By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 14, 2006
Christian D. Brose's rise to the heights of Washington speechwriting could have been scripted in Hollywood.
A year ago, Brose was the most junior speechwriter at the State Department. When Condoleezza Rice was nominated to be secretary of state after the 2004 election, the then-national security adviser summoned the State Department speechwriting team to the White House for a discussion of her confirmation hearings.
The team went over, not sure they would hold their jobs for much longer. To their surprise, they were ushered into the White House situation room. The conversation meandered and seemed uninspired, Rice aides said, until the 25-year-old Brose shyly raised his hand and offered a suggestion that, for Rice, crystallized her foreign policy themes.
"Who is that young red-haired kid?" Rice asked one of her senior advisers, Jim Wilkinson, as they left the room. "Let's keep an eye on him."
A star was born.
Brose, now 26, was recently named Rice's chief speechwriter. He is responsible for many of the major speeches she has delivered around the world to advance the administration's message of spreading democracy, earning the admiration of Rice's top aides.
"Chris can write her voice better than anyone," Wilkinson said. "He's become one of her closest advisers on policy and communications."
Another fan is Elizabeth Cheney, a principal deputy assistant secretary of state and key participant in the administration's democracy campaign. "Speechwriting is one of the hardest jobs in Washington. Chris is one of the best," she said, praising his "mastery of the subject matter" and his "intellectual curiosity."
Rice considers Brose such an asset that she often brings him along when she travels overseas. Former secretary of state Colin L. Powell's speechwriters never traveled with him, in part because the speeches were completed well before departure. But Rice likes Brose at her side so they can work together to shape and sharpen the speeches until right before she delivers them. A speech in Brazil was altered because of a conversation Rice had on the airport tarmac when she landed in Brasilia, and Rice's signature democracy speech, given in Cairo last June, was tweaked to add language Rice had spontaneously used at a news conference a few hours before the speech.
Last week, the night before leaving with Rice on a 10-day swing through Latin America and Asia, Brose said he had not yet shown her the first draft of a speech she is scheduled to deliver tomorrow in Jakarta. He had gotten some ideas and thoughts from Rice and consulted with experts on Southeast Asia at the State Department, but he said the real work would only begin during the long hours of flying.
"She trusts me to do that first draft with the vision she's given me," he said.
Brose is likable and self-effacing, devoid of the self-promotion that often comes with power in Washington. A former collegiate swimmer and avid bicyclist, the lanky Brose still says that "one of my best jobs" was being a bike messenger because he could tool around on his wheels 10 hours a day. He still bikes to work from the apartment in Adams Morgan that he shares with his wife, Molly, a painter and jewelry designer. Brose often writes Rice's speeches in his wife's studio, "with a pot of coffee at 2 a.m."
Brose was a political science major in college -- what he calls a "Plato-to-NATO education." He became interested in making his mark in Washington after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He was hired as an editor at a couple of serious policy journals and then applied for a job as one of Powell's speechwriters in 2004, after one of his bosses had made the move to the State Department. He thought he had little chance of being hired. "I basically got lucky," he said.
The first day he walked into the main lobby of the State Department and looked up at the flags of nearly every nation, Brose recalled, "it was intimidating but thrilling at the same time."
Brose said one of his aims in Rice's speeches is to connect her life story -- growing up black in a segregated South -- with the struggle to build democracy in faraway lands. Rice's recounting of the difficulties African Americans have faced in gaining a voice in U.S. society seems to strike a chord with audiences here and abroad, in part because it adds a note of humility to a democracy project that many overseas view warily.
Earlier this year, in a speech at Georgetown University, Rice noted that there is a portrait of Thomas Jefferson -- the first secretary of state -- "that looks direct at me when I am speaking to those foreign ministers, and I wonder sometimes, 'What would Mr. Jefferson have thought? . . . What would he have thought about America's pursuit of the democratic enterprise on behalf of the peoples of the world? What would he have thought that my ancestors, who were three-fifths of a man in his constitution, would produce a secretary of state who would carry out that mission?' "
Rice's speech in Cairo last June stands as one of the defining moments of her tenure. It was the first time a secretary of state had gone to the Middle East and demanded that the region's autocrats open up their political systems. Rice began working on Brose's first draft shortly after the plane took off from Andrews Air Force Base. Her aides squeezed into her cabin on the Boeing 757 and spent two hours going over it word by word. Brose then produced two new drafts each day, until the speech was given three days later.
Brose said Rice encourages him to be "forward-leaning," and so he pushes as hard as he can. "My rule of thumb is let them take it out." he said. "I want to get the secretary out as far out on a limb as possible. Otherwise you will end up with oatmeal."
In this case, Brose would have had Rice publicly name three Saudi dissidents who were jailed after they petitioned the monarchy to adopt a constitutional system, prompting one career State Department official to ask if the administration wanted $11-a-gallon gasoline. The names were removed, but Rice raised the issue in her speech, saying such actions "should not be a crime in any country." The Saudis were annoyed, but one of King Abdullah's first acts after being crowned in August was to pardon the men.
Brose likens speech writing to alpine skiing. "If you are lucky, it looks pretty in the end," he said -- "the viewers don't see the falls and the endless hours."