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Presidential speechwriters

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Some presidential speechwriters win a little fame — William Safire for Nixon, Peggy Noonan for Reagan — but few flicker outside the Beltway. I’m fairly obsessed with helping other writers get the attention they deserve and so, with the light from today’s books and a deep admiration for those who write for the spoken word, I’ll start with Cody Keenan. He’s President Obama’s chief speechwriter. He’s also the main force behind Tuesday’s state of the union address, Obama’s next-to-last.

Keenan, 33, a burly Chicago native, has crafted some beautiful eulogies, too. He wrote Obama’s tribute to the late Senator Ted Kennedy in 2009 and the victims of the Tucson shooting in 2011: “We may not be able to stop all the evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another, that’s entirely up to us.” Keenan had been a staffer for the senator, and he admires the advice of another Kennedy man, Theodore Sorensen, who wrote for JFK. Sorensen lists four rules for a great speech: charity, clarity, levity, and brevity.

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Sorensen also bears the distinction of extinction; he comes from the lost epoch of towering adviser-speechwriters, like Harry Hopkins for FDR and Clark Clifford for Truman. This era lasted from 1933 to 1969, as I learned from the lively anthology, “The President’s Words: Speeches and Speechwriting in the Modern White House” (University Press of Kansas, 2010), edited by Michael Nelson and Russell L. Riley. We live in the days of the speechwriter specialist. The dawn of the rhetorical presidency and professional speechwriters took place in the first third of the 20th century. Our leaders didn’t speechify much before that. Indeed, after Jefferson — who thought oratory too monarchical — they wrote the state of the union and sent a copy to Congress. Wilson was the first modern president to deliver it, and he capably wrote his own speeches. You could manage that then, since so few speeches were given (Obama gave 411 in his first year in office).

But then came Harding, and his inaugural address was so bad — H.L. Mencken compared it to “a string of wet sponges” — he hired the country’s first salaried speechwriter, whose title was “literary clerk.” He was an Iowa newspaperman named Judson P. Welliver, and in the 1980s William Safire started the bipartisan (and apparently raucous) Judson Welliver Society for former speechwriters, with members like Gordon Stewart (who cowrote Carter’s “malaise” speech) and Robert Hartmann (who wrote “our long national nightmare is over” for Gerald Ford).

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The book sorts through the big genres: the acceptance speech, the inaugural, the state of the union, the crisis speech. And there’s great red meat here: Without alerting the State Department or the budget bureau, bad boy Truman unveiled his Point 4 foreign-aid programs in his 1949 state of the union. “I’ll announce it and then they can catch up with me!” he said. And when Clinton had to deliver his 1998 address, right after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, the speechwriters furiously combed through it for double entendres. They advised that “abroad” be changed to “around the world.”

Robert Schlesinger’s “White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters” (Simon & Schuster, 2008) reveals that, even early on, fixers were called in. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison worked on rhetoric for Washington, while the historian George Bancroft ghosted for Andrew Johnson and James K. Polk. Even Lincoln, our greatest speechwriter, got a little help: William Seward, for instance, came up with the phrase “mystic chords.” Lincoln added “of memory,” which made all the difference.

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Nixon was a true believer in the power of bold speeches (the Checkers address taught him that), but they made Carter uneasy (he associated rousing words with Southern demagogues). As William F. Gavin writes, “Isn’t demagoguery the evil twin of eloquence?” Gavin is a novelist, a former Nixon speechwriter, and the mellifluous author of “Speechwright: An Insider’s Take on Political Rhetoric” (Michigan State University, 2011). I especially liked his finely shaded discussion of writing to a president’s style. When Bob Dole accepted his party’s nomination in 1996, for instance, he gave a speech that was full of lavish phrases — and it tanked, because they didn’t suit his shrewd but plain Kansas style. A speech needs a “ perfect blending of words and persona to give it life,” says Gavin. Jon Favreau, Keenan’s predecessor, took great care to match Obama’s gift for cadence — which will.i.am picked up in 2008. Uplift is good, says Gavin, but beware of applause-line-hungry “thrill-talk” because it clouds authenticity and doesn’t admit ambiguity (he accuses Reagan here).

In “Speech-less: Tales of a White House Survivor” (Three Rivers, 2009), Matt Latimer reveals that George W. Bush wanted all his speeches funneled through a format he learned at Yale. Latimer calls it a “Build a George W. Bush Speech from Scratch Kit.” (It goes: joke, audience mention, three paragraphs on the subject, lifeless anecdote, God bless the United States). Speechwriters were marginalized in some administrations, but they had coveted access under Bush, regularly meeting with top advisers to gather background. This power even translated into policy: Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson is credited with birthing the president’s aid package to Africans with AIDS. Meanwhile, Latimer learned that his boss almost always OK’d jokes about Barbara Bush. This line killed: “I learned early on the importance of obedience to a higher power. Speaking of which, Mother says hello.”

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Michael Waldman, who wrote or edited 2,000 speeches (including four state of the unions and two inaugurals), is the author of “POTUS Speaks: Finding the Words That Defined the Clinton Presidency” (Simon & Schuster, 2000). It’s a story of color, crisis, chaos, and charisma. Waldman explains to the other speechwriters that they must cope with Clinton’s ad-libbing and embellishing tendencies: “We give him Hemingway . . . He’ll turn it into Faulkner.” And there’s some Keystone Cops stuff on the wrong speech getting on the teleprompter. Clinton liked juicing it up, also, by asking for pre-state of the union memos from dozens of outside names, like Amy Tan, Esther Dyson, and Garrison Keillor.

In the Reagan years, however, speechwriters were “sad sacks” with little clout, says Peggy Noonan. She’d never even met the president when she composed his renowned D-Day anniversary address in 1984. In “What I Saw at the Revolution: A Political Life in the Reagan Era” (Random House, 2003), Noonan talks about riffling through volumes of speeches trying to get “the grammar of the presidency, the sound and tone and tense of it.” She takes FDR as her pole star and learns that Reagan is a stickler for positive language. “I’ll always remember” is good, “I’ll never forget” is bad. Noonan is gritty, uncomfortably adulatory, and funny (I like when she hides behind a pillar to avoid Nancy Reagan). And she realizes that her job is more than words: “Speechwriting was where the administration got invented every day.”

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A bright new book in the category is “Confessions of a Presidential Speechwriter” (Michigan State University, 2014). Craig R. Smith, who scripted for Ford, brings a unique perspective. Most speechwriters come from journalism, but he’s from communication studies, and though the book has some fresh anecdotes (Ford was camera-shy; George H.W. Bush found rehearsing a speech unmanly), some of the best passages concern the classical origins of speechmaking. There’s a lot here, for example, on Aristotle’s thoughts on knowing your audience and how, in a campaign speech, “forensic condemnation” of an opponent is crucial.

For Tuesday night’s address, you won’t know what Keenan wrote and what Obama wrote. Seamless affinity is what counts. So Smith, with his Aristotle, would have flopped writing for LBJ, who preferred folksy and blunt. And presidents get the last word. LBJ was once going over a speech draft, for instance, when he saw a quote attributed to Socrates. He scratched Socrates out. Then he substituted in “my granddaddy.”


Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton.
She can be reached at katharine.whittemore@comcast.net.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this article said President Obama’s upcoming State of the Union speech would be his last. It will be his next-to-last.