Speechwriting in the first year

January 17, 2017 Tony Lucadamo

Every American president has his own voice, tone, tenor, and objectives. Yet regardless of the individual, each White House speechwriting operation faces similar challenges in navigating the various intricacies of the first year. On December 9, 2016, the Miller Center assembled five former speechwriters from the first years of the Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama presidencies to discuss their tenures and the lessons learned. What follows is a summary of key points from the discussion, and you can read a full transcript of the discussion

Establishing a functional office

Know the role

Speechwriters write speeches. Let them. You need that dedicated staff on hand because ultimately a speech is the best way to convey a complex message. Some audiences just want sound bites, but policymakers, foreign leaders, reporters and others will desire the full text. It’s important to have specialists on hand produce a speech that delivers on sevearl objectives. As for digital and social media, shareable phrases and powerful graphics are all important. But ultimately it is someone else's job within the communications shop to see that bigger picture.

Have an ear in the room

Writers don’t need to help draft policy, but they should be in those staff meetings to understand the policy is formulated. Reagan speechwriter Ken Khachigian noted that he didn’t impose himself but he was always in the room just to see the whole picture. Seeing the issue from all angles improved his end product. Bush 41 speechwriter Mary Kate Cary said that President George H.W. Bush didn’t allow this kind of access during her tenure—to his detriment.

Stay in tune

Obama speechwriter Adam Frankel emphasized the need for "coherence” across all modes of communication. Press outreach, speeches, social media efforts, and all other components must deliver the same message. One offhand statement can derail months of planning. To this point, Cary noted that President's Trump’s online presence should be an asset but will become detrimental if the message grows inconsistent.

There are ways to prevent fractured messaging. Clinton speechwriter David Kusnet had a president who would regularly stray from the script and extemporize. To help manage that tendency, his team studied tapes of the president's ad libs and then incorporated the language into future speeches—the words felt more natural to Clinton, and he was less likely to go off script.

Effective speechwriting

Find the voice

Subpar speechwriters think of themselves as the president and write as if they’re the ones talking. The good ones listen, they get in the president’s head and in his ear. They learn the little tics and turns of phrase. Khachigian says that you should “get to the point where you hear the voice in your head.”

Tone is important

Presidents Reagan and Obama sought lofty language, and the later had his research staff study speeches from Lincoln, FDR, and Kennedy when drafting his first Inaugural Address. President Clinton was more colloquial, somewhat like Truman and LBJ according to Kusnet. Speechwriters must discern where their president falls on the informal/formal spectrum and adapt accordingly.

Grab your audience.

There are a few ways to cement a connection with your audience. Frankel emphasizes treating the president as the country's moral leader, touching on shared values and unifying themes. Another strategy is to include personal and poignant anecdotes into remarks, although Frankel cautioned  that it can seem fake if not done properly. Putting people in the crowd as props is a “bit of an artifact,” he said but the ability to incorporate people and their stories can be a timeless and powerful way to connect.

The ability to resonate not only stirs emotion but can also revive policies. In 1981, with President Reagan’s economic program languishing, he went around visiting members of Congress and delivered a televised address to stir his constituency and reinvigorate the fight for reform.

Don’t shy away the details

When candidates become presidents, they must move from the general to the specific. Campaign themes can be vague, but passing an agenda demands more nuanced rhetoric. This presents the challenge of providing specifics without losing an audience.

To help with the task, speechwriters can insert quotes or famous lines to link policies with big ideas. The supporting text can be formal or colloquial. President Obama referred to President Clinton as the “secretary of explaining stuff.” Clinton could channel Shakespeare or the Bible while still remaining informal.

Another option is to fall back on storytelling. Obama told his staff that every speech must feature a clear beginning, middle, and end. That worked for him. Others reverted to things as simple as using props. On one occasion, President Reagan held up a dollar bill then pulled change out of his pocket and put them side by side to illustrate the scale of inflation. If a president can sell it, go with it.

Rising to the occasion

Master the “Three Speeches”

The oratorical arc from Election Night to the early days in office is highlighted by three major speeches, which should be viewed as a single performance in three acts. The first is the victory speech, in which the president summarizes the campaign and extends an olive branch. The second is the Inaugural Address, the ritual opportunity for reunification of a divided nation, and often a chance to be poetic. Last comes the first address to a joint session of Congress in which policy is more central and the president reverts to prose. Pessimism and partisanship are common in elections. But the three speeches offer a chance to shift from that cynicism towards aspiration and to move from generalities to specifics.

In making this transition, there are pitfalls to avoid. There’s a lot of pressure on writers to make history at the Inauguration. Some then reach for over-lofty rhetoric, which can come across as stilted if it doesn’t fit the president. With the the joint session address, speechwriters must prepare for lobbying from a host of stakeholders: OMB, Treasury, Labor, and every other agency will want a part in the speech.

Manage a crisis

Frankel believes that the most important element of a speech, following a crisis is to convey calm and reassurance. If it’s a tragedy, a best practice is to research those affected and come to understand them so that in paying tribute you can truly strike a chord. These speeches should also help to keep events in perspective. Events are magnified in today’s media echochamber, where hyperbolic rhetoric dominates. The president can cut through and focus on what really matters. 

Closing thoughts

As Khachigan said, Twitter “lights people up,” but eventually the audience is going to demand more than 140 characters, and it is critical to have a high-functioning speechwriting office. The advice laid out above is the product of decades of experience, and it is extremely relevant for today. The mechanisms and means of presidential communications are ever changing, but these lessons from the White House Office of Speechwriting are as valuable now as ever before.