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tv   Former Political Speechwriters Discuss the Impact of Presidential Rhetoric  CSPAN  January 3, 2022 2:04pm-3:05pm EST

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next on c-span, a conversation with speechwriters for presidents bill clinton, george w. bush, and barack obama. they discuss presidential rhetoric, their collaborations with the former presidents and pivotal speeches by each of those presidents. this comes to us from the edward m. kennedy institute for the united states senate. >> on behalf of the edward m. kennedy institute for the united states senate, i'm pleased to welcome you to tonight's virtual program featuring presidential speechwriters from both sides of the aisle. and i want to personally apologize for my voice. i am losing my voice, but i'm going to try to project so everybody can hear me. so, word choice and rhetoric from the president of the united states impacts not only americans, but our allies and enemies abroad. with the changes in communications, technology, and the advent of the 24/7 news cycle, our expectations over what and how we hear from the most powerful leader in the world have changed.
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we know that a president's words can calm a nation in a time of crisis, it can move a nation and in times of emergency, and is an incredible tool both here at home for our own politics but for our foreign policy abroad. and we all know that senator kennedy was famous for his booming rhetoric, whether it was on the senate floor or in speeches across the country or his famous speeches to the democratic national convention, that words, in addition to actions and deeds, go down in history books for their meanings and impact. so now it's my pleasure to introduce our esteemed panel of speechwriters. first, ambassador caroline -- excuse me -- carolyn curiel is a recognized journalist and educator who served as united states ambassador to belize. and in the white house is senior presidential speechwriter and special assistant to the president for president clinton. she wrote on a wide range of
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issues including his noted speeches on race. they included remarks in memphis to black religious leaders in november of '93. the speech originally was supposed to be on the north american free trade agreement, and thankfully she successfully argued to shift its focus. and after delivering his "mend it, don't end it" speech on affirmative action at the national archives on july 19th, 1995 -- i remember this speech well -- president clinton said she made history this afternoon. carolyn curiel personally helped me craft my affirmative action speech, she had more to do with drafting it than anyone else, and she is the first person of color, and, more importantly, the first latina in the history of our country to write speeches for the president. and it may be that the one that she wrote today will go down as one of the two or three most important i have ever delivered. second, we have cody keenan, former colleague of mine, who has written for president barack obama since 2007. rising from a campaign
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intern in chicago to white house chief speechwriter to obama's post-presidential collaborator. over eight years in the white house, their joint efforts were compared to the works of abraham lincoln, they were described as the, quote, i have a dream speech for the 21st century, and categorized even by prominent republicans as speeches that every child should read in school. cody was nicknamed the springsteen of the obama white house, even though he can't play an instrument, and i think we need to explore that name a little bit further in this session, and his passions for public service and gripping rhetoric were sharpened at a young age to senator ted kennedy. and, today, cody sits on the board of the edward m. kennedy institute for the united states senate. and then, finally, we have john mcconnell, who served more than ten years on white house staff in two different administrations. as a senior speechwriter for president george w. bush and
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vice president dick cheney, he was part of the three-person team responsible for all of the 43rd president's major addresses, including the historic speech to the joint session of congress after september 11th, 2001, and five state of the union messages. and now i'm thrilled to introduce our moderator for the evening, tamara keith. tamara keith has been a white house correspondent for npr since 2014 and co-hosts the npr politics podcast, which is the top political news podcast in america and one of my favorites. keith focuses on the biden administration's response to the covid-19 crisis. she chronicled the trump administration from day one helping us all make sense of the un-orthodox presidency from early morning tweets to executive orders to investigations. she covered the final two years of the obama presidency and also the 2016 presidential campaign covering hillary clinton. so, again, thank you for joining us. and i'm now going to turn it
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over to tamara to get the conversation started. >> excellent. and i think before we get into the serious stuff, maybe we can do just a little fun to help us all get to know you better. so, let's start with cody. what's the springsteen thing? >> the springsteen thing is nonsense. i mean, it's true, but it's mostly because i just listened to him all the time, and the easiest things to write were always, you know, sort of parables of hard-working americans and speeches at auto plants. those were always kind of my sweet spot. so, that's unearned. bruce springsteen is america's greatest poet. >> indeed, indeed. yes. so, john, why don't you tell us about the time that vice president cheney called and told you that he had gotten you both in trouble.
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>> well, one afternoon, my phone rang, and, as cody and carolyn know, when the president or vice president calls you there's that little window on the phone that tells you who's calling. it just says potus or v. potus. it was v. potus. i picked up the phone and said, sir. he said in that rich, deep dick cheney baritone, he said, john, i got us into some trouble. and i said, oh? and he proceeded to tell me that the president and mrs. bush had decided to leave washington right away to go to the funeral of pope john paul ii. the president had been scheduled to speak the next night at the radio and tv correspondence dinner in washington. as my colleagues also know, the president has to give a funny speech. so cheney says to me, i've got to go there tomorrow, and the president's s.t.a.d., and i've got to say funny things for ten minutes. and then he says, i don't do funny. and i said, well, sir, actually, you'll do a fine job up there.
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you just let me call my colleague matthew scully, and in the next day or so we'll get a speech ready for you. and the lesson is, number one, he was very funny, he's got very good comic timing. number two is, just generally, if you work in white house speechwriting, you've got to be ready for anything anytime. >> indeed. and, carolyn, i think you also wrote some speeches for those terrible, wonderful, whatever you want to call them washington dinners. >> oh, they were terrible. no question about it. well, we had a very small staff of speechwriters. there were three writers at the beginning of the administration. i was the one outsider, not a holdover from the campaign. and we would sit around in a circle. three speechwriters compared to, what was it, nine or 12 for his predecessor.
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so it was a matter of volunteering, and who doesn't like comedy? i grew up really terrific sitcoms and other things. so i put up my hand to write the speech. and it went very well. it was the radio tv correspondence dinner as well. so, john, i did not remember that story of yours, but it's hilarious. and what i did basically was a lot of called bush belt humor. so, it was a surprise hit. and the next day the president calls me, he's en route to atlanta in air force one, and he says, pretty funny stuff, carolyn, what have you got for me for the gridiron? and i'm thinking, whoa, wait a second, i didn't sign up to be a comedy writer, but i had absolutely nothing planned. so, all i could think of, top of
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my head was, um, okay, can you keep your lips warm for the saxophone? dead silence. i probably could've thought of another way to say that, a better way to say that. and he comes back, and he says, i will. so i run over to the communication office to let them know. and they're talking about the prior night's comedy address. and they said, oh, we're talking about gridiron. and i said, oh, great, he'll play the saxophone. they said, no, no, no, never, ever ask him to play the saxophone, he has to rehearse, he's not going to be happy about it, it's just a really, really bad idea. and i said, done, sorry. so, he took the stage at the gridiron as a surprise in a skit wearing black sequin tails and playing on his saxophone "yakety yak don't talk back." >> so this was great. and from, you know, within minutes we are going to be talking about the decline of democracy. so i'm glad that we had a little fun to start.
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and i want to move into the speechwriting process. and i'm hoping that each of you could talk about a speech that you worked on that was really memorable or that you're really proud of, but also give us some insight into the process. i assume every president is different in the process that they wanted. um, who wants to go first? john? >> yeah. the process is similar in the same few basics. that is, speechwriting office generates a draft that is then sent to the staff secretary who is an assistant to the president who circulates it to the senior staff in the white house for review and comment due in the speechwriting office usually the same day. and then you have your fact-checkers. we had very strict fact-checking in our office. we actually had a fact-checking
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department of speechwriting. and then the polished draft footnoted by the fact-checkers goes to the president for his review. and then he will start to make his imprint on it. president bush was a very serious editor. speeches generally took four to eight days, that was our general expectation. but, after september 11th, of course, we had a series of speeches that had to be put together really quickly including the speech that friday to the service at the national cathedral. and then the speech to congress on thursday, september 20th. that speech we got the assignment, my colleagues assignment, my colleagues mike gerson, matthew scully, and i, got that assignment monday morning september 17th. and we were told that the president wanted a draft by the end of that day. and our objections, to the
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contrary, went unheeded. we simply had to get a draft to him by the end of that day. and we did. but that was the rare instance when you had to turn around something very fast. but it was -- we had very good guidance on the front end from the president. he was the one who gave us the framework for the speech which was to pose questions that the american people are asking. and because the president gave us such a very good firm outline to start with, we were able to finish the draft in a single day. >> you know, a couple of weeks ago i interviewed stephanie grisham, the former trump press secretary about her book. and the thing from that interview that stood out most to me is she was talking about the president, former president trump gave an oval office address on, i think it was march 11th, basically the day that tom hanks got covid and everybody in america went, oh, my god, this thing is real. and she said that they didn't
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decide that they were doing an oval office address until 3:00 p.m., and the speech was at 8:00. and now that i hear you talking about your process and being, you know, alarmed at having only three days, i think maybe her story is even more shocking than i imagined. >> well, i'm sure my colleagues will agree, that is unimaginable. and you're not going to have a good result. i mean, we had to do a speech for president bush in four hours once, and that was when we lost seven astronauts on the space shuttle "columbia." of course the country is waiting for the president to say something. but it's not going to be a long speech, it's going to be brief. but very quick turnaround. the idea that a major oval office address is not even going to be decided on until, what'd you say, 3:00 in the afternoon? >> yeah. >> it's unimaginable. you're not going to get a good result with a process like that, in my opinion.
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>> and there was confusion after the speech were all of us reporters were scrambling saying, what did he just announce? so, cody, why don't you take a turn in talking about, like, the process but also like a moment that stands out. >> sure. just to add to what you were saying, tamara, it wasn't just chaos in the process of president trump's speech. you looked abroad and you had thousands of people showing up at the paris airport because they didn't give good guidance on the speech. and that's why you don't rush these things. >> this panel is called "why presidential rhetoric matters." i guess we're getting at that here. >> for something like that you have to be precise. our process was similar to john's but probably a little more condensed. we typically took three days per speech. and we actually excised staff secretary from the process, not to make you guys too jealous, carolyn and john, but we circulated the speeches ourselves as speechwriters. once we thought it was ready we
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sent it to senior staff. and we took their edits and decided which ones to make and then we went it to the president for his overnight book. so that actually saved us a lot of time. i don't know how you dealt with what other people decided to edit and not. but we kind of kept that to ourselves. one, you're talking about a specific speech. and i should say here, first of all, the president was -- he was almost first and foremost a writer. and he was intimately involved in it. in many ways he saw it as a collaborative relationship. and i think one of our best speech what's actually the day i got to circumvent the process entirely two days before he was supposed to speak at selma, washington shut down for a snowstorm. but i went to the office, and just spent the day, president obama just spent the day shuttling drafts back and forth to each other because nobody was there. you know, there was kind of a skeleton staff, but he had no meetings so we just had all day to work on his speech and pass five drafts back and forth that each one made the other better.
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so, no process, in my opinion, gives the best speeches. with apologies to everyone who worked at the white house. >> i'm completely envious of you, cody, for having that as your setup, because we did have process as well, not the same as you, john, but our process was -- sometimes it was hair on fire but not to the degree that we just heard about from the prior administration. the process was typically policy and scheduling driving what the topics would be. and i'm going to illuminate a little bit more on the memphis speech because it's the one time that i felt i absolutely -- i had to do something to intervene, and could've possibly lost my job, i suppose, but did
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not, mercifully. the speech was supposed to be about nafta, the north american free trade agreement. this was in november of '93. and i had been in the oval a couple of times leading up to this. our lead time for this was, i want to say it was not quite a week. and the president in the oval had said a couple of times he pointed out that there had been a story on the front page of the "washington post" written by a young woman i actually knew. i had been at "the post." it was about an 11-year-old girl. i believe she was 11, planning her funeral because of the violence in her neighborhood. this is the dress i want to wear, this is the music i want played. it was just a gut-wrenching story. a tremendous impact on the president. he talked about it a few times. and, so, we're sitting in our little circle, and i'm hearing a
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speech to the complication of the church of god in christ in memphis. i didn't know anything about memphis so we started to research. i put my hand up and we started our research. and we had a great research department headed up by ann walker. and one of the first things i would do is ask about the history of the location, because sometimes there's something there, as there was for the affirmative action speech as well, where we played with the idea of the archives as this treasure box for our documents. so, the history of that pulpit just struck me like a thunderbolt. of course it was the last pulpit of martin luther king before he was assassinated. he was supporting strikers, i believe it was the sanitation workers. and, so, to go there and talk about the north american free trade agreement, which was
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opposed by blue-collar workers, unions and these ministers, i'm assuming, was just not doable. and i couldn't get any traction. and, so, after a meeting, one of our several meetings, i went up to bruce lindsey who had run it. bruce was the -- he was ostensibly the head of president's personnel but he was the president's consigliere in a lot of ways and his best friend. i explained to him last pulpit for martin luther king, the president's interest in this violence in black neighborhoods, and, oh, by the way, nafta's not going to resonate. the church also had been founded in little rock, arkansas. and, so, he wasn't going to stick to a script because he knew these bishops. so i said it has to be talking points and it has to be about race. bruce looked down for a second and said, do it, i'll tell the
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president. and i did. and even on air force one on the way there, the policy people were arguing, it still needs to be about nafta. a little bit was inserted about nafta but that wasn't what the speech was about. very few people remember that, but it was a little bit chilling until bruce got into the car with me on the motorcade leaving, and he said, i think that went okay, what do you think? i was, like, yeah, i think so. that was all the president, talking points, it was a guide post for him. but he deserved just -- it was like being visited by the holy ghost. it was just amazing. >> so, since we are on the topic of speeches about race, i wanted to ask cody and john about this, too. you both served presidents who gave important speeches at times when, you know, racial division
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was out in the open in the u.s. of course, now it's way out in the open again. but, cody, you are finishing up a book about that period of time between the mass shooting at mother emanuel church and his eulogy. >> yeah. my manuscript is due tomorrow so i'll be playing a good old-fashioned all-nighter tonight. i'm writing a book about the ten days between the shootings in charleston and his eulogy in charleston. it's not a memoir, because a lot happened in that week. people forget there was also a very public debate about the confederate flag coming down in the south and the affordable care act. and then the president sang "amazing grace." and kind of the one thread through all this is this question of, you know, who are we? who are americans and who gets
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to decide who belongs? there's this kind of contest to determine the true meaning of america that's been going on since our founding. and it's, you know, you've got the kind of bull conor america on one side of the bridge selma or you have kind of this larger more cacophonous vision of america on the other side. and the question at the heart of america is which is going to win out? that's what the book is about. obviously there will be fun stories about speechwriting interspersed. we thought about this all the time. the first black president you have to, and that gave him unique opportunities but also some unique obstacles talking about race. >> was the "amazing grace" planned? >> uh, yeah, people have asked that before. like, i didn't write in the text "sing here." but he said -- and this has been told before -- he just finished a statement in the rose garden about marriage equality. and then marine one came and we
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took off, and he was still working on his speech on board. he stood up right before we landed or just after we landed and said if it feels right, i might sing it because we inserted the lyrics toward the end. and the first lady just kind of shook her head. and i hadn't slept in, like, three days so i just kind of shrugged and said, you know, you do you, man. and i asked him afterwards, like, you knew you were going to do that? because, keep in mind it was a memorial service, yes, but it was also the ame church, a black church, and they had an organist playing, there was a guy on the guitar and they were singing and doing praise. it was technically a friday but it was like a sunday going to church. so i knew he was going to sing. before he did he paused for about 12 seconds and just kind of looked down at his book. i actually asked him afterwards, were you trying to build some dramatic effect? and he goes, no, man.
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you know the thing about "amazing grace" is you got to start real low. because once you get to "a wretch like me," i didn't want to squeal in front of the entire country. >> wow. john, you have a different moment when the country was grappling with who we are. >> well, when 9/11 happened, of course it was so awful for the country. all at once, the american people were feeling shock, grief, anger and fear. and the president was giving voice in his speeches during that time to all those feelings that the nation had. but it was also his role to reassure the nation that we were going to get through this. we'd been attacked, there were
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enemies that we had to deal with, and we were going to do that, and we were not going to live in fear as a country, but, at the same time, in our response to what had happened to our country, we were going to act in a manner consistent with our values, to the extent that there was anyone thinking that the united states would overreact and would find itself or view itself as at war with a racial group or more to the point, an entire religion, those fears were unfounded because they were dealing with president george w. bush, a genuinely decent man, a good-hearted man, who, from those very early days said just right things, and really that's not a credit to his writers, except to the extent that we paid careful attention to the man himself and how he wanted to say things.
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and, so, it was a sensitive moment, but it passed with very little difficulty because of the way the president handled himself. >> just a note to our audience that we are going to want to take your questions in a few minutes. so if you do have questions, i think you can put them in the q&a section, and they will, through the magic of the internet, get to me, and i will ask them. the title of our talk mentions tweets even though i'd rather never think about twitter ever again. i do want to ask you guys whether you think that twitter has helped or hurt presidential communications, whether there is an art to the presidential tweet. and i will just say as a reporter who, for four years, perfected the art of reading a tweet on the air, i have not had
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to read a tweet on the air in the last nine months. there just has not been a tweet that created news. and i don't know whether that is good for president biden or bad for president biden, but i would love all of your thoughts about presidential tweets. >> well, for myself, i do not think it is a net plus for presidential communications. i think -- the tendency nowadays to turn everything into a bite-sized piece is epitomized, of course, by twitter. and i can't think of -- i just say with confidence in general, i don't think anyone is better off in this country, anyone is better informed in this country, anyone has a better sense of the important issues facing the country and the distinctions,
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differences on those issues among people because of twitter. i think it's just opposite. >> yeah. all that is true. simply put, i'd just say that speechwriting is thinking before you speak, and tweeting is speaking before you think. there's no nuance to it. you're wrong half the time, it's designed to make people angry and interact, whereas the speeches, you know, if you do it right, are designed to make people think and hopefully even change their mind and lead them to a different direction. >> well, and another thing about that, one thing about speeches in modern life, too often there's a reaching for applause lines, and it's part of the system now. i like the kind of speech where you're able to go for great lengths, not interminably but
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will go for a page to draw people in and get them thinking, but you have communications experts often especially in politic who's say, no, no, no, it's got to have an applause line every two paragraphs or something like that. so you're kind of pushing against that kind of thing as well. >> well, it's a little bit like electroshock therapy, right? people go to it because they're looking for something that will zing them, it'll do something that, i don't know, it's supposed to inform, of course, but that's not always going to be the case. and i'm pretty sure most people don't click if it says "read full text here." so, you get this little bit of something that doesn't really tell you much of anything. and then, of course, it morphed into something else entirely under the prior president where it uses a cudgel, so less informing and more of
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disinformation and meanness about it. so, it's a real mixed bag, but i think, more than anything, what i find not useful for me is that it's a time waster. and there are so many other sources for some context and depth. and where speeches themselves are concerned, it's, as my two colleagues here tonight have said, it's a matter of not just words, it's also feeling, it's also the ability of the particular president to communicate something that's deeper than words that would appear on a screen or a hand-held or whatever, paper. it's more, speeches are living things that speak to a time, a place, and offer a vision. and you can't get that.
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the closest that any president may have come would've been the shortest speech in presidential history, and that would have been of course the gettysburg address. and i don't see gettysburg getting any traction in tweets, 270 words, that would take, what, maybe five screens, something like that? >> it would be a short thread. [ laughter ] so, this gets me to something that -- i mean, i think a lot of people are concerned about the current state of our democracy, about the polarization, about the alternate universes of truth and sort of the meaning of what democracy is supposed to be. and, so, i'm wondering whether you think that a president's words can damage our democracy, have damaged our democracy? and i also wonder if there is anything a president can say to actually repair it.
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>> i mean, i think we've seen pretty clearly that there are words you can use to damage our democracy. i don't want to dwell on it, but you had the first ones that come to mind were our last president denigrating pretty much anyone under the sun who wasn't a white man, standing next to putin. it takes a toll, it makes a difference. hate crimes rose. whatever, the list goes on and on. you certainly can, and i worry a lot about, you know, we don't just reclaim our status in the world as soon as joe biden takes office. these are things that take time to earn back. and it's not just words, it's also things like leaving our commitments and treaties and abandoning other nations. but it can make a big difference. getting it back is a lot harder, and the media environment makes it a lot harder. i think one place where we were a little more unfortunate than john and carolyn was, john, you
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only had to deal with kind of the only last two years did you have facebook, and then facebook and twitter became a real problem, and they're becoming an even bigger problem. and no one's quite figured out how to use it in a productive way. president trump used it to his own advantage in a lot of ways, which obviously didn't help him win re-election. but when your strategy is kind of to divide and conquer and make people as angry as possible and get rid of any sort of base line of facts from which a democracy operates, twitter can be a pretty powerful tool. >> president clinton was say in his arkansan way, "any jackass can kick down a barn, but to build it back uptakes a lot of thought planning and working together." and i think that metaphor applies to what was done with twitter by the prior president. and, yes, it did damage democracy. we're seeing that. and now we're seeing how the
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process to repair can be so slow having to go through courts just to get records of what was actually done to try to thwart the people's will on january 6th. so, it's a hard turn that president biden has gotten. he'll be known, i think, as a healing president, but the healing will not come quickly. and it's going to feel slow to some people. his ratings are coming down. i don't think it's particularly fair, but that's human nature. and we will see where the path leads us. but i don't expect overnight success. >> i was talking to some voters in ohio who -- independent voters who said that they are disappointed that the healing hasn't come. but i don't know quite what a president can say.
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given the current polarization. i don't know, john, any thoughts? >> well, presidents' words do matter, and i think that every time a president gives a serious speech on a serious matter, it's a great opportunity. and i would just say to anyone running for president, especially in times like these, resist the impulse to try to hurt or provoke someone. if you believe in unity, sound like it. take yes for an answer, you're the president. and a president can do a lot to make the country feel good and to make even political people who disagree with the president politically feel as though they are viewed with respect. i think also this tendency nowadays towards shorthand has
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really gotten bad. if you look at president obama's speech, the speech that made his career in boston in 2004 when he said we're not red america and blue america, we're the united states of america. we have never as a country referred to ourself in such terms. the problem is, i think, is that in 2000 when you had that 35-day re-count, every night the map of the presidential electoral vote tally was on tv every night instead of one night. and people saw that map, that red and blue, red and blue, red and blue. and by the end of that period, people were saying red and blue america. the "new york times" uses the terms "red america" and "blue america" in headlines. what is ohio? red america, blue america? well, it's neither. we should not view ourselves in those terms. and to the extent that people in
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positions of influence use those terms, i think it damages the country. you do not hear americans refer to themselves in such terms. >> i'm turning now to some of the questions that we've gotten, and let's just say they aren't all easy. so let's start with this one. do you think president trump helped incite january 6th with his words to his supporters? and i would expand that to not just that speech on that day, but earlier, too. >> yes. >> absolutely. >> it sure seems like it. that seems to be their version of it. >> all right. well, that was easier than i thought it would be. let's move on. i want to -- one of the questions that we got is sort of what it takes to be a speechwriter and how you got to where you got. and, carolyn, why don't you start because you're a woman of
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color in a field that is dominated by white dudes. >> i am. and here's the interesting thing. although some tried to tag me disarjingly with the term hispanic speechwriter. i was actually selected as part of a blind taste test. the white house in waiting, the clinton white house in waiting didn't know whom to hire really. and, so, they did a bit of a talent test. they asked a couple of dozen people across the united states to submit writing samples. and i didn't want to. somebody put my name in and they reached out to me, i had a contract with ted copple who i adore at "nightline," and i didn't want to leave him. but they called me a few times and i said i'll go ahead and do it. what they didn't tell me is they stripped off all identifying information on the writers and then a panel sat down from the
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campaign, soon to be at the white house, and they chose the one they wanted and it was just one. and they chose 9. and so i showed up at the white house for an interview. the same day that ted copple was there for doing interviews, it was like a week after the inauguration. i hadn't told him that i was going there because i thought they were being polite just to tell me thanks for submitting this, we're going another direction, blah blah blah, and i didn't really want the job anyway. so, ted saw me, and of course the gig was up and i told him, and he said, oh, they don't have time to be polite here. they're going to offer you the job, you need to decide if you want to do it. so, i was offered the job. ted went in to interview people on his topic and gave me an on-the-spot recommendation. so that's pretty much how that happened. but my life had been as a journalist, and while i thought working at the white house would be pretty neat, the timing for me wasn't at all what i
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expected. >> john, how did you become a speechwriter? >> well -- >> was it "american idol" style? >> no. i always tell people that when you get a position like this, it's not because there was a nationwide merit search. it certainly wasn't the case in my situation. i had an opportunity to go to work for vice president dan quail in the summer of 1990, and i was just finishing up a courtship with a federal judge in new york city and wanted to do something political early in my career. and as so often happens, a talks to b and b talks to c and c knows somebody. and i got this position, i was hired by vice president quail's chief of staff. i didn't know vice president quail, but i liked him, admired him and supported him but didn't finally meet him until my second week writing speeches for him
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when we were introduced on air force two. >> that's a nice place to get introduced to somebody. >> well, you're right, he knows you're there for a reason. [ laughter ] >> not a stowaway. cody, how did you do this? >> the short answer is i got my job through stephanie cutter who introduced us tonight. the first speeches i ever wrote for anybody else were for senator kennedy. and she introduced me in 2007, early 2007 to john favro who was obama's chief speechwriter. actually his only speechwriter at the time, and they had worked together on the john kerry campaign in '04, and fav and i hit it off. he hired me in 2007 and i was kind of just stubborn enough not to leave until 2021. but it illustrates the point that carolyn was making, which is, you know, i'm very well aware that i've had every advantage in my life just because of virtue of who i am. i had parents who paid to send
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me to a good college and helped me get a first job in washington and sent me to grad school, and i had a bunch of connections. and not everybody has that. it's a very difficult industry for speechwriters of color to break into, let alone the white house. but -- and we didn't have enough when we were in the white house. we had -- you know, we had four women in our second term team, but we only had one speechwriter of color. and it was a hard thing to try to find, too, because there just aren't that many. and i talked to president obama about this too. and he said, yeah, it's because the some's not set up for it. so there are some people trying to change that now in a way that wasn't true 20 years ago when i first broke in. there's a group called speechwriters color. you see more and more members of congress paying their interns rather than expecting people to do free labor right out of college. and in a shameless plug for my own firm, we try to hire as many speechwriters of color as we can. >> if i can add one thing to
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that. this is really important. and what cody said is absolutely on the spot correct. it is difficult to break in because you don't have those contacts. but if outreach is done, you might be able to find people. and i'll give you this little bit from when i was at the white house. somebody in a senior position said to me, probably not thinking, you know, i think all the presidents' speechwriters should be white southern men because then they'd have his voice. i thought, what an interesting thing to say to me. so i said that's a great idea, can you also arrange for all of his audiences to be white southern men, too? and, so -- [ laughter ] so that shut that down pretty fast. i think it gained a little bit more respect for the idea that you need different perspectives at the table. diversity isn't just color, it
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isn't just race, it isn't even just language or -- it's a lot of things. it's coastal, it's midwestern. you have to have people -- if you're trying to talk to this great nation, you have to have people who have experienced different parts of it at the table because you're going to miss so much otherwise. and, cody, i know you're a chicago guy, i'm from the chicago suburbs on the indiana side where i'm living now. i think that helped a lot. john, you're from wisconsin. i think that probably helped a lot. you know, the perspective that you brought to the white house. >> one quick question for carolyn. someone writing in with a question, dreams of being an ambassador, this person has dreamed of being an ambassador since age 12. how do you get to be an ambassador? there's the easy way and the hard way, but i think it's all hard ways. >> well, there are two cats.
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one is you join the state department, and good luck in passing all the testing there and then working your way up this tremendous bureaucracy, it's huge. and getting noticed, and, by the way, they've had a problem too of not a lot of diversity in one of their ambassadrial ranks. or you know the president and you might even be a big donor. and because i had been a journalist all those years, i never gave a red cent to a politician. when the senate got my nomination, paul coverdell, the late great paul coverdell, republican out of georgia, who was just the kindest and smartest gentleman, invites me in to meet he because he couldn't understand why the president was nominating his speechwriter. and, so, we talked -- i completely, you know, i research everything so i researched a lot. and he had been head of peace
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corps. i was able to talk knowingly about what was going on in belize with the peace corps. you have to have a certain amount of knowledge about a part of the world, and you have to be able to communicate with people effectively. and you have to be able to advocate for u.s. interests and for people in that nation who have that u.s. passport. evacuating people from hurricanes, i did that. i break out in heat rash but i did it. because i thought it was important. the guys before me had not. the prior ambassadors, i was told. you have to be willing to do a lot of stuff to get this. you get the impression that you can do it if you know the person who is naming ambassadors as i was lucky to. and the offer came to me. i was asked what i will do in the second term and i said i do
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not the officer came to me. i was asked what are you going to do in the second term. i said, i know, you can make me an ambassador. i had in my mind belize and that's pretty much how it happened. i had been in the caribbean before. all the pieces fell together. i was very lucky. lots of people had got mad. they said they had been in line for belize. >> another question from the audience, how do you deal with writers block on the job? are you allowed to have writers block if you're a presidential speech writer? you're shaking your head. >> no, there's no time. i think there's a perfect speech
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in your mind and you have to find it somehow. i just start writing. i'll try to write the entire speech in a minute. 100 words. what are we saying? that's what the revision process is for. once you have a basic structure down then you start working and playing with it. that's when the speech comes to life. i can't tell you how many times i've changed a speech. writer block, too, i find the most important thing is to talk it out with somebody. we're lucky enough to have teams around us. i had a writer next door in the west wing and if i was stuck, i would go talk to him and i'd figure it out in my head before he said a word. i'd say thanks, man and go back to my desk. you're stressing yourself out by thinking you have that perfect speech in there and you need to get it down immediately. just start banging away and
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you'll get there. >> i think it was alex who said what's my motivation here? how do i get this right? he said your motivation is your paycheck. i just knew i had to have that job and i was going to get the work done no matter what. you have to bring some of that. t not always going to be your a game but you bring the best you can. >> if i know what the point is, i can write it. i'm not intimidated by the blank screen. some of the best i heard is a
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weekly column in the washington post and he said he always dictated his column. he sat back and just dictated it. it was transcribed and it was too long. he said, but, i'm not writing. i'm rewriting. i'm editing. he had something in front of him. cody makes a good point. get something down. get going on it. if it looks like thinking aloud, that's okay. you don't have to show it to somebody. your thought and insights will really start to take shape. >> another question, once a speech is agreed upon, are there -- is there training? are there rehearsals? how much practices is there?
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i have to ask, carolyn, i understood that president clinton was notorious for changing things while it was in the teleprompter. >> oh, never happened to me. >> eye roll. >> he could but he could read it almost 100% as well. it was a mixed bag. you done have ownership of the speech. it belongs to the president. i think whatever the president wants to do to it, he can. rehearsals for states of the unions, absolutely. national addresses that way, sometimes. it's more than anything you have to be able to channel the voice and the thinking. it helps to have access as we were able to in our white house so you got the voice down.
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>> president bush would rehearse big speeches. he didn't use the teleprompter very often. maybe six or eight times a year. for the state of the union, he would have reher -- rehearsal sessions. really close to the day. we wouldn't have them weeks out. he would read a speech aloud. if he were involved in the speech, chances are you'll be there for the rehearsal. kind of an interesting thing to
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go through. >> same answer for us. >> did president obama also use that same movie theater? >> no, he used the map room which is on the same floor in the middle of the residence. we set up the same podium. he would do it once on state of the union day around 5:30 that evening. then go have dinner with his family. shower, pick out a tie. sometimes he would ask us which tie we like better during speech prep and drives to the capitol and always listens to eminem "lose yourself". >> really? >> yeah. >> it is a great hype song. >> there's a youtube of him doing it backstage in 2016. >> that was not an isolated incident? >> no. >> another question here and
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karen you said this, how do you handle it when a president dislikes what you wrote or wants to go in a different direction or uses a lot of marker? >> i had an incident in boston. my memory of boston. we flew up to do a speech in north eastern university and i had not been told there was no air-conditioning in the gym. the mother of the kid being saluted that day had a heart condition. to make matters worse, the white house travel office decided we would take a small plane. they were trying to show the u.s. public we're saving money by not taking the big 747. i was cut from the manifest to get on the plane and i had to argue my way onto it to talk to the president. i get there and realize the speech is way too long. this woman may have a heart condition and we can't -- we get down stair, on the ground.
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i'm cutting, pasting, stapling and putting it together. i put it together and hand it to the president lightning fast. watching me was john kerry who was laughing. when i looked up, he said, you earned your pay today, didn't you? the short answer is you do what it takes to make the president like it better than it was. >> yeah. my motto always was, i repeated it many times, where there's no alternative, there's no problem. >> when you're a younger speech writer, when you see a bunch of edits on the page, you think something wrong. eventually, within a year or two, i realize you're doing something write. obama viewed its a collaboration. if he started editing on the page, it means he like what you gave him and you can work with it. the worst time, there weren't too many when he would say sit
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down. there wouldn't be any edits on the page because he wanted to take a different direction. even then he would spend time on it. he would always take the time to explain to us why he wanted to say the things he wanted to say. if we had done something wrong, what we needed to change or where he wanted us to go with it. once the pen came out, that meant you're on the right track. >> couple more questions because we started a little bit late. i'm sorry, cody, this means you'll get to writing, finishing your book a couple of minutes later. some good questions here. do speech writers confer with each other across administrations for perspective? like were you guys already on speed dial? >> i didn't do a lot of it. you don't do it while you're there, but or any my experience, i didn't check with other speech
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writers. how do you do this or that? you get to know them. you meet them at social events and you have something regardless who either of you worked for, it's an instant bond of friendship, i found. >> judson being the first white house speech writer. it was formed, the society by the old lions. to hear their stories, we would meet once every other year and to hear the stories was quite inspirational on what was done during those times and how they handled situations and just wisdom they would impart. all continue to be active in writing.
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>> he said you bush writers, you're not the first who have the experience of dealing with your boss' father. >> some left him a really nice note when he took over. >> i imagine you did review speeches as you were writing yours or looking for inspiration or probably checked back with
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lincoln every once in a while. >> we did. when we didn't know we were doing at certain events, it's like what does a president do on memorial do. what does a president say on x day? we'd go back and look to see what they usually said. he told us go back and see what fdr was saying to an anxious nation. >> i think we will leave it there. >> i want to thank all three of you. this is so wonderful.
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i've really enjoyed this conversation. i hope our audience enjoyed it half as much as i did. thank you so much. >> thank you. >> thanks so much.
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