As a political speechwriter, I’m asked one question more than any other: Do you ever have to draft words with which you disagree?
It’s a fair curiosity. No two people see eye-to-eye 100 percent of the time, so ghostwriters and the speakers they serve might experience some dissonance once in a while. But I’ve been fortunate. I’ve believed in every leader I wrote for in the White House, State Department and Senate, and never was asked to promote a policy that contradicted my conscience or violated my values.
With one exception: Last October, I helped President Obama honor the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. And I hate the Pittsburgh Penguins.
I’m a lifelong Capitals fan, raised on long drives to Landover and long offseasons. I revere Rod Langway, Steve Konowalchuk and Nicklas Backstrom, and believe goalie masks peaked with Donnie Beaupre’s. At the grocery store, I can’t pass the biscuits, peanut butter or face wash without hearing Craig Laughlin’s distinctive voice in my head.
Of course, to love the Caps is to live in a persistent state of anxiety. We know that a three-games-to-one lead in the playoffs is more curse than blessing, and we watch overtime periods through our fingers. No team is more responsible for our inferiority complex than the Pittsburgh Penguins, who’ve had our number eight of the nine times we’ve met them in the postseason. To love the Caps, then, is also to hate the Pens.
When Canada beat Team USA at the Vancouver Olympics, for example, I wasn’t so upset that my country lost the gold as I was that Sidney Crosby had tallied the winner. So the idea of helping the leader of the free world gush about the 2016 champs — a team that had eliminated the Caps en route to the Cup — felt downright profane.
I’d raised my hand for this assignment months earlier, dreaming that the Caps would make their short but long-overdue trip to the White House while I worked there. It wasn’t to be.
Cody Keenan, our chief speechwriter and a die-hard Chicago sports fan, offered me an out. He recalled that on the day the Super Bowl-winning Green Bay Packers came to the White House, Cody didn’t just delegate the speech assignment; he worked from home rather than risk running into any cheeseheads in the hallway. “You don’t have to be a hero,” Cody counseled.
I appreciated his benevolence but soldiered on. If I could write this, I figured, I could write anything.
As with any good speech, the process began with research. I clenched my jaw and read recaps of the Penguins’ remarkable turnaround season. I grew nauseous as I dug through fawning profiles about enemies of the state such as Matt Murray and accomplices such as Phil Kessel. I steeled myself for a conversation with Pittsburgh’s villainous front office, from whom I learned begrudgingly about the commendable deeds this contemptible team performed in the community, such as restoring city parks and making their facilities more energy efficient.
And then I read about how Crosby gave teammate Trevor Daley the honor of being the first player after the captain to skate with the Cup. Crosby did it so that Daley’s mother could see her son lift the trophy just days before she passed away. I was genuinely moved. I’m a fan, not a monster.
Still, loyalty demanded taking the Pens down a peg. I offered a jab at Evgeni Malkin, who had been caught awkwardly snapping a camera-phone photo of the president during the team’s last visit to the East Room, in 2009.
At one point, a baby in the crowd cried. President Obama ad-libbed an apology for the dad jokes we scattered through the speech. “These are so corny,” he said. Good, I thought to myself; the Penguins don’t deserve our best stuff anyway.
And if we couldn’t get away with a wholesale slandering of rivals who repeatedly stood between the Capitals and greatness, hearing the president ask how it could be that “something called the Presidents’ Trophy” — earned by the Caps for collecting the most regular season points — “is not the highest award a team can win” was a subtle but sweet salve.
The line, like the speech itself, was therapy. Alongside every other perennially heartbroken Capitals fan, I was coping with the futility of winning a concession prize and the frustration of another season of unrealized potential.
For the second straight year, the Capitals have won the Presidents’ Trophy and will face the Penguins in the second round. As ever, I’ll be pulling for the home team with my whole heart. But knowing what I now know, I’ll also be looking for new reasons to hate the Penguins. As I watch Pittsburgh defenseman Ian Cole, I’ll try to forget that the first place he took the Stanley Cup was a children’s hospital. I’ll pretend that I don’t know center Nick Bonino ate pasta out of it with his nonagenarian grandparents. I’ll need to block out the fact that Crosby gave a grieving family a precious memory.
There isn’t a Zamboni in the world that could make me feel clean again. All I can do is pray for the good Lord Stanley’s forgiveness.
Stephen Krupin (@skrupin) leads the executive communications practice at SKDKnickerbocker. He served as a speechwriter to President Obama, Secretary of State John F. Kerry and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid.