Political speechwriters are "masochistic," "frustrated" and the way it was sounding last night something mothers might pray that their offspring won't grow up to be.
Oddly enough, this was the accumulated wisdom from four present and former members of the breed itself "My first piece of advice to anybody who wants to be a speechwriter," said George Elliott III, who wrote for Spiro Agnew (more on that later, he promised, "is -- don't."
Everybody chortled everybody being 150 folks from the Washington Independent Writers group who turned up in an institutional-gold Georgetown Univeristy faculty lounge for a workshop called "Speechwriting in Washington."
They took notes on tricks of the trade, on speechwriting dos and don'ts and on why "Ronald Reagan is the most gifted political communicator since JFK."
Among the don'ts is jargon, otherwise known as bureaucratese. Here's an example from last night's speaker number four, who was congressional speechwriting consultant, Charles Whittier.
"The thrust of his interface impacted the viable parameters of her infrastructure." Chortles from the audience.
"Sounds obscene," said Ervin Duggan, who was speaker number one as well as a former speechwriter for LBJ. Now he writes for Secretary of State Edmund Muskie. Speaker number two was David Gergen, a former speechwriter for Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Now he's a Reagan consultant and last night remarked that "the frustration of writing immortal prose one day and then finding it in a wastebasket the next can be a little much after a while."
But the evening wasn't really so negative. Duggan remarked that speechwriters made steady incomes and "a steady income is not to be sneered at." Then, too, there is "the opportunity to influence events" as well as "fascinating glimpses of life at the policy level."
Whittier provided one of these. There was a certain senator he used to write for, he recounted, and this senator was fond of making lots of points in his speeches. Like 15.
"One day I pointed out to him that God only had 10," Whittier said; "to which he replied. "Well, Wilson had 14'."
A good part of the evening was consumed by anecdotes, although names were generally left out of these because you never know when Senator So-and-So might need another spechwriter Duggan told one about this time he was in Chicago with his own Senator So-and-So, who wasn't such a hot speaker but nonetheless, was about to deliver a speech to a bunch of Jesse Jackson's Operation PUSH people.
It was in a church, and up in the pulpit somebody began introducing the senator as the organ was shimmering and mothers were holding their babies aloft.
"Our speaker today comes from the cockpit of conflict in the nation's CAPITAL!" said the introducer.
"YEAH!" said the audience.
"He is a soldier of freedom who girds up his loins with truth and puts on THE BREASTPLATE OF RIGHTEOUSNESS!" said the introducer.
"YEAH, YEAH!" said the audience.
And then the mothers lifted their babies even higher and the organ screamed, and Senator So-and-So came to the podium, held his speech directly in front of his face and whispered shakily, from the text. "Thank you." "I just about crawled out of the building," said Duggan.
Generally, the four former and present speechwriters last night seemed to enjoy the limelight, since for once, they were delivering what they'd written. Maybe that's why they went on forever, or to be fair, two-plus hours. A highlight of the 120 minutes came when Elliott recalled former vice president Agnew's now-infamous "effete snobs" and "when you've seen one slum you've seen them all" statements.
"He gave just long, dull speeches to which he attached a first paragraph of impudent remarks," said Elliott. "And that's the truth."
Soon after everybody asked questions. Strangely enough, after the comments of the evening, the most popular inquiries were about how to get a job speechwriting. The second most popula questions were political like how do you all size up Reagan, John Anderson and Jimmy Carter as speech givers?
Reagan, as aforementioned, got rave reviews both from Gergen, who's working for him, and Duggan, who's not Anderson, added Gergen, "is being hurt by his style."
As for the president, Duggan said he finds it "absolutely mystifying that Jimmy Carter, who was brought up in the same Southern culture that Martin Luther King was brought up in, could not be a more effective orator."
Whoops, there was one more thing about the evening. General wisdom from the four speechwriters had it that you should always try to end with some terrific, meaningful quote. Elliott was well aware of this as he spoke.
"Anyway," he concluded. "I looked for a really great quote to end this speech."
He looked ashamed, "But I couldn't find one," he said.