Speechwriter Aims to Ramp Up the Panache

Posted December 15, 2009 at 3:54pm

The word slick often gets applied to politicians, but career speechwriter and American University adjunct professor Robert Lehrman thinks that many Members of Congress could actually use a little more panache and polish.

“Look at the one-minute [speeches], on the House side,— Lehrman said. “If you think that politicians are slick and smooth, look how dull those politicians are. People get up there, and they’re constantly looking down at their text — and they’re stumbling.—

In his experience, most politicians are “thoughtful and sometimes introspective,— but not always the most effective communicators.

Lehrman hopes to change that with his latest book. “The Political Speechwriter’s Companion: A Guide for Writers and Speakers— is an exhaustive how-to guide crammed full of practical advice on the art of crafting a terrific political speech, from stump speeches to keynote addresses to floor speeches.

Lehrman, a former speechwriter for Democrats such as former Vice President Al Gore and the late Sens. Ed Muskie (Maine) and Lloyd Bentsen (Texas), co-teaches a course on speechwriting — a subject that isn’t found in a lot of college curriculums.

“There are things that you only need to know in politics,— said Lehrman, who has also worked for corporate clients. “The biggest difference for me in doing political work is the contentiousness of it. In politics, you’re always harshly criticizing the other side. You’re talking about the other side in order to rebut it. You are really a much more forceful advocate than you would find in corporate life.—

In addition to his career as a speechwriter, Lehrman has also had a literary career, studying with Kurt Vonnegut at the University of Iowa and penning four novels, including three young adult novels. During his time as a graduate student at Iowa, he had the opportunity to teach a formal rhetoric class despite knowing next to nothing about the subject.

“Someone gave me a rhetoric book and said, ‘Stay one chapter ahead,’— Lehrman said. “It was total coincidence that when I got that assistantship at Iowa that in the book they gave me, that there’s a format for persuasive speech that’s become tremendously popular.— The teaching experience and rhetoric training gave Lehrman the first taste of persuasive writing and technique.

He eventually landed a position on the winning Illinois gubernatorial campaign of Dan Walker (D), and he had his first real introduction to political speechwriting. From there, he worked as a freelancer for then-Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) before moving on to Bentsen’s staff and eventually to the White House to be a wordsmith for Gore.

Today, he wants to pass on his experience. In addition to college and graduate students, Lehrman hopes that staffers on the Hill will take advantage of the book as a resource and as a guide.

“My target audience is the 23-year-olds who are sitting in a House office. And they say, ‘Oh my God, I’ve never done this before’— when asked to write remarks or draft a statement.

But Lehrman also emphasized that “The Political Speechwriter’s Companion— is not just for communications directors and speechwriters. “Their bosses also need to know what they could get out of a writer,— he said. “I wanted a book that [politicians] could read too.—

Early loose-leaf drafts of Lehrman’s book have actually been circulating around the Hill for some time, as many of his former students have graduated and moved into communications or speechwriting positions.

“It was a work in progress. He would bring us pages and he would take our feedback,— recalled Sarah Dohl, who took the class as an undergraduate. Dohl, who has always wanted to be a speechwriter, works for Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) as communications director. “I still have those pages. I look them up.—

“Both the class and the book are great sources for starting a career in speechwriting,— said former student Genevieve Frye, a press assistant for Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). “There are very few internships available that can develop your speechwriting skills.—

Lehrman imparted his enthusiasm along with his knowledge, Dohl noted. “Bob was always one of those teachers who could never remember what time the class ends — because he likes the subject so much.—