"Lee Iacocca, outspoken chairman of Chrysler Corp. . . . is looking for a chief speech writer at a salary of up to $90,000 a year." --The Wall Street Journal
"When I did not leave, (John) Ehrlichman looked up. . . . 'Look,' he said . . . 'I've been with Nixon a long time, and I've seen writer and researcher types like you come and go. You'll go where I say you go.' ..." --Richard J. Whalen's "Catch the Falling Flag"
FOR 15 YEARS, beginning with the Nixon for President campaign of 1968, I have written political speeches, working somewhere between the dreams of avarice exemplified by Lee Iacocca's munificence and the harsh realities demonstrated by John Ehrlichman's iron law of political hierarchies.
At once inspired by the vision of that ultimate big payday in the sky, when some baron of industry will offer me obscene amounts of money to write speeches, and humbled by the knowledge that in most political operations, writers are looked upon as flaky at best, I have made my living writing drafts for acceptance speeches, Rose Garden remarks, spontaneous greetings, graduation ceremonies, Arbor Day celebrations, business and industry conventions and enough Lincoln Day dinners to give me a faint resemblance to Raymond Massey.
Fifteen years. Ballplayers with my experience are already retired and making light beer commercials. Yet here I am, still writing introductory remarks, one-liners, nervously checking statistics in the final draft and trying to find just the right quotation for the audience at the 83d Annual Zilch County Republican Clambake.
Of the original five speechwriters to come to the Nixon White House in January 1969, I am the only one still practicing my craft. Pat Buchanan is a nationally-syndicated political columnist. Ray Price has helped Richard Nixon write his books. Bill Safire is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist. Lee Huebner is publisher of the International Herald Tribune.
I alone remain.
Given the well-deserved success of my former colleagues and mentors, it would not be surprising if I wondered now and then if I am a case of arrested development. But far from being dismayed by my fate, I am constantly surprised by the joy of knowing that I have been making a living all these years by doing something I like, serving causes I feel passionately about and living in a city that is endlessly fascinating.
And yet I know that to the more fastidious among us, the idea of actually writing speeches for politicians isn't really respectable. In the 1930s, S.J. Perelman said screen writing was "no worse than playing the piano in a cathouse," and it would seem that some practitioners of my craft feel that way about writing speeches. Aram Bakshian, chief speechwriter at the White House today, has said, "Speechwriting is to writing what Muzak is to music."
A long-standing Irish-American bias against unemployment and 15 years of experience convince me that it is not only unwise but unjust for speechwriters to denigrate this demanding and, I think, necessary part of politics. After writing speeches in three presidential campaigns out of the last four, I believe it is the speechwriter, not the various media consultants, political gurus, hired guns, hangers-on and various and assorted campaign junkies and opportunists, who is the most important staff figure in a presidential campaign, particularly during that critical period from the announcement of the candidacy to the acceptance speech at the convention. The themes and dreams, slogans and one-liners, catch-phrases and political litanies must be there early because they are often all a candidate has.
A president is judged by what he does; a candidate is judged by what he says, and what he says is to a great degree determined by those gnomes chained to their typewriters (or, in some cases today, to their word processors) on the campaign plane or back at headquarters.
As a presidential campaign progresses beyond the convention, the candidate himself -- his personality, his ability to withstand pressure -- becomes the focus of media attention. But in the long pre-convention period it is the myths and visions that guide and inspire the campaign which are important.
If you don't have the rhetoric that fits your political vision by the time you give your acceptance speech, you'll never have it -- and you'll lose.
If I were a Democratic presidential nominee today preparing to run against Ronald Reagan (which God forbid), I would first see to it that I hire the best speechwriters and then go on to other things such as finding out who is going to advance the New Hampshire trip.
Or so it seems to one of those "writer and researcher types" John Ehrlichman looked upon with such derision and contempt. His scorn and the attitude it represents are known to most speechwriters. As Whalen points out in his book, Nixon relied heavily on his group of talented writers up to and including the convention in Miami.
Ray Price provided the deep thinking, Buchanan wrote the hard-hitting political rock 'em, sock 'em pieces and Bill Safire explained complicated subjects in understandable ways. Before he left the campaign, Dick Whalen took on the Herculean task of writing the Vietnam "solution" speeches. The rest of us picked up what was left to do and tried to keep up with the first team, a front-line foursome I am convinced is the best speechwriting group ever assembled by any presidential candidate.
But as the campaign progressed, the writers moved further and further away from the center of action. While I understand that this is a natural process, given the fact that the speechwriters' most important contributions come early in the campaign, in retrospect it seems clear that Nixon would have been better off with Safire, Buchanan, Price and Whelan directly involved in most issues.
By the time we arrived at the White House, the writing staff did not play the major role it had during that early period when Richard Nixon could (and did) proudly point to the group of relatively young idea men and writers who had come over to his side.
"wright ... ME, fr. OE 10 2 wyrhta . . . worker, maker ... " 10 2 From Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary
What is a speechwriter? Despite the title, he is not primarily a writer. He is a wright, Like a wheelwright, he puts together a useful piece of equipment that helps someone get from here to there.
This is why it is useless to compare speechwriting with "real" writing (the "music" of Aram Bakshian). Perhaps the best analogy to speechwriting is not the writing of novels and essays but the writing of screenplays. In each case, the writer has to be willing to sacrifice his deep and often obsessive pride of authorship and be willing to join in a team effort.
A screenwriter has no control over the final product and neither does a speechwriter. And, finally, a screenwriter is paid a more than respectable salary to write words another will bring to life -- the same as a speechwriter. The difference between the two fields is that even the best screenwriter is almost always concerned with entertaining an audience, while political speechwriters are part of a team whose goal is to bring about changes in government or defend values.
Neither screenwriting nor speechwriting is a profession, let alone an art. They are jobs with elements of craftsmanship, looked upon skeptically by those who depend on them and harshly by critics outside the craft. And in each case, everyone connected with the project believes he knows as much about writing as the one paid to do the job.
In the case of speechwriters, I have learned, the non-experts are often right. Political types who couldn't write a coherent paragraph can smell a bad speech draft a mile away and are sadistically eager to tell you so.
There is no room in political speechwriting for the sensitive aesthete who demands that no one touch his finely-honed, highly-polished sentences. A novice speechwriter must face the fact that some squinty-eyed, stubble- beared political pro, dropping cigar ashes all over a first draft, can find political land mines in the third sentence in paragraph 4, whereas the best "real" writer in the world would never dream such an innocuous word or phrase could blow up in the face of the candidate.
Political speechwriting is a cooperative venture -- or should be. This is why it does not appeal to those who think of themselves as real writers. How damaging to the psyche of a real writer it must be to find himself in a typical campaign office, with its dented, rented furniture, blaring television sets, constantly ringing phones and harassed aides.
How demeaning it must seem to be a writer of belles-lettres to find himself arguing with the third cousin of the candidate about a phrase or sentence that appears on page 2 while trying to write page 3 at the same time.
Speechwrights are damned if they do and damned if they don't. For every critic who sees the speechwright as a harmless drudge there is one who sees him as a sinister hired gun, eager to manipulate the English language for pay.
But a good speechwright is neither Uriah Heep, cringing, bowing and scraping before his betters, nor Dr. Victor Frankenstein, creating political monsters out of bits and pieces and scraps of language. As for the charge that speechwrights are amoral hirelings who debase the political process by putting insincere words into the mouth of politicians they care nothing about, the fact is that if speechwrights have any major occupational deformity it is excessive loyalty to the boss and the principles they share with him.
We are not, on the whole, gregarious. There isn't any Speechwrights Union or guild or association. We have no heroes, although in his heart of heart, every speechwright would like to see himself someday as a kind of Ted Sorenson, part writer, part top adviser.
It is a way of making a living not suited to an Oxford Don but there are those of us who love it. There are few thrills greater than hearing words you have written spoken by a political leader whose cause you serve and whose principles you share.
When you hear what you have written (almost always changed to one degree or another by the speaker between the first draft and delivery) actually becoming part of political reality you forget the drafts that were never used and the time you gave the boss incorrect statistics and the media savaged him (and he had a long talk with you).
You forget for a moment that there are times when you would rather be writing for yourself, getting the glory (what there is of it) instead of just getting a salary. But getting a salary doing something you like for someone you admire in order to help principles you share isn't bad either.
In the comic strip, " The Wizard of Id," the little king's speechwriter is -- to quote the tiny tyrant -- an "inebriate rumpot" who drives his majesty bonkers by never meeting deadlines. "Get me Henny Youngman" yelled the king recently, after his speechwriter failed to provide a "warm, sensitice yet electrifying speech on the gross national product" in 10 minutes.
Speechwriters -- teetotallers or otherwise -- recognize the plight of their cartoon brother. Who among us has not had the feeling at one time or another that we have been asked to do the impossible and are not appreciated for our talents? Henny Youngman -- or some other great wright hope -- is always lurking around the corner, ready to provide in a flash what we couldn't pull together all day. But in our heart of hearts, we know we are fortunate to be speechwriters.
Working at this craft offers little fame, few soaring moments of artistic creation and none of the satisfactions other writers may have in knowing that no matter how flawed their work is, it is theirs, A writer gives birth to his work; a speechwriter is in a sense a midwife -- we assist, but only the polho deitician can bring the words into the world.
Yet there is one satisfaction and it is not a small one. Writing -- any kind of writing -- brings you in touch with your imagination, your dreams and memories. Speechwriting enables us to every day use these aspects of our being. How many jobs can be said to offer their practitioners the chance, every day, to take the risk and learn the ecstasy of creating something -- even if it is somthing that will be used or, worse, not used -- by someone else?