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.

"The presidency has become a 24-hour cable channel," Waldman said. "If a major domestic or international event doesn't produce a comment by the evening news, the president is accused of being asleep at the switch."

In addition to tales of all-night writing and aides' squabbling over credit, Waldman spoke of President Clinton's "incredible range of oratorical knowledge" and "love for the podium." "We'd hand him a bare outline of points to make and policies to explain, and he'd 'pretty it up,' with detail and argument tailored to the mood of the audience. We'd give him Hemingway, and he'd turn it into Faulkner."

The modern lack of a "common civic religion"--widespread popular familiarity with texts like the Bible, the Constitution, and famous historical oratory--makes speechwriting more difficult, according to Waldman. "Nowadays, the only allusions understood are those from movies and television commercials. Reporters call up asking 'Who wrote that great line?' and we answer, 'It's from the Bible."

Waldman led a study group at the Insititute of Politics last year, and commented on the number of familiar faces he saw in the audience of approximately 50 students. He said his. new book, POTUS Speaks, was fueled by the pizza that is a staple of IOP events. "If it's starchy or greasy, you know why."

"Pizza and Politics" is a "smallish program, which provides a good opportunity for students to get to know the speakers, eat dinner with them and ask lots of questions," according to the series' coordinator, Josh I. Weiner '03.

Previous speakers in this year's series have included White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart and Republican senatorial candidate Jack E. Robinson, and former Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis is slated to appear later this semester.