantime, I also spent five summers working at summer camps with children ages eight to sixteen.  So when I experienced my next crisis, and wondered if I really wanted to spend the rest of my life in a newsroom (or, as it later turned out for many journalists, sporadically employed), teaching seemed a viable alternative.  And when I began preparing for my certification, it would not be in History but in English, and more particularly written composition.  From there I proceeded to a Ph.D. program and to stints teaching high school, then two-year college, then university.  If someone suggested to me back when I was 18 or 22 that this was how I would occupy my life, I would have been incredulous.  At the same time, that practice of inquiry, deliberation, and expression that occurred while I was an undergraduate certainly did prepare me for what followed.

Advisors and Speechwriters

            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.





An Article To Read

                We have one more profile of a Washington speechwriter to post.  Before we do, I would like to call attention to my article in the most recent issue of College Composition and Communication.  The article pulls together in a more coherent and extended fashion than can be mustered in blog postings the implications of the study results we have presented here in the form of writer profiles and discussion posts.  It’s entitled “What Our Graduates Write: Making Program Assessment Both Authentic and Persuasive,” and I hope readers of this blog will get an opportunity some time to take a look at it.

            I thank the editor of 3 Cs, Kathleen Blake Yancey, for the opportunity to present my ideas to the readers of the journal, and my two anonymous reviewers for the specific and very useful suggestions they made for revision of the article.  As I was cutting and reorganizing what was an unusually long submission to the journal I also obtained invaluable help from two of my colleagues at Slippery Rock University, Nancy Barta-Smith and Danette DiMarco.  Thanks to the scholarship of innumerable composition researchers, we now are much more aware of the collaborative nature of written communication, an awareness that now permeates writing classrooms across America.  I am grateful to my collaborators because, through a lifetime of journalistic, organizational, and scholarly writing, I have come to realize just how important they have been to my work.

Cosgrove, Cornelius.  “What Our Graduates Write: Making Program Assessment Both Authentic

            And Persuasive.” College Composition and Communication. 62.2 (December, 2010):


A Workable System

            Our last posting on the speechwriter who is currently freelancing and once wrote for President Clinton, we explore how she developed a speech.  As earlier mentioned, the subject had much to say about her process, which she laid out in a careful sequence in her e-mailed responses prior to our interview.

            Under some questioning about possible recursiveness in her process during the interview she was first slightly defensive: “I’ve been doing this for a long time now.  So for me it is a fairly orderly process, now.  Some speeches are harder to write than others.  Some clients are harder to write for, some issues are more difficult, but in general I feel like the process of writing a speech is a very natural and a fairly fluid one and I go about it more or less the same way every time.  And so, so yes.  At this stage in my career, it does flow like that.”  But further prodding forced a more complex depiction.  “The process is often that I’ll get something done and I’ll look and I’ll realize that page three should actually be page five. … I know exactly what to expect and that’s part of what I expect, that there will be that revision and rejiggering.  And, you know, oftentimes part of that is the sentence that seems so brilliant to you in the first draft, you know you’ve got to kill by the time you get to the fourth draft.  Because it doesn’t fit anymore, or you know it wasn’t as good as you thought it was.”  The subject concurred with the interviewer that what she had developed could be characterized as a workable “system” or “approach.”  “It’s not like checking the boxes.  It’s not like step one, step two, step three.  But … in terms of how I go about it, it feels natural.”

            Those steps in the process could, nonetheless, be clearly matched up with what the subject said about the development of the Northern Ireland speech.  Like the employees at the Washington Metro and the FAA, her first move is to collect as much information about the occasion and the audience as possible.  What is the event’s purpose?  Why was the speaker invited?  Will there be other speakers on the program?  What are the demographics of the audience, and what are their “emotional” expectations?  “What issues are on their minds?  What do they think of this speaker?  What would they want this speaker to think/know about them?”

One can see the answers to these questions worked smoothly into the Belfast speech—the allusions to the “troubles” of the past 25 years in Northern Ireland and to the Christmas season, the acknowledgement of not just dignitaries but of the factory workers present, the awareness of not just the speaker’s position, but of his personality and of his public persona.  “I need to know … not just what they think on their issue or their policy or their little fiefdom, but who they are—where they grew up, what they like, what they care about, where they vacation, who they’re married to, how many kids they have … what’s on their bed side table, if I can get it.”  With all the material about Clinton in books and other media, “it was easy to just go read it, a biography.”  Other clients require more digging, and conversations with them and/or their staff.  Talking to the prospective speakers isn’t always possible, but it helps also to find out the cadence and phrasing of their speech, as well as the words “that they routinely stumble over,” like “nucular.”

            The second step is to discover the speech’s main topic, the “headline message,” usually in consultation with the client and her or his staff.  “What does the speaker want to get out of this event?  Is it a command performance (like an annual summit), a special occasion (like a ribbon cutting or commencement), or a policy platform?  Is the speaker’s goal to educate, persuade, inspire, mobilize, entertain?  Is it to take (or give) credit for a success?”  For the Belfast speech, the subject was in contact with the “advanced team that had gone to Northern Ireland and had scouted out places,” with the American charge in Belfast, and with “a lot people” who could help her with the content of the speech.

            Once the subject has all the information she needs, she creates a “basic framework” for the speech.  Unlike the writer at the FAA, she does not “generally work from detailed outlines,” nor is she good at working out a structure through talking to some interlocutor.  “If you asked me what the speech needs to be about, I would fumble all over myself, but if you would just give me an hour to sit on the computer and write a little bit, then I could come back and tell you,” she said during the interview.  “I find that writing and thinking go hand-in-hand;” she wrote in an e-mail. “Sometimes I need to be writing to figure out what it is I’m trying to say.” 

The subject knew the basic argument Clinton wanted to make in Belfast, so she wrote the speech “in the way that the argument made sense to me.”  The opening had to be upbeat.  “You wanted to start with the good stuff.  … I live on the other side of the ocean and here’s what I see when I look at your country.  I see these incredible things happening.”  The beginning and the end also had to contain certain required material, like the acknowledgement of Irish politicians who had been participating in the peace process.  The interviewer remarked on the speech’s structure resembling the classical model, with an opening that established the speaker’s good will followed by an exposition of the case for the peace process, then a refutation of those attitudes and behaviors that could set the process back, and a peroration with emotional appeals to stay the course.

            It is in the drafting that the subject tries to work in not just the “factual arguments” but also the “color that brings the best speeches to life—anecdotes, quotations, humor, real life examples, interesting factoids, etc.”  The client or speaker will provide “the policy substance for the speech; my job is to make it interesting, relevant, and memorable for the audience.”  The subject’s independent research appeared to focus on obtaining the “color.”  A forceful metaphor within the Belfast speech was inspired by the factory itself.  “The textile machines you make permit people to weave disparate threads into remarkable fabrics.  That is now what you must do here with the people of Northern Ireland.”  A search through newspaper reports of the previous March’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration yielded a quote from an Armagh bystander that “Even the normal is beginning to seem normal.”  A call to an Irish poet at Princeton, a friend of her parents, led her to a line by Louis MacNeice about Americans rejoicing “at things being various.”  The subject needed an appeal of particular power in the closing sentences of the speech, and found it among a selection of letters Irish schoolchildren had written to the president.  “One young girl from Ballymena wrote, and I quote, ‘It is not easy to forgive and forget, especially for those who have lost a family member or a close friend.  However, if people could look to the future with hope instead of the past with fear, we can only be moving in the right direction.’  I couldn’t have said it nearly as well.”  Particular care is taken with the beginning and ending of a speech, and the style has to “make the speech easy for the client to read and for the audience to hear.”  That means attention to “sentence length and structure, word play, strong verbs, interesting metaphors.” 

            As has been mentioned above, several drafts have probably been produced before one is sent to the client (“I am a rigorous self-editor.”), and then the clients will either be “content” or “get invested in the drafting process themselves.”  An exchange of drafts will often ensue “until the client is satisfied.”  Some traits the subject said a speech writer must have are the “ability to take criticism,” “strong self-editing skills,” and “self-discipline and grace under pressure.”  Like the others, she clearly saw her role as one of service and she was aware of gaps in her education, like a need to study more U.S. history.  A public speaking course as an undergraduate would have been “valuable,” she thought, “and it probably would have been helpful to take a creative writing course too, or at least to have received feedback from my professors on my writing style.”  Still, it would have been hard to ignore the obvious confidence the subject had in her ability to perform her chosen profession.  She was comfortable in her knowledge that she possessed the above mentioned traits, as well as others she listed, such as “excellent research skills,” and a “breadth of knowledge, curiosity, and imagination.”  Despite her mention of a curriculum she would have liked to have had, her e-mail responses prior to the interview concluded that “a broad-based, globally minded liberal arts education like the one I had was probably just the right preparation for what I do now.”  That assertion recalls the theory of Cicero’s Crassus in De Oratore that the complete rhetor has a perpetual hunger for knowledge of all the subjects (s)he might touch upon in her/his discourse, and can never settle on a narrow specialty.  It is not that a broad, shallow knowledge will suffice either.  The trenches of knowledge we dig must be as deep as we can make them before we shuffle off this mortal coil.

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