Scripting a Nation: Behind Political Speechwriting

by Eliza Jane Schaeffer | 9/27/17 2:40am

Politicians must be bidialectal. They must switch between the realm of policy — of painstaking minutia and predicted impact — and the realm of the public — of pithy statements and pretty words. To make this switch, they rely on the assistance of speechwriters, people paid to distill inherently abstract and unattractive concepts into effortlessly digestible statements.

If politicians are bidialectal, speechwriters are tridialectal. They must have a deep understanding, not only of policy and the public, but also of the politician who pays them.

“You are tethered to this person you are working for,” explained economics professor Charles Wheelan, who has worked as a speechwriter for the governor of Maine and the former mayor of Chicago. “There aren’t many other relationships where you are so closely tied to one person.”

Wheelan spent much of his time in the company of his bosses and understood them on both a personal and intellectual level. Peter Robinson ’79 — who worked as a speechwriter in the Ronald Reagan administration, first for Vice President George H.W. Bush and then for Reagan — agreed that there exists a profound connection between politician and speechwriter.

But working for the President of the United States is quite different from working for the Governor, or even the Vice President. Writing a speech involves background research on the issues, the audience and, most importantly, the orator. Reagan was a busy man, and because the White House speechwriters did not have the luxury of spending extensive amounts of time with him, they had to turn elsewhere to establish a foundational understanding of his psyche.

“I knew Ronald Reagan well in the sense that it was my job, as a speechwriter, to understand what he was thinking,” Robinson said. “We speechwriters would pore over the speeches he’d given, most of which he’d written himself before he took office, and then whenever he delivered a speech you had written, you got yourself in the room or in the motorcade so you could hear the speech delivered, so you could see what he did with your material.”

A good speechwriter is a master of dissociation. It is their fingers on the pen, but it is not their words on the page. Thus, they must be able to trade their own principles and personality for those of their boss.

“You’re putting words in someone else’s mouth, which is a very strange experience,” Wheelan said. “You have to get in their head and remind yourself that it’s not your speech.”

This task is quite daunting. A speechwriter who fails to write a speech that can be effortlessly absorbed by their employer risks making the politician appear inauthentic. Robinson has observed that most administrations initially struggle in this regard, and the President Donald Trump administration is no exception. Trump’s rousing promise that “we have it in our power, should we so choose, to lift millions from poverty, to help our citizens realize their dreams and to ensure that new generations of children are raised free from violence, hatred and fear” acquires a tinny quality when followed by a tweet reading, “Just heard Foreign Minister of North Korea speak at the U.N. If he echoes thoughts of Little Rocket Man, they won’t be around much longer!”

To avoid this potential problem altogether, Wheelan urges speakers to work from bullet points. In that case, the speechwriter is “adding value because [the speaker is] too busy to know who these people are, what they want to hear. Really, what you want to do is be able to give them a road map,” he explained.

Of course, this is not always possible.

“At its most distressing, [the governor] was shockingly uninvolved. There would be times when I would say, ‘Hey, want me to write something down,’ give it to him in the limo, and he would read the speech,” Wheelan said.

Reagan, however, carefully combed through each speech beforehand, making adjustments as he saw fit. Nothing escaped his attention; Robinson remembers one six-page speech that Reagan left untouched, with the exception of a single word on the second to last line.

“By the time [Reagan] spoke,” Robinson said, “He had already internalized the speech, he had made it his. When Ronald Reagan spoke, you get no sense that there’s a gap between the text and the man himself.”

This merging of man and text was made possible by Reagan’s skill as an orator and by Robinson’s skill as a speechwriter; just as Reagan internalized his speeches, Robinson internalized Reagan’s voice.

“You knew what sounded like Ronald Reagan and what didn’t because you understood where he stood on the issues and you understood his style of speaking,” Robinson said. “Reagan had so pronounced a speaking style that when you wrote for him, you could in your mind’s ear hear him deliver it as you wrote.”

According to Robinson, Reagan’s speaking style was characterized by humor and storytelling, strategies for which he received a lot of criticism. Though this approach was portrayed by the popular media as undignified, Robinson believes it was an effective strategy for relaying important, yet largely uninteresting, information without boring his audience.

“You make your factual case, but people’s minds are built to enjoy and remember stories,” he explained.

Wheelan also emphasized the importance of storytelling, a task at which the former mayor of Chicago excelled.

“He would, in the course of doing something else, tell me a story, and I would think, ‘Oh my god, we’ve got to use that,’” Wheelan said. “So in the text, it would just say, ‘Tell limousine story.’”

Though the former mayor was not particularly articulate, he excelled at building persuasive arguments through stories. Wheelan kept a “stable” of stories from which he could pull, as needed.

Speaking from the perspective of an audience member, Daniella Kubiak ’20 affirmed that anecdotes make a speech memorable, relatable and engaging by forging a connection between the speaker and those listening. For Kubiak, an excellent speech is one that she “can relate to, particularly if the speaker uses examples that I have experienced or someone I know has experienced.”

Robinson considers Reagan’s ability to leverage anecdotes as a means of connecting with ordinary Americans to be one of his greatest strengths; he succeeded in talking over pundits and policy experts and directly to the American people.

“It was [the president’s] job to carry the American people with you, to explain what you intended to do, why you intended to do it and persuade them to support you,” he said. “The purpose of a speech is to establish a sense of community, a sense of shared values. It’s not a lecture.”

Kubiak appreciates speeches characterized by strength and simplicity. She quickly loses confidence in speakers who appear unenthused by the values expressed in their speech or who are unable to craft a cohesive argument.

“If they don’t seem convinced by their own ideas, or if they’re arguing for one thing, but they can’t even back it up, or back it up with things that don’t make sense or are clashing — that’s what I don’t really buy into,” she said.

Unfortunately, clarity is difficult to achieve when dealing with complex policy problems that can’t — and ideally shouldn’t — be distilled into a punchline. Maintaining a balance between entertainment and education, between rhetoric and substance, is difficult indeed.

In the Reagan White House, the speechwriting office was staffed with generalists, as opposed to policy specialists. According to Robinson, their lack of expertise forced them to learn, to constantly engage with “the stream of intelligence and personalities and policy development” housed in the executive branch. His role as a speechwriter was to absorb and synthesize this information and then reproduce it in a manner that could be understood by the broader public, a feat made possible by his non-expert status.

“To have a speechwriter on the other end of the telephone line who didn’t actually know the subject all that well was extremely useful,” he said. “You would just keep asking questions and keep making them repeat themselves until you understood the essentials, the basic points of what they were saying.”

Thus, all of these elements — the basic points, the conviction, the stories — merge into one polished product, seamlessly bound by the speechwriter’s deep understanding of the policy, the politician and the public.