Presidential Speechwriters Anticipate a New Era

Posted December 12, 2008 at 5:28pm

Millions of people are expected to descend on Washington in a few weeks to hear President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration speech and get a glimpse of the new president’s vision for the next administration.

But only about 60 members of that vast audience will also be watching with the experience of writing such speeches in the past.

They’re members of the Judson Welliver Society — a bipartisan group of former presidential speechwriters from as far back as the Truman administration — who will be watching the speech closely, ready to discuss it thoroughly at their next meeting.

For more than two decades, the group has met every couple of years to socialize, analyze the work of colleagues and reminisce about the quirks of the presidents for which they worked. The venue has changed since the beginning — from members’ basements to the Motion Picture Association of America to the Washington Post — but attendance remains high.

The lively conversation has covered everything from dealing with flat tires and broken teleprompters to serious struggles in the writing process.

“It’s a funny little seat at the table that the speechwriter has,” said Gordon Stewart, a speechwriter for former President Jimmy Carter and the society’s secretary. “There is a tradition and a difference between administrations as to how this peculiar function of dubious legitimacy operates within the American presidency.”

As a speechwriter, Stewart said he is looking forward to hearing Obama’s inaugural address and expects there will be excitement among many speechwriters to hear what Obama — who has been praised by many for his oratory skills — will say.

Obama’s background as a writer will also make his speeches ripe for examination — not only for rhetorical or auditory devices, but also for a hint of what to expect in his presidency.

“Just by the way he approaches it, he’s going to make the presidential speech a more important part of the dimension of the presidency than we’ve had for a while,” he said. “I think the speech, for Obama, is central to how he develops his thinking.”

Society members such as Ray Price have played a critical role in writing past inauguration speeches. Price helped write both of former President Richard Nixon’s inauguration speeches, the first of which was still being completed hours before Nixon took the oath of office on the steps of the Capitol.

A good inauguration speech is ceremonial but substantive, he said. It celebrates the peaceful transfer of power and is an opportunity to unite the country.

“You want to inspire, you want to lift people up,” he said. “You want to make the country feel good and feel confident about where you’re going.”

Some other illustrious society members won’t have to wait for the next meeting to expound on Obama’s speech. Members such as Chris Matthews (who wrote for Carter), Peggy Noonan (who wrote for former President Ronald Reagan) and William Safire (who wrote for Nixon) are all familiar media commentators.

Safire, in fact, created the club and is known as its president for life. He also came up with the name, dedicating the society to the first man whose official capacity was to write for a president. Judson Welliver was a literary clerk for former President Warren G. Harding.

In an interview, Safire said he was prompted to create it because he thought fellow speechwriters would benefit from each other’s company, experiences and diverse backgrounds.

“We have marvelous recollections from way back and there’s a wonderful feeling the old-timers have when they can sit down and talk to the new writers,” he said. The interactions provide a “warm bipartisan professional feeling.”

Members also find it interesting to learn about differences between administrations. For instance, Price noted that it was verboten for speechwriters to inject their own policies into speeches when he ran the Nixon writing staff. However, he has heard other writers brag about doing it.

Every administration has its own culture, but speechwriters under any president can understand the pressures involved, he added.

Stewart said he can find himself laughing with colleagues he disagrees with on policy, ideology and tactics — some of whom hurled words back and forth at each other during campaigns — because they were all confronted with the same problems at one time or another.

“It’s funny to hear [Nixon speechwriter Pat] Buchanan talk about the same internal struggles that [former President John F. Kennedy speechwriter Ted] Sorensen had — even though that’s the only thing some of us had in common,” Stewart said. He compared the long hours of creating a State of the Union speech with fighting a war or performing a surgery, as all lead to camaraderie among veterans of the craft.

The gatherings also provide an opportunity for new speechwriters to learn from the legends in the field.

Terry Edmonds, a speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton, became a member in 2001 and said he learns something new every time he attends a meeting. Just by showing up, he finds “the kind of history you don’t run into every day,” he said.

Though the atmosphere is generally light and cordial, there have been some heated debates during dramatic political times. During the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal in the Clinton administration, for example, tempers flared at a meeting, Stewart said.

Stephen Hess, a speechwriter for former President Dwight Eisenhower, said he first saw divisiveness in the society during the Clinton years, noting that some Democratic speechwriters praised a speech that he and other former Republican speechwriters considered a dud. “I was really sort of fascinated that we divided as partisans rather than as wordsmiths,” he said.

Nevertheless, the partisan jabs are usually in good fun, Edmonds said. “We’re all has-beens now. There’s no sense in fighting old battles.”

Meetings generally start with a speech by Safire, followed by an induction of any new members. All former presidential speechwriters were usually automatically inducted into the club. However, with the expansion of speechwriting staffs, membership today has been limited to some of the top writers in an administration.

Discussions range from sharing anecdotes to comparing and debating the differences between speechwriting in past administrations and more recent ones. It was a topic that Arthur Schlesinger, a writer for Kennedy, would regularly initiate. He argued that the role of speechwriters has changed from one that encompasses many roles, including developing policy, to one that is primarily about writing speeches, since the number of presidential appearances has increased. Schlesinger also used to stress the importance of anonymity in presidential speechwriting.

Speechwriters from the current administration have also been invited to meetings to discuss their experiences. In some cases, a meeting has been held in conjunction with a major speech. A meeting was initially planned to follow Obama’s inauguration, but it is being pushed to later in the year to allow for Obama’s speechwriting team to become fully formed.

“The speechwriters have got to get a chance to get their feet under the computer and get to know each other and get some stories together, so that when they’re called upon they will have interesting things to say,” Safire said.

Edmonds expects that if Obama’s speechwriters attend, “they’ll be greeted like rock stars. They will get some of the glory, at least among speechwriters,” he said. “We know how hard it is and how arduous a task it is to write for a president.”

The entertaining and enlightening stories shared at meetings inspired Robert Schlesinger, son of Arthur Schlesinger, to write a recent book — “White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters” — which chronicles the history of presidential speechwriting. “Speechwriters have such a wonderful window into that aspect of a president and oftentimes it can be a quite intimate window,” he said. “It struck me that someone should write this stuff down.”

He attended meetings as his father’s guest. Schlesinger, a reporter who also teaches political journalism at Boston University, said he once considered pursuing speechwriting, but decided that he preferred to write under his own name.

Nevertheless, the history of past presidential prose looms over all subsequent speechwriters. Stewart said he often felt humility while writing in the White House, surrounded by portraits of past presidents, particularly one of Abraham Lincoln in the State Dining Room.

“You only wonder what he would have thought of people like me handing him words.”