Here’s Part 2 in my 6-part series of notes from the recent Speechwriters Conference I attended…
Highlights of Robert Schlesinger keynote address
Schlesinger, an opinion editor at U.S. News and World Report and teacher of political journalism at Boston University in Washington, D.C., spoke about “the rise and fall and rise again” of White House speech writers:
• Speeches are policy courses of events.
o If it doesn’t work on paper, it probably doesn’t work. (Richard Nixon)
o OSHA created based on one line in speech writer put in for Lyndon Johnson. Became a separate speech, then became a commission to study idea, eventually OSHA was created.
• Presidents since Washington have had help with their speeches. Real, fulltime speech writers came to be with the rise of radio and TV and mass media. There are totally different speaking styles for those with and without microphones.
o Franklin Roosevelt’s radio addresses were more informal, intimate talks because he was in your living room. Roosevelt also revolutionized how speeches were prepared by finding the right people to help him polish his ideas.
o Eisenhower was the first president to have aide with title “speechwriter.”
• Flares went up all over the administration when Reagan’s speeches were written. There tended to be a huge backstage fight between the speechwriters and senior staff. Speeches always wended their way through complicated bureaucracy where people thought “I can write, let me look at the speech.”
o Reagan would have a handful of letters to Whitehouse delivered each week and he would respond personally. To help deal with the fact they didn’t often have direct access to the president, the speechwriters arranged with the president’s secretary to get copies, so they could keep up with how Reagan was saying things and what was on his mind.
o “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” The speechwriters snuck that line in when a large batch of speeches were going to the president at Camp David, figuring senior staff couldn’t get to them all before Reagan saw them. The following week, Reagan mentioned he liked that line. The writers now had protection of the president for that idea, although senior staff still suggested toning it down. One suggestion from senior staff was, “One day this wall will be gone.”
o In the George H.W. Bush Whitehouse, speechwriters had a position in the hierarchy just below Millie the dog. They didn’t even have enough West Wing passes for the entire staff; speechwriters were often late to meetings with the president because of this. The Bush library is full of memos asking for more passes.
• You cannot be an effective president (or leader) without understanding the importance of giving a good speech.
o FDR and Reagan were the greatest speech presenters, followed by Kennedy. The worst were Ford, Carter and George W. Bush.
• The Challenge for Obama, who has a good relationship with his speech writers, will be whether he understands the limitations. The answer to everything isn’t to give a speech or hold a town hall meeting. Only the president can drown himself out at the bully pulpit.
• The Internet is double-edged sword. Because of YouTube, you can now see an entire speech rather than just soundbites on the TV news. But you also have bits and pieces showing up more and to a wider audience than before. Also, every time someone speaks is showing up on the Internet, whether it’s a prepared speech or not. There are no private venues anymore. Someone is probably watching who will post it to the Internet.
• Obama understands the power of words and how to use them. The question from a media standpoint will be, “Oh the president’s on the road again this week, what else is going on?” And there are only so many times you can use the same tool.
• There are three factors for greatness when giving a speech:
o How well the speech is delivered
o How good the speech is
o Are the surrounding circumstances/context/timing in the right mix for the speech to work?