Former Clinton Speechwriter Speaks at Leverett

No one knows which of the presidential candidates will deliver a victory speech, and which will be conceding, but the two addresses will sound pretty much the same, former White House Chief Speechwriter Michael Waldman predicted at a Leverett House gathering last night.

"Their messages will be identical: reconciliation and the triumph over partisanship for the good of the country. The loser will just have to try for a semblance of sincerity," he said with a laugh.

Waldman, author of a new book about his experiences running the White House speechwriting operation from 1995 to 1999, said presidental addresses "are not just a string of sound bites, but the moment when politics and personality fuse to form policy."

Simplicity is key, he said, quoting a maxim from John F. Kennedy's speechwriter Theodore C. Sorensen: "never use two words where you can use one, and never use a two-syllable word where one will do." The speechwriter must write in the voice of the speech-giver, with a thorough understanding of his or her political position.

Waldman advised those interested in a speechwriting career to "drink in poetry and history, but learn real substance. Understand policy, and the writing skills will come. And start young--the all-nighters will be easier."

C-Span recorded the discussion, sponsored by the Institute of Politics as part of its "Pizza and Politics" series. It will air as part of the cable network's series on political authors.

Asked if she felt the television coverage had any effect on the content of the discussion, Jennifer A. O'Brien '02-'03 replied, "No, but I think it's interesting to publicize political events from Harvard when everyone thinks college students are apathetic about politics. It may help change perceptions."

Beginning with a description of modern speechwriting's origins (George Washington's Farewell Address was in fact written by Alexander Hamilton), Waldman stressed the importance of the president's "bully pulpit." From Harry Truman's 88 speeches a year, presidential loquaciousness has increased to Bill Clinton's 550 in 1999.