You don’t need to be a policy wonk to be a succesful political speechwriter, according to four former presidential speechwriters who previewed President Obama's State of the Union address and analyzed the art of speechwriting at a panel discussion on Tuesday.
President Bill Clinton’s former speechwriters Don Baer and Jeff Shesol, President George W. Bush’s former speechwriter John McConnell and President Obama’s former speechwriter Adam Frankel spoke at an event hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. Their preference when it came to writing big speeches: leave the policy to the policy guys in favor of figuring out what it was the president wanted to say.
“Speechwriting’s gotten to be a little bit like method acting in that you’re trying to kind of get in character,” Shesol said. “And that doesn’t mean that you sort of change the way that you walk and start talking in an accent as you mutter your way around your office, but it does mean that you have to sort of hear the voice in your head.”
During the first draft of the speechwriting process, Shesol said, you begin to get an intuitive sense of whether or not it’s even something the president could say.
“The fact is, when you’re a speechwriter at the White House, you’re working for a man who gives 500 or more speeches a year, and if you sat down every time and said, ‘Alright, a great historic moment has arrived, and we are now going to seize that historic moment and define it and speak to the ages’—I mean you really don’t think that way as a speechwriter,” McConnell said. “You sit down and say, ‘What is the purpose of this event? What does the president need to do? Why is the president going to be there? And why did he accept the invitation to be there? It’s very practical.”
In the digital age, where good lines can go viral, it’s easy to get caught up with sound bites. But Frankel advised speechwriters to avoid that temptation and focus on the speech as a whole, much like Ted Sorensen did while working on John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address.
“They just wrote a great speech with a lot of punchy lines in it, and that one captured the ethic of the administration,” he said. “When you sit down and try and think of a punchy sound bite often it doesn’t last.”
As for politicians who like to improvise—like Clinton—a clear speech structure is key to help them find their way back once they’re done ad-libbing.
“We always knew the he could manage it,” said Baer, who often helped the teleprompter operator stay on pace with Clinton backstage, when he opted to play to the crowd.
“We would write the speeches with the understanding that President Clinton was going to leave the page at some point and find his way back in,” Shesol said. “So you would write a speech with a really clearly delineated structure that the president, if he hadn’t had much time to review the speech, could always know where he was.”