On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
A good speech can rally people to a cause. But if you’re a politician addressing the nation on your plan for the next four years, you have to know how to appeal to people across the spectrum, and often times, you can’t do it without a little help. Kojo discovers who’s behind the scenes and what goes into crafting a great speech.
- Mary Kate Cary Former Speechwriter, President George H.W. Bush.
- Paul Orzulak Founding partner, West Wing Writers; Former speech writer, President William J. Clinton
- Robert Schlesinger Editor at US News and World Report, and author of White House Ghosts: Presidents and their Speechwriters" (Simon & Schuster)
Notable Political Speeches
Before 2004, Barack Obama was hardly known outside the state of Illinois. That year he gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention that launched him from obscurity to the national stage. His abilities as an orator convinced the American people that he could be leader of the free world.
Dwight D. Eisenhower warned about the military-industrial complex in April 1953 in his “Chance for Peace” speech. As the conditions of the Cold War deepened, he likened increased military spending to stealing from the American people. It’s a speech that was highly effective in its time for its imagery and relevance to the era.
Jennifer Granholm’s energetic remarks at the 2012 DNC definitely revved up the crowds, but we are left to wonder: Who writes this stuff?
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. There are moments in our politics that end up burned into our memories and words that end up etched into stone.
MR. KOJO NNAMDISo many of the great political speeches now conjure up images of knock-kneed elementary school students reciting the Gettysburg Address with sweaty palms or thousands of people packed tight on the The Mall mesmerized by the words of a Georgia preacher.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut there are millions of images that go into crafting important speeches that most of us will never see. The 27-year-old hunched over a keyboard chugging energy drinks all through the night, the coffee-stained drunk penning phrases on the back of a bus, remarks that, if all goes well, will go down forever as someone else's.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIMen and women who quietly go about the work of putting our values and our aspirations into words. Joining us to give us a peek into all of the things that go into political speechwriting that we do not see is Mary Kate Cary, a former White house speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. She currently writes speeches for political and business leaders. Mary Kate Cary, thank you for joining us.
MS. MARY KATE CARYThanks for having me.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Paul Orzulak. He is a former speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore and President Bill Clinton among many others. He is a founding partner of West Wing Writers, a Washington-based speechwriting and strategy firm. Paul Orzulak, thank you for joining us.
MR. PAUL ORZULAKThanks for having me.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Robert Schlesinger. He is editor at US News and World Report and author of "White House Ghosts: Presidents and their Speechwriters." Robert, thank you for joining us.
MR. ROBERT SCHLESINGERThanks for having me.
NNAMDIYou start "White House Ghosts" with FDR, even though it was technically Warren Harding who employed the first White House speechwriter. What sets FDR apart from the early presidents in that regard?
SCHLESINGERFDR was the first president who mastered the new technology, the new mass medium of radio, new at that time, obviously. And so while Harding was the first president who used a full-time speechwriter in the sense we think of it, it was FDR who really, in mastering radio and in mastering this new way to speak to the audience, engaged speechwriters in a much broader way and, you know, transformed the presidency in how he addressed the people.
NNAMDIWell, I think a lot of us are under the assumption that the founding fathers wrote all the things we associate with them, but, in fact, even George Washington had help crafting his farewell speech. Why do politicians, CEOs, entertainers and the like need speechwriters at all?
SCHLESINGERWell, there's only so much time during the day. I mean, if you're president, you don't have time. I mean, think about how often the president speaks not simply to the nation, but gives Rose Garden remarks to a boy scout troop or greets the champion baseball team or what have you.
SCHLESINGEREvery time the president speaks, he has to give -- his remarks have to be vetted. They have to be researched to make sure the facts are right and obviously if it's a major speech, you know, a lot of time and effort has to go into that. The president doesn't have time to do that all himself and still run the country.
NNAMDIBefore the Democratic National Convention back in 2004, Barack Obama was a young senator, hardly recognized outside the State of Illinois, a young state senator. Now, he's president for a second term. Let's go back to the speech that launched President Obama from obscurity to national recognition.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMAIt's the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs, the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores, the hope of a young, naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta, the hope of a mill worker's son who dares to defy the odds, the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him too. Hope, hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope, in the end that is God's greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation, a belief in things not seen, a belief that there are better days ahead.
NNAMDIPaul, thinking as a speechwriter, by the way, do we have any idea who actually wrote that speech?
ORZULAKI think the president wrote a lot of that himself. He had his -- he had a few young guys that wrote it with him, but that was him.
NNAMDIWhat is it about that speech that was so effective in catapulting him to the national stage?
ORZULAKWell, first, it's a beautiful speech and just listening to it now, having heard it umpteen times, I still get chills. We still get chills. We're still inspired by the message. But Barack Obama came along at a time when America had gone through what was really a sort of anti-rhetorical age.
ORZULAKMost of the '90s, most of the presidency of George W. Bush, there wasn't a sort of emphasis on great speeches or speech moments that we associate with great speakers of the past. Barack Obama comes out of a different tradition.
ORZULAKHe is his own best writer. With President Clinton, we used to joke that we were all united in the delusion that we could do a better job than he could do himself if he had the time. President Obama took the time and anybody that's read his books knows that he is that naturally eloquent. And it was just the right moment, the right message for a time in a way that people hadn't heard in many years, probably since the 1960s in those cadences, those classic, very sort of out of a preacher tradition, that beautiful language. So it connected on a lot of different levels.
NNAMDIWell, he's continually used speeches to get out of jams. Just yesterday, the president went back to the campaign trail and spoke to automotive workers in Michigan about his plan to avoid the fiscal cliff. Do speeches still fit into his bag of tricks? Can he still use them at this point in his career?
ORZULAKVery much so. His real power came in the way that he defined the American narrative when he was a senator. Early on, as a presidential candidate, if you go back and read the speech that he delivered at Knox College in Illinois when he delivered the commencement address there, it was the way that he described the story of America and the work that we still had to do and he fit his plans into that seen mostly when he ran for president.
ORZULAKAs president, that begins to work against you because your record rises to the fore and part of the reason we didn't see -- where his convention speech and some of his language on the campaign were more muted was because he was being held to a different standard.
ORZULAKI think in his victory remarks we saw that same old Obama, the speech he's been bursting to give for four years. But there are moments when the eloquence of a president can help define the moment in history for the nation, for the people, for his programs and it's absolutely, essentially, a part of the way the presidents command the bully pulpit.
NNAMDIAnd Mary Kate Cary, a lot of time when presidents make speeches, they're really making an argument and they want to make the argument in the view of the speechwriter, not in your voice, but in their own voice. How do you help your client find his -- or the person you're writing a speech for, find his or her own voice?
CARYWell, one of my rules is to take any given speech, if I can put my hand over the top of the speech where it says prepared remarks, Kojo Nnamdi, Washington, D.C. 2012, if I can read that speech and figure it out on my own. Where you were? What was going on in the world? Who you were speaking to?
CARYThings like that. Then that's a good speech in my book, because you've captured a moment in time and you've captured that person's voice and you've made it a speech that no one else in the world could possibly give. If a speech is full of platitudes, anybody can give it.
CARYAnd so when I sit with a client, I start with, you know, what are the three things you want to get across to this audience? And whether it's to get off the couch and vote or give money, volunteer your time, whatever it is and then we start figuring out how to make this an argument that only that person could give at that time and place.
NNAMDIHow did you get inside the head, for instance, of George H.W. Bush when you were writing magazine articles under his byline?
CARYSo my first job at the White House, I was a former journalist, was to write these things under his byline for various magazines like "Why I love Country Music by George Bush" or "Why I Hate Broccoli" for the broccoli growers magazine, you know, by George Bush.
CARYAnd this was before email or any sort of thing like that. So I would write a little questionnaire up. Dear Sir, you know, what is your favorite country music song and why do you think you need to get your job back in your whatever? So I would take these country music songs, for example, and ask him all about them and I would do it on an IBM Selectric and send it through the inter-office buck slip system.
CARYHe would sit on Air force One and fill in the questionnaire and send it back and I would come up with some sort of article for these magazines and it taught me how to sort of write in his voice, make it sound like George Bush was speaking.
CARYThe only problem is with George Bush, in particular, he doesn't like to use subjects for his sentences. He likes to say, got in the car, drove to Texas, you know that kind of thing. And so if you wrote them in the written word that way every school teacher in the country would send in a complaint about grammar. So I had to write a little differently for the written word, but when he -- it allowed me when I later became a speechwriter for him to go back to that and get back inside his head.
NNAMDIWe're talking about the art of speechwriting. Mary Kate Cary is a former White House speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. She currently writes speeches for political and business leaders. Paul Orzulak is a former speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore and President Bill Clinton among many others. He is a founding partner of West Wing Writers, a Washington-based speechwriting and strategy firm.
NNAMDIRobert Schlesinger is editor at US News and World Report and author of "White House Ghosts: Presidents and their Speechwriters." We're inviting your calls, 800-433-88500. Does knowing that many of your favorite politicians have used the words of someone else change your opinion about them? 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIIf you have any questions about speechwriters for a particular past administration, you may want to call us, 800-433-8850. Robert, you say the mark of a president's leadership is how well he understands the bully pulpit. Can you compare some modern presidents who understood the power of communication to those who may not have quite as well understood it?
SCHLESINGERYeah, absolutely. If you look at some of the modern presidents, and I count them starting after FDR onward, the most effective presidents, FDR, Reagan, I think Clinton, not on the Reagan/FDR level, but certainly would go into the effective presidents category, knew how to use the bully pulpit and knew the importance of communicating with the public.
SCHLESINGERAnd if you look at the flipside, if you look at the presidents who were the least effective and, you know, Gerald Ford who never actually won a national election, Jimmy Carter who didn't win a second term and -- I'm sorry, Mary Kate...
CARYHey, hey, hey, yeah, wait a minute.
SCHLESINGERHere comes 41. They were the ones who didn't understand, didn't understand the importance of public communication, didn't understand how to use their speechwriters most effectively, even as in the case of Mary Kate when they were very good speechwriters.
CARYThe injustice of it all.
NNAMDIPaul, I imagine the process of writing a speech is very different for a president than if you're writing, say, for a mayor, a governor or a council member.
ORZULAKWell, it is and it isn't. There are some things that they all have in common and sometimes we think of speechwriters the same way we think of journalists in that it's our job to find the story, whatever story you're trying to convince or inspire or move somebody.
ORZULAKAnd we run through the same questions as journalists, who, what, when, why and how long and -- to find, you know, what you can say to an audience that's only uniquely you. And earlier, when you said that, how do people feel when they find out that your fair leaders are saying other people's words? Ideally, they're not.
ORZULAKIdeally, the way the process works best is when you get time to ask the questions as journalists do. The magic bullet of our industry is the little digital recorder. We record everything people say. We transcribe it and we use those words and a lot of times we'll
ORZULAKSo an old boss of mine Andrew Cuomo once said that every speech has three parts. It's thoughts, organization and poetry and the most important is organization. As you said earlier you're making an argument, you're not making a speech. So the value that speechwriters bring when you do have the time to spend with the principal is where you can get their ideas in their own words, is how you shape it? How do you make that argument? What's the structure that they're able to hang that on to? Because not everybody likes to read a speech, no two people are the same.
ORZULAKAnd some people like to work from talking points, others just a broad outline. But it's the structure that you make to move it along where they can find their place. And if a speech -- if a speaker sounds like they hired a speechwriter we didn't do our job. It should sound like them.
NNAMDIWell, speaking of sound, Mary Kate, how is the sound different if you're writing a speech for, oh, an inaugural address as opposed to say a State of the Union Speech?
CARYInaugural addresses are really pretty unique. I was only 25 when I was at the White House so I did a lot of, as we call it, Rose Garden rubbish. And like Robert was saying earlier, the Girl Scout of the Year Award, things like that. Over time I got to move up the ladder but I never wrote an inaugural address. Very few speechwriters ever do. It's such a unique and different form.
CARYPeople don't speak in the sort of language that inaugural addresses use. It's not a conversational type of language. You're using much more complicated sentence structures, using a different vocabulary. You're really not using statistics or even stories that you would see in other speeches. The bells and whistles that make a speech really interesting a lot of times are not in inaugural addresses. And I think that's why some of them are not that well remembered.
CARYMost people can remember the story from a speech if there's a good gripping personal story. Inaugural addresses don't really have that. There's a lot of "ask not what you can do for your country" type of stuff, which is one of the few memorable ones. Yeah.
ORZULAKOne of the most memorable, yeah.
NNAMDIHere is Moaz in Hyattsville, Md. Moaz, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MOAZThank you, Kojo, for taking my call. I mean, my question is since the president and others they have speechwriters, how can we get a good reflection about their -- I mean they're intellectual or smart enough -- because we hear them through the speech and we try to form an idea about them. But now they are not them who write the speech so how can we get an idea about their...
NNAMDIIf, Robert, we form our impressions of presidents on the basis of the speeches that we hear them make that are not necessarily written by them, how can we know we're not being duped?
SCHLESINGERWell, it's important to distinguish between a political speech and say a movie script. And it's not like presidents are just -- or politicians are just given something then they go read it. And they're deeply involved in the process of formulating their ideas that are often, as Paul said, their words in terms of origin. But I think it's really important to understand that when a president gives a speech, a president especially but when any politician gives a speech, even if they didn't specifically conjure the magical phrase, they own that speech by virtue of the fact that they are giving it.
SCHLESINGERAnd if you go back to 1961 -- January of 1961, if Ted Sorenson gets on a street corner and says, "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country," someone might say, well that's a nice phrase but no one would remember it. When the president says it he has ownership of it and he puts his authority behind it. And that's why it's his words.
CARYI will say -- I don't want to say that everybody who hires a professional speechwriter is brilliant and is telling the truth all the time and not duping people and things like that. But I will say that the level of person who is in a position to hire a professional speechwriter is usually a pretty successful person and has a lot going for him in terms of great stories, successful cases they can talk about, interesting arguments they can make. Because that's why they are where they are. They're a CEO for a reason or they're the President of the United States for a reason. And it's because they're not duping people, that they're -- they just need some help polishing around the edges.
ORZULAKThere's this notion that from the heart means off the cuff, and it doesn't. You know, it's -- if you're standing in front of the nation, you're standing to make an argument you want to take time to prepare it and to help organize thoughts. But there is a -- there used to be a towel I used to have when I worked in the Senate. If somebody was reading something they hadn't seen versus something that they were actively involved in it's the word a. When people speak, they don't say a street, they say a street.
ORZULAKBut if they're reading it and they say a, there's a good chance that they either didn't see it before they got up to read it or that somebody else wrote it for them. And of course, as Robert said earlier, you know, an average Senator may run around and speak six different times in the course of a day. And if he or she goes to speak on a bill or an amendment on the floor and has two minutes to speak, there's a chance that maybe they didn't see that if it is something that's two minutes long.
NNAMDIWell, we are going to take a short break and we will be back in a minute or so.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call or you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're discussing the art and skill of speechwriting with Robert Schlesinger. He is editor at US News and World Report and the author of the book "White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters." Mary Kate Cary is a former White House Speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush. She currently writes speeches for political and business leaders. And Paul Orzulak is a former speechwriter for Vice-President Al Gore and President Bill Clinton, among many others. He's a founding partner of West Wing Writers, a Washington-based speechwriting and strategy firm.
NNAMDIWe're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Were you ever moved to support someone based on something he or she said in a big speech? Who said it and what did they say, 800-433-8850? We go to Monica in Adams Morgan. Monica, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MONICAHi, good afternoon. I'm actually a grad student of public communication at American University so I think this show is great. My question is, for me, it's very hard to write about something if I'm not passionate about it. So I wanted to find out when you're writing for political people or political persons, do you have to kind of follow their politics in order to be able to write speeches for them? Do you have to find some common ground with them?
NNAMDIOr have you ever written an argument for somebody with whom you fundamentally disagree even about that argument? First you, Mary Kate.
CARYWell, generally in the speechwriting business, Republicans write for Republicans and Democrats write for Democrats for exactly this reason. So the bottom line is you don't want to be in a position where you're trying to persuade others to join a cause that you would not join yourself. But in the business world, you see less and less of that where Democrats and Republicans doesn't matter as much for your clients as long as you fundamentally agree with what they're saying because you want to give them as persuasive argument as you can.
CARYBut you see in the business world, for example, Republicans like me would probably be more apt to be writing for, say, the Chamber of Commerce. And Democrats may be more apt to write for, you know, the Sierra Club or something like that. You go more along -- don't you think, Paul? Is that your experience?
ORZULAKYeah, I think that's true.
CARYYeah, and so it works itself out. I have never agreed to write a speech that I did not agree with the cause involved.
NNAMDIThat would be a heck of a challenge.
CARYThat would be very difficult.
NNAMDIMonica, thank you very much for your call. Some speeches reflect the moment at which they were given more than anything else. Let's listen to a speech that Dwight Eisenhower gave in April of 1953 just after the death of Soviet Dictator Joseph Stalin.
PRESIDENT DWIGHT EISENHOWERWe paid for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We paid for a single destroyer with new homes that could've housed more than 8,000 people. This is, I repeat, the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
PRESIDENT DWIGHT EISENHOWERThese plain and cruel truths define the peril and point to hope that come with the spring of 1953.
NNAMDIRobert, these words reverberated in the early '50s, but they're hardly remembered today as one of the -- part of the greatest speeches in history. Why do you think that this speech was just so effective during that time and why is it not remembered today?
SCHLESINGERIt was so effective because there was -- they were still fairly fresh out of the Second World War and the speech was about we have an opportunity here with the death of Stalin to avoid this path of Cold War that we're going down and to try to come to terms with the Soviets. And I think that was something obviously that reverberated greatly then. And it's not well remembered now but I think it still has a lot of resonance, the notion of the opportunity cost of military spending.
SCHLESINGERAnd, you know, this passage actually made its way onto Facebook and became briefly viral about a year ago. So it's still -- you know, there still is resonance even if it doesn't -- even if it's not remembered among the pantheon of great speeches.
NNAMDISpeaking of speeches that were effective at the moment, Paul, there are variety of speeches given at a convention, such as the Republican or Democratic National Conventions this summer. Speeches are given one right after the other. There would be one that tugged at your heart strings with its eloquence followed by one that interacted with the crowd just to fire up the room. What are some different strategies you use to play to your audience at something like a convention? How do you know when to say what?
ORZULAKWell, you start with a message. What's the message of the entire convention in this case? And we've been involved in Democratic Conventions for a while now. What are we trying to get across all of the speakers? And then what does each speaker uniquely bring to that larger message? And there's a process -- there's what they call a speechwriter boiler room where all the speeches pass through to make sure that first, everyone's speaking in their allotted time and not 20 minutes for a two-minute speech.
ORZULAKBut, you know, that people are telling their stories and accentuating different parts of the overall message. And then to that framework then people bring their individual stories and their experience that only they can bring. So if you have an active management of a conference or a group of speakers -- and this isn't just for political conventions, it's true of shareholder meetings or meetings that you organize around certain issues -- if you know what the message of a convention is then each of your speakers will be slotted to address part of that.
ORZULAKAnd if you bring a management to that process each person can focus on the part that they're uniquely positioned to focus on because of their history, their record, while also bringing their own personal story. So you get a lot of personality but you're reinforcing a central message with each person delivering the part of the message that they're most qualified and most credible to give.
NNAMDISo when Clint Eastwood said that his speech was not vetted before he actually made it, that meant it did not necessarily fall into the pattern that the organizers of the convention wanted for that evening. And you want to have a pattern to every single evening.
ORZULAKNo. I think they actually planned on having the chair tour the United States but the chair wouldn't agree to it, so. No. Actually, I'd read that he came up with that in the Green Room beforehand when he looked across the room and saw an empty chair.
CARYYeah, that's what I...
SCHLESINGERYeah, he told the Bush -- the Romney guy who was running the convention said, you know, so you're going to give the same speech you gave at the fundraisers you appeared at for Romney before, right? And Clinton said -- or Clint Eastwood said, yep, and then asked for a chair apparently.
ORZULAKBut to that point that you made about Eisenhower's speech not resonating today, it's remarkable to go back and read all the inaugural addresses going back to the first one. Joseph Ellis historian once said that the competition for worst ever is a lot harder to pick because there's so much more competition. Every single -- everybody tries to speak to history, but then you read back to -- McKinley, I wrote down a line. He had a line in his inaugural that actually said, the question of international bimetallism will have early and earnest attention.
ORZULAKThat was a line in his inaugural address which means nothing. I don't even know what bimetallism -- what that is. But for that moment in time it had -- there was a big constituency around that issue that he felt like addressing. So a lot of these issues that fall away over time that have no context for us, such as the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin 60 years ago, today we look back and think -- but in the context of the time it's interesting to see what moved people then or didn't move people then.
NNAMDIWell, this one for you, Mary Kate, because I suspect it is more -- it used to be more relevant than it is today. "Does writing take into" -- this is an email -- "does writing take into account teleprompter versus paper?"
CARYOh sure. There was one, for example -- well, a teleprompter, what you do is you're going to write the same speech to start, you know, with the same arguments and all that. But once you know whether the person's going to use speech cards or teleprompter or whatever than the format in which you write it changes so that there are sort of secret signs, I guess you could call them, in a teleprompter. Because the person doesn't have the whole sheet of paper in front of them to know when the pauses and things are coming you can put in marks that say look up, look down, slow down your cadence, speed up, things like that that you would put in a teleprompter that are more like stage cues than anything else.
CARYBut there's also a difference between -- when you're writing -- I had to write a State of the Union response the first year that a woman ever did it. And it was the first year that a governor ever did it from outside of Washington.
NNAMDIWho did it?
CARYIt was Governor Christine Todd Whitman.
NNAMDISure, New Jersey.
CARYIt was 1994 right after the contract with America election in the midterms. And they told me she would be addressing the camera, a single camera in the New Jersey State House in Trenton. And so usually it would be sort of Bob Dole or somebody standing at their desk in the Senate and addressing an empty room just talking to the camera. So this time they said we're going to put her in the State House. It's going to be a little grander but she'll be all by herself and we'll just have a single camera in the middle of the room. And I said, great. So I wrote it with no applause lines, no humor, just a straight appeal to the American people.
CARYWell, I was here in Washington watching it just like everybody else in the country was. She was in Trenton. At the last minute, the Republican Legislature decided it would be a good idea to send some of her top legislative supporters...
CARY...into the room. And she didn't know it. And so these guys were all sitting there, she starts the speech. She assumes they're going to sit in silence and she says, hi, my name's Christine Todd Whitman and I’m here from Trenton. Well, the whole place goes nuts. She looked like she was going to jump out of her skin. I jumped out of my skin because I couldn't see who they were.
ORZULAKBack in Washington.
CARYI said, what is going on? If I had known there was going to be a peanut gallery, I would've written a completely different speech. So teleprompter speeches tend to have their own problems if you're only going to be speaking to a camera, which is not always the case. The president uses a teleprompter in front of crowds all the time. So just, you know, there's a lot of factors like that. It changes the format, not so much the message.
ORZULAKWell, you can also have an effect in the middle of a speech too if you need to speed somebody up. My partner Jeff Nussbaum tells a great story. He wrote for the vice-president and in the -- during the last convention. For the president to go live at 10:00 the vice-president had to speak for an exact amount of time. And this was the first around. And...
NNAMDIThis would be Vice-President Biden you're talking about.
ORZULAKVice-President Biden and...
NNAMDIAn exact amount of time.
ORZULAKRight. And they had prepared...
CARYGood luck with that.
ORZULAK...they had prepared it and. you know, they practiced it. And, of course, but if you get up in front of an audience it happens, you know, you go longer, the applause is longer and everything else. So they realized that he needed to be off the air in I think two minutes and he still had seven or eight minutes left in his talk. So they were -- and there are two prompters, the one you read from and then the one that you can sub in. And they were rushing ahead to see where they could pare back because you're reading. And Jeff felt a hand on his shoulder say, you got this right? And he said, yeah, yeah, I got it, thinking it was a staff person. He looked behind him and it was President Obama.
ORZULAKThe highest pressure moment of his career but...
CARYHis career flashed before his eyes.
ORZULAK...you can't do -- if somebody had -- you know, but if somebody had paper, you know, you do this for a cut sign to the throat. But that doesn't necessarily go to national television, I'll tell you.
CARYAnd in conclusion, right?
NNAMDIOn to the telephones, here's Curt in Alexandria, Va. Curt, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CURTHi. I was wondering, the only real window with that is kind of the operational world of political speechwriting was fictional in the "West Wing" so I'm wondering when you saw these shows featuring the White House Communications Department, were there things that made you cringe or things you felt Portman got wrong or left out?
ORZULAKWell, if I could speak. The "West Wing" actually had former staffers from the Clinton White House who assisted in the preparation of scripts to make sure it was as realistic as it could be. And we always joke our young associates, they all became of age on the "West Wing," much more than actual politics. We called it the "West Wing" Generation. And just a few weeks ago, there was a story that the new legislatures in Myanmar were learning about democracy by watching back episodes of the "West Wing" because they so ably addressed issues.
ORZULAKBut some movies, "Dave" or "The American President," because they wrap it in such, you know, gauzy views of the country, it's fun to watch, but it's not always the hustle and bustle that you see. I think the "West Wing" was a little bit -- it was sort of on steroids. It's not quite that much.
CARYWell, I wish my coworkers looked like Rob Lowe. Sorry guys, if anybody's listening. And...
NNAMDIYou know they are. You're in trouble when you get back. Curt, thank you for your call. Robert, from FDR through LBJ speechwriters doubled as policymakers. Onto Jimmy Carter and President Regan, however, there was a separation of roles apparently when senior staff members angrily accused speechwriters of forming policy when they should have been communicating it. Nowadays it's somewhat in the middle with senior aids taking part in the process and speechwriters having expertise in a certain area of policy. Talk about that.
SCHLESINGERYeah, there would be these tremendous fights behind the scenes in the Reagan Administration whereas you said the senior policy guys would be angrily accusing the speechwriters of trying to make policy and the speechwriters in the Reagan White House tended to very much sort of pure Reaganite conservatives, and they would try to put things in speeches that Ronald Reagan would say and would be very authentic to Ronald Reagan, and the senior staff tended to be more centrist, and they'd say, wait a second, the president can't say Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.
SCHLESINGERThat would be terrible. We'll offend our new friends, the Russians. And each and every one of the Reagan -- the famous Reagan speeches, the lines we think of, there was some sort of fight going on behind the scenes about whether it would actually get in. But it has kind of -- it got a little worse, again, not to pick on your boss, Mary Kate.
CARYOkay. Be careful here.
SCHLESINGERYou know, and there were memos in the Bush 41 library of speechwriters saying we don't have enough passes to the west wing. We're missing meetings because we can't get over to the west wing.
CARYThat is true.
SCHLESINGERBut then it started to swing back under Clinton and Bush 43 and Obama where there's more much of an integration and the separation is not at stark.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones again. This time to Dan Van Haften in Batavia, Illinois. Dan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BILLYes, Kojo. I wanted to mention -- there was a discussion earlier about the importance of structure and organization. A couple years ago my co-author and I released a book that discussed the structure Abraham Lincoln used for his speeches starting in 1854. And his speeches are constructed based on the six elements of Euclidian proposition. And just recently when the book came out, it's "Abraham Lincoln and the Structure of Reason," and it shows how starting in 1854, including the House divided Gettysburg Address, Cooper Union, first and second inaugural, he uses this structure.
BILLWell, we got a copy of the book to President Obama in the end of 2010, right after the book came out. And our second book show how President Obama is using the structure of Abraham Lincoln's speeches for his speeches, started with the Gabrielle Gifford speech in January 2011. And it's a wonderful structure.
NNAMDIWell, I'm glad you mentioned structure, because I was thinking about something slightly different, Paul. If you're one of the millions who watched Daniel Day Lewis's portrayal of President Lincoln, you probably couldn't help but notice that he spoke in a kind of a higher pitch.
ORZULAKA falsetto. Yeah.
NNAMDIAre there things like pitch and tone in addition to structure, Paul, that you have to take into account when you're writing for others?
ORZULAKSure. Sure. And again, if you do your work ahead of time, and you have time to spend with them, you get the way they tell stories, the way they sound to put into a speech, you know. But it's hard -- nobody knows what Abraham Lincoln sounded like, but I -- knowing Daniel Day Lewis, that's probably what he sounded like. And it's funny when you hear a speech of Teddy Roosevelt, it's sometimes hard to take seriously because he has this incredibly high -- very, very high falsetto voice that it's unexpected knowing what you know about him.
ORZULAKBut, you know, in terms of voice and finding voice, you know, I'll see you that and raise you Monroe's motivated sequence which is this other, you know, 1930s Purdue professor who came up with a classic structure for how you move a speech along, and it's five parts. You introduce yourself to the audience, you define the problem, you define the solution, you paint your vision of what the solution will look like if you follow your path, and then there's a call to action. I've been a speechwriter for 22 years, and I just learned that about a month ago. So I...
CARYWorks for me.
ORZULAK...heard of that, but it is interesting, and I think, you know, the one thing that Ted Sorenson said that he found reading Abraham Lincoln speeches is that he delivered big ideas using short words. And it's one of the rules they had in the Kennedy White House where if you can say it in two paragraphs, don't use three. If you can say it -- in one syllable. If you can say it in one syllable, don't say it in two.
ORZULAKBut it's, you know, get to the point. It's what all those 19th century generals did so well that were president, really short answers, really short sentences that -- as opposed to John Adams, who in his inaugural address had a 782 word sentence that went….
ORZULAK...three-quarters of a page.
NNAMDIDan Van Haften, thank you very much for your call. We're going to take a -- 782-word sentence? We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation on the art and skill of speechwriting. We have a few callers on the line. Stay on the line, we'll try to get to your call. If the lines are busy, you can go to our website, kojoshow.org, or send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about the art and skill of speechwriting with Paul Orzulak. He is a former speech writer for Vice President Al Gore and President Bill Clinton. He's a founding partner of West Wing Writers, a Washington-based speechwriting and strategy firm. Robert Schleisinger is editor at U.S. News and World Report, and author of the book "White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters."
NNAMDIAnd Mary Kate Cary is a former White House speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. She currently writes speeches for political and business leaders. Mary Kate and Paul, you taught a class together at American University just the other week. What kind of tips did you give to your students on making a speech memorable?
ORZULAKWell, it's -- there are big structural tips that we always think are the most profound things, but then there are these simple tips that people that prepare speeches every day, or talking points every day, always come up to us and say that was the most useful thing. And there's a short list. How fast do people talk? A slow speaker speaks a hundred words a minute, average is 130 to 140 words a minute, fast is 160 or more.
ORZULAKSo if somebody says I have to speak for 15 minutes, gauge how fast your boss speaks, do the math, and that's how long it should be to fit in the time. Don't have copy if you're not using a teleprompter. Don't have copy run below three-quarters of the page because at the podium, your head goes down too far to read that far down, you know. Make sure that your boss can read the type font.
ORZULAKI had a boss who refused to wear his glasses at the podium, and he also refused to deliver speeches more than 15 pages long. So I not only had to put it in 40 point type, I had to become a magician with margins to make everything fit. But you have to do that. And then...
NNAMDIOh, vanity, vanity.
ORZULAKAnd how do you find information to start? How do you start? Well, who's the audience? What's unique to them? Is there something unique about the location that you can start the speech with? Did something happen this day in history, or an anniversary, best of all, that you can cling to paint a broader picture. Because to me, speechwriting is about storytelling, and as long as you can bring authentic stories to things -- when President Clinton left the White House, we did some work with him or a while, and somebody asked him to give a speech on his advice for speeches.
ORZULAKAnd we thought, he doesn't give these, his advice was just talk to people, don't give a speech. But we wrote in a bunch of stories and then realized that they wouldn't mean anything to him, because they have to be stories that are authentic to him, that happened to him, or he's not going to relate. He won't be able to tell them. But if they're your stories, anybody can tell them without a script. So it's getting to know the person, what can they uniquely say.
NNAMDIWell, when you craft a speech, how much time do you time do you typically spend discussing the delivery style of the speech with the person who's about to give it. Let's listen to a snippet of this rather colorful speech that former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm gave at this year's Democratic National Convention.
GOVERNOR JENNIFER GRANHOLMWhen Mitt Romney did say let Detroit go bankrupt, who took the wheel? Barack Obama. When America was losing 750,000 jobs per month, who gave us a lift? Barack Obama. When American markets broke down, who jump started our engine? Barack Obama. And when America needed it most, who got us rolling again on the road to recovery? America, we need to rev up our engines in your car, and on your ballot, the D is for drive forward, the R is for reverse. In this election we are driving forward not back. Let's re-elect our great President Barack Obama.
ORZULAKMary Kate's having a seizure over here.
NNAMDIWe had a lot of fun with that. We had a lot of fun with it. When you hear a speech like that, how much of the delivery do you imagine is purely the speaker living in the moment, and how much of it do you imagine is a speechwriter or two saying, maybe you should try going for this kind of vibe?
CARYWell, I tend to write the speech assuming the worst, and so I don't put in a lot of exclamation points ever. I don't use them at all, because the power of the language should convey the argument. But in a situation like that, Jennifer Granholm, I have to say, that actually came across much better on radio than it did on TV. When I watched her that night on TV, I could not -- I wasn't listening at all to her arguments. I was completely distracted by the crazy look in her eyes, and she had that sudden southern accent even though she's from Michigan.
SCHLESINGERNo. She's born in Canada too.
CARYOh, and she's born in Canada.
SCHLESINGERAnd with a south accent.
CARYSouthern Canada. And I just thought she was too hot for TV. I thought it negated the power of the speech. I couldn't tell you one thing she had said, and I just heard it now again and it started coming back to me. But I couldn't have quoted a thing she said because her style was so memorable, not her words.
NNAMDII wonder when someone is working on a speechwriting team, Robert, how important is it to keep the focus on the person delivering the speech rather than on those helping to write it? I'm recalling an article from the Atlantic magazine a few years ago when some of George W. Bush's speechwriters vented about the attention that Michael Gerson was getting during that administration. Has that happened a lot in the past?
SCHLESINGERWell, it's funny -- it's interesting how much this has changed.
NNAMDII'm thinking about how Peggy Noonan got (unintelligible) .
SCHLESINGERAnd a lot of...
NNAMDIPat Buchanan from Richard Nixon's days.
SCHLESINGERAnd, I mean, we know who the speechwriters were, and not solely because of wonderful books like "White House Ghosts."
CARYThat was subtle.
SCHLESINGERYeah. Thank you. Media training at work. But, you know, if you go back to the FDR administration, when FDR's speechwriters' names appeared in a magazine or newspaper article, he used to needle them and they would be just distraught. It would be the worst thing in the world, the notion that the president wasn't writing his own speeches. Now the White House's routinely cooperate with articles about the true speechwriter.
SCHLESINGERAnd the weird thing about the Gerson flack in this Atlantic article, when a couple of his very senior colleagues that he wrote speeches with in a very collegial way -- or at least one of them wrote an article saying that -- complaining about the attention he got, and his response was that I was just the -- I wasn't trying to take anyone's credit, I was just the president's speechwriter.
SCHLESINGERAnd it was almost this meta thing where it's no longer the president on the stage by himself with the ghosts all being behind the curtain. Now it's the president and the chief speechwriter, and the people behind the curtain are sort of the speechwriting staff which, you know, we know is there, but maybe the thought is there's only room for one on the stage when -- or two on the stage when there should be only one.
NNAMDIWell, one of the brightest stars of the Obama team from the very beginning has been Jon Favreau, a speechwriter wunderkind, who sort of became a big part of the Obama legend and even ended up in the celebrity dating and gossip columns. It is a good thing, Paul, or a bad thing when someone on your speechwriting team reaches that kind of celebrity kind of in their own right?
ORZULAKWell, I'm still of the old school that you're a ghostwriter, first and foremost, and that it's not your words, it's his. You know, we always joke about the -- you mentioned "The West Wing" earlier. There's a scene in "The West Wing" after the president delivers a state of the union address where Rob Lowe walks into the room and everybody breaks out in applause and he's treated as the hero of the moment.
ORZULAKContrast that to Michael Waldman who is Michael Waldman who was the president's chief speech writer when we were there. After a state of the union address there was an event in the Roosevelt room where the president introduced him as the person that typed my speech. You know, I mean, there was a recognition that, you know, I do think that people, you know, really effective portrayals like the Rob Lowe's of the world on screen and on television, have glamorized the position to a point where people really do want to know.
ORZULAKAnd somebody as talented as Jon -- Jon Favreau is incredibly talented, remarkably, you know, far, far ahead of his years, that really connect with the president early on, and they can finish his sentences. But the president is still the most elegant writer in the administration. So it's understandable you want to know, but there needs to be a balance. I think that a little more mystery is not a bad thing.
NNAMDIHere is Brianna in Washington. Brianna, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BRIANNAHi Kojo. Thank you for taking my call. I have a question I guess for everyone on the panel. Being professional speechwriters, I guess I'm fascinated by the psychology of it and how much time you dedicate to the psychology of your speeches, and I know the whole point is, you know, you can listen to a two-minute speech, a three-minute speech, or a 30-minute speech, and in the end you have certain take-home points that you want people to remember.
BRIANNAHow many times do you repeat certain words in order to make that happen? What are your buzz words I guess is my general question. What are your buzz words?
NNAMDIBuzz words, Paul?
ORZULAKWell, I think it depends on -- every speaker is different, and some people believe that in order to drive home a theme, you say that same phrase over and over and over again. Thirty-seven times I think somebody counted in a state of the union address when it was about opportunity. It's repeated over and over again. I mean, there's also a school that says that if you can find really memorable stories to drive a point home, and wrap the message inside that story, that conveys a lot longer.
ORZULAKThese professors at Stanford did a study where they had eight students give one-minute speeches each and had the class rate it. The people that were the most eloquent speakers in the moment got the highest grades. Then they showed a 15-minute film to get them thinking about something else, came back and said, okay, now, I want you to write what it is they said. And the most eloquent speakers, nobody could remember what they said.
ORZULAKAnd those that quoted statistics, nobody could remember the statistics, but nearly seven in ten remembered the stories that were told in those. So those are the things that carry and convey, and sometimes it can be overdone. If you repeat a phrase over and over again, that's, you know, you write like people talk, and people don't repeat the same phrase 37 times in a 10-minute conversation unless it's a sports game or something in there you just...
NNAMDIBrianna, thank you for your call. We got an email from someone who says, "Why has no one mentioned the great communicator, President Ronald Reagan's great speech following the challenger disaster? It was a message that consoled a nation sharing together at a time of grief." Peggy Noonan who wrote that speech, a great speechwriter, has gone on to become an important voice in the Republican centrist position.
NNAMDIAllow me to ask the author of the book "White House Ghosts: Presidents and their Speechwriters." Robert?
SCHLESINGERWhy haven't we mentioned it?
SCHLESINGERBecause it just hasn't come up. But it is one of the hallmark speeches of the Reagan administration, and it was, you know, even a speech like that, there was, as I said, behind the scenes fighting, which I talk about in "White House Ghosts," where they wanted to, you know, Peggy Noonan got the great -- the poem by -- I'm blanking on the...
SCHLESINGER"High Flight," exactly. And a top Reagan aide wanted to tweak it so it sounded like the reach out and touch someone jingle from…
ORZULAKTouch the face of God.
SCHLESINGERYeah. The poem talks about reaching out and touching the facing the God, and one of the Reagan administration aides who tried to insert himself into the speechwriting process wanted it to make it reach out and touch someone, which was the jingle from the phone company at that point.
CARYOh, that's awful. I will say that as a speechwriter myself, and, you know, if there's any speechwriters listening to this, that speech taught me to always have a file ready of poems like that or great eulogies, things that will help you -- because most of the time when you're in a situation like that where a tragedy has occurred, you have very little time to right the speech. And even for a regular eulogy for a friend, usually you only have two or three days to pull something together, and it's a good idea to have a file for things like that.
NNAMDIMary Kate Cary is a former White House speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. She currently writes speeches for political and business leaders. Paul Orzulak is a former speech writer for Vice President Al Gore and President Bill Clinton. He's a founding partner of West Wing Writers, and Robert Schleisinger is editor at U.S. News and World Report, and author of "White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters." Thank you for joining us and thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
Kojo talks with author Briana Thomas about her book “Black Broadway In Washington D.C.,” and the District’s rich Black history.
Poet, essayist and editor Kevin Young is the second director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. He joins Kojo to talk about his vision for the museum and how it can help us make sense of this moment in history.
Ms. Woodruff joins us to talk about her successful career in broadcasting, how the field of journalism has changed over the decades and why she chose to make D.C. home.