Still Editing? A Few Words of Advice.

By Russell L. Riley
Sunday, January 18, 2009

Barack Obama is surely one of the finest orators ever to appear on the American political stage. But no speech in his past has carried the weight -- and the expectations -- of a presidential inaugural address. In oral history interviews conducted at the University of Virginia, former presidential speechwriters -- both Democrats and Republicans -- have reflected on the challenges of crafting, and delivering, the right words at this historic moment. Here are their tips for the president-elect.

1. Don't knock the outgoing guy. Richard M. Nixon's chief speechwriter, Ray Price, recalled that, as he prepared to succeed Lyndon B. Johnson in 1969, Nixon read all the previous addresses. "One comment he made to me was, 'It's important not to kick the predecessor,' as he thought Kennedy had done to Eisenhower in saying, 'A torch has been passed to a new generation,' " Price said. "He wanted to be very careful that he did not insult Johnson in any way." Price concluded that the inauguration is a time to give voice to what Lincoln called our "better angels." But the fact that Eisenhower (or perhaps Nixon) took offense at JFK's Olympic metaphor is evidence of how sensitive to slight an outgoing administration can be. Jimmy Carter wanted to leave no room for doubt on this score, devoting the very first words of his address to honoring Gerald Ford, whom he had defeated in a bitter contest in 1976. "For myself and for our nation, I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land," Carter said.

2. Anticipate the sounds of silence. Great politicians have a finely honed ability to engage an audience from the stump. Bill Clinton delivered speeches that even his own writers said sometimes looked flat on the page but which he could elevate through his natural ability at improvising. Obama's talents for working a crowd are already legendary. But this skill is all but useless at the inauguration because of the size of the "room." Don Baer, a Clinton speechwriter, noted that the inaugural address "is delivered in a big open-air setting, as large . . . as any human being ever speaks at." And the crowd is unusually distant from the speaker. So "the impact of the words is very different. You don't get applause. These are politicians, after all. They are used to speaking to large crowds of people who give them back the love." Yet the setting makes this virtually impossible. Moreover, said Ken Khachigian, a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, "It's cold, so everybody is wearing gloves. When they clap, it's always muffled." Thus, on an occasion of high historical drama, the incoming president is almost completely deprived of the kind of audience feedback that speakers rely on to refine, in the moment, the music of their prose.

3. Beware the staple marks. One of the unavoidable hazards of putting together something as momentous as an inaugural address is the vast army of partisan wordsmiths who will want a piece of the action. Standard procedure for the president-elect is to cast a wide net and invite contributions from a large number of would-be speechwriters, partly to soothe delicate egos but also in hopes of finding some gems to include in a basic speech drafted by an inner circle. (For example, Price was the outside source for one of the most memorable lines of Ronald Reagan's first inaugural, when he said that government "is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.")

The danger in this process is that it can produce so many good ideas that it swamps the coherence of the speech. Republican speechwriter Aram Bakshian Jr. claims that Nixon's second inaugural suffered precisely this fate. "Unfortunately, Nixon saw some lines here and there that he liked from other speeches," Bakshian said, making his "a roller coaster speech with staple marks where you could almost . . . identify things that had been pasted in from other drafts . . . . I remember thinking, did someone drop that in by mistake? Did the cleaning lady forget to sweep up?"

4. Take no for an answer. Patrick Anderson recounted that Jimmy Carter wanted to open his 1977 inaugural address with a biblical quote: "If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land." Anderson encouraged Carter to stick with an opening from the Bible but strongly objected to using a passage suggesting that the people who had just elected him, and whose fundamental goodness had been central to his campaign rhetoric, were evil. The president-elect initially defended his choice, arguing with Anderson about original sin. But he ultimately relented when other senior advisers also voiced concerns about how the quote would be interpreted. Sometimes the greatest service a speechwriter can perform is to help the president overcome his own blind spots.

5. Consider the power of nonverbal symbolism. On some memorable occasions, the words of the inaugural address have been punctuated by creative physical symbolism. Carter's commitment to ending the imperial presidency of the Nixon years was underscored by his decision to get out of his car on the inaugural parade route to walk the last few blocks to the White House. This act was remembered long after the words of his address were forgotten. And Reagan's inaugural team took the extraordinary step of moving the entire swearing-in ceremony from the traditional east front of the Capitol to the west side -- partly to reinforce Reagan's own Western roots but also because the vistas on the western side are more photogenic and evocative of greatness. To the west, the monuments to Washington and Lincoln provided mute reminders of the possibilities of presidential leadership.

Of course, it may be in the area of nonverbal symbolism that Obama completely trumps even his most accomplished predecessors -- simply because of who he is. Just the image of him -- the first African American to ascend to the presidency, standing there with his right hand held aloft, his left resting on Abraham Lincoln's Bible -- will send a message beyond the powers of any speechwriter to put into words.

rlr2p@eservices.virginia.edu

Russell L. Riley is chairman of the Presidential Oral History Program at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs.


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