The Writing Life

Ted Widmer on writing speeches for presidents.

By Ted Widmer
Sunday, June 20, 2010

In 1948, James R. Masterson and Wendell Brooks Phillips published a satire of Washington writing called "Federal Prose." The verdict, as you might imagine, was not positive. Here is how they translated "too many cooks spoil the broth" into federalese: "Undue multiplicity of personnel assigned either concurrently or consecutively to a single function involves deterioration of quality in the resultant product as compared with the product of the labor of an exact sufficiency of personnel."

It's a joke painfully familiar to anyone who has worked here. Yet the government, under rare circumstances, actually can turn people into better writers. Where else do you learn accuracy, speed and an ability to type rapidly over a loud din -- usually the sound of people yelling at you? Those skills are not taught at writerly retreats like Yaddo or the MacDowell colony, but they proved to be essential during my four years of presidential speechwriting.

Having come from the academic world, possibly the only profession that encourages worse writing, I had little experience in writing on deadline, and even less experience in getting a response. So the chance to join the federal government represented a remarkable uptick in activity, to cite one of many expressions I learned to speak in the language of Washington. Like most dialects, it separates insiders from outsiders. When I arrived, the unfamiliar acronyms of foreign policy sounded like something out of a Don Martin cartoon, and it took time before I could distinguish between UCK (Kosovo Liberation Army), PUK (Kurds), FARC (Colombian rebels) and SLORC (Burma's regime). A decade later, I'm still not entirely sure what SNOG does (the Senate NATO Observer Group).

But what an education it turned out to be. I was lucky to be part of a superb team of writers who instructed me in the finer points of the occult science (when citing a list of objectives, for instance, three is a better number than two or four). And to work for a presidential Editor-in-Chief who always made a speech better, often by completely disregarding prepared text and speaking the way they did it back home. More speeches than I can remember were de-wonkified by President Clinton's folksy anecdotes about turtles on fence posts, turnip trucks and other glimpses of life beyond the beltway. You always knew -- no one more acutely than the speechwriter -- that the speech was about to get better when he looked up and spoke off the cuff.

The more I learned about speechwriting, the more I realized that it was nothing like other forms of writing. Most literary expression is intensely personal; speechwriting is, by definition, anonymous. It is also a deeply collective enterprise, in which many people join together to say something well. The writer becomes a bit of a journalist, interviewing dozens of specialists, gathering information and then sifting it before putting pencil to paper. A rudimentary form of e-mail allowed early drafts to be circulated and then to work their way up the chain of command, with liposuction and blemish-removal performed at every stage. The sharpest editing was done at the top. Every word spoken by a president becomes the official policy of the United States, so there is no room for a lazy adjective. Or, God forbid, a mistake.

In some ways, you could not imagine a worse environment for creative output. We had pagers that functioned as cattle prods, stunning us into prolixity. Whatever words we generated were government property, and we had to leave our hard drives in our office safes. Late at night, the infinite hallways of the Old Executive Office Building resembled the hotel in "The Shining," with room after room devoted to inscrutable government functions and odd apparitions like jogging Marines (hoo-ah!). Most cubicles were tiny in width and length, but extremely generous in height because ceilings are so tall in that old building. When writer's block struck, you could spend a long time looking straight up in the air.

On travel abroad with the president, conditions were even worse. To prevent surveillance, the Secret Service spread brown paper over our hotel windows, erected writer's tents within the rooms (don't ask), and hung loudspeakers that blared dated classic rock. I once tried to crank out a speech while an endless loop of Supertramp played at ear-splitting volume. Top that, Yaddo! It took real focus to avoid writing, "May the people of Northern Ireland take the long way home to peace and prosperity." Some physical agility was required as well. It's not easy to tap a peroration into a laptop inside a speeding motorcade, hitting every pothole in Bangladesh. Or to be in the tiny writer's office on Air Force One, hurriedly printing out a final version of a speech as the plane lands, and notice that there are no seatbelts. (Is there a secret eject button if the speech is subpar?)

But in other ways, it was the best writing school I could have asked for. Turnaround was rapid, everything got published, and those words had an instant impact. For a historian, it was exciting to venture into a form of writing that not only allowed but demanded a dialogue with the past. I reveled in the chance to read old presidential speeches. They are everywhere in Washington -- chiseled into walls, emblazoned on T-shirts and lovingly gathered in the various libraries I haunted in those pre-Wikipedia days.

Like my fellow writers, I prayed to the household gods of our profession: speechwriters who had gone before, like Ted Sorensen, Sam Rosenman and Robert Sherwood; and vigilantes against government double-talk, like George Orwell and Walter Lippmann. From them we learned that each speech builds on the scaffolding erected by earlier wordsmiths, going all the way back to 1776.

One day, stuck inside a poorly written draft with no exit strategy, I went for a walk to the Library of Congress and was gratified to see an early draft of the Declaration of Independence, full of Jefferson's insertions, deletions and all the inkblots of a frustrated writer. You could almost feel him wrestling those words into existence and, by extension, the nation itself. It probably helped that he did not have Supertramp to contend with.

One moonlit night, during the Civil War, Walt Whitman was struck by the beauty of the president's house, "the White House of future poems." He had no idea that so many writers -- some of them even poets (Archibald MacLeish) -- would find employment there. Most were decidedly less illustrious: nameless prose stylists, cranking out the words by which we live, now and then stumbling on a bit of inspiration. Speechwriting has plenty of pitfalls, but in a solipsistic world that expects our writers to dish endlessly about themselves, it can be rewarding to write quietly for a larger cause. Now and then, too many cooks actually improve the broth.

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