Election 2008

Stephan Savoia/AP
Mark Salter, senior advisor and speechwriter to Republican presidential candidate, Sen.
John McCain, stands behind the senator during a walk through at the Exel Convention
Center in St. Paul, Minn.

Behind the Scenes, Political Speechwriters Make History

September 05, 2008 05:58 PM
by Josh Katz
The candidates for both parties put their best feet forward during the national conventions, thanks, in large part, to the people who wrote their speeches.

The Importance of Speechwriting

Political speechwriters operate primarily behind the scenes, but the words they put to paper often have lasting effects on American history. President Roosevelt’s inaugural speech helped him reach the hearts and minds of a struggling population as the country fell into the Depression, when he declared, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Winston Churchill was able to cement Allied resolve through his words during World War II, and President Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech appealed to Germans during the Cold War.  

While speechwriting has become commonplace in modern times, it was not unheard of in the past. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton helped write George Washington’s famous Farewell Address, according to a Fox News blog entry. Abraham Lincoln, however, authored his own speeches.

McCain and Salter

When John McCain made his acceptance speech last night at the Republican National Convention, he had plenty of help from his longtime friend and speechwriter Mark Salter. Salter began writing McCain’s speech a month ago at his secluded Maine cottage. According to Newsweek, the only speech he looked back on for inspiration was the one George H.W. Bush delivered at the 1988 Republican Convention. Peggy Noonan wrote the infamous “Read my lips: No new taxes” speech that helped Bush overcome the 20 point deficit in the polls to defeat Michael Dukakis.

Salter has had to deal with certain McCain shortcomings. Unlike Barack Obama, Sen. McCain is not known for his ability to give “long, formal speeches,” according to Newsweek, “and it shows in his sometimes awkward delivery.” McCain excels in the town hall meeting atmosphere, where there is no script. The Wall Street Journal mentions that McCain often has difficulty handling the teleprompter and he “tends to be wooden when speaking from a prepared text.”

Bob Lehrman, an associate professor of communications at American University and a former speechwriter for former Vice President Al Gore, said Salter takes a more “literary” approach to his speeches than is customary in the trade, according to the Journal.

Palin and Scully

Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s speech at the convention was highly anticipated because of the questions surrounding her experience and the surfacing of the news that her 17-year-old daughter was pregnant. Matthew Scully, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, can be credited with penning the words spoken by the Alaska governor.

He began working on the speech a week before it was delivered without knowing who McCain’s running mate would be, according to Time magazine. When Palin was chosen, Scully modified it to include information about her personal and political life. He also opted to avoid “ideological touchstones,” reports Time magazine, such as Palin’s thoughts on abortion.

Scully constructed a speech that painted the Republican Party as the party of change, or “reform,” instead of the Democrats, a party he portrayed as elitist and out-of-touch with working-class American values. He retreated from the Bush administration and admonished the idea of big government. In other words, Scully made the McCain-Palin team the ticket of “Middle America” and bipartisan values, while thrusting Obama-Biden to the left of the political spectrum, Time magazine writes.

Scully has a history of fashioning such centrist policies through speech. He was “A former protégé of the late pro-life Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, Bob Casey,” and “his specialty was crafting Bush's pro-life message in a way that would not offend soccer moms or mainstream Catholics who get nervous around some of the more extreme Evangelical rhetoric,” according to Time.

Obama and Favreau

Obama’s personal speechwriter doesn’t have the lengthy resumes of those on the Republican end. But Jon Favreau, only 26, used to write speeches for Sen. John Kerry because, as an intern working for the Kerry campaign, he “was one of the few people left in the office” when the campaign “showed signs of imploding,” according to Newsweek.

Favreau, then a 23-year-old graduate of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., met Obama backstage at the 2004 Democratic National Convention while Obama was rehearsing his speech. Favreau helped the senator fix a problem and their relationship began.

In a January 2008 New York Times article, Favreau said that during the Obama campaign his usual sleeping schedule had been 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. Coffee had been an essential part of his workday.

The difficulty with writing for Obama, he said, is that he is such a great orator and writer himself. “You’re like Ted Williams’s batting coach,” Favreau told the Times. He said that he’s come to know Obama’s voice and, whenever he writes, he channels that voice. Favreau says he looks to Bobby Kennedy as a muse for writing speeches. “I see shades of J.F.K., R.F.K.,” he said, and then added, and “King.”

But Obama is very involved with his speeches, according to Time magazine, as he “takes an unusually hands-on approach to his speech writing, more so than most politicians.”

Related Topic: The Axis of Evil

A fairly recent presidential speech that attracted tremendous attention and had serious impact on the course of current events was President Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech, delivered at the January 2002 State of the Union address. With the Cold War over, the speech called back memories of Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech.

Speechwriter David Frum is credited with putting together the speech, although he initially went with the phrase “axis of hatred,” later changing the word to “evil,” The Guardian reports. According to Frum, chief Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson spoke to Frum in January 2001 and said: "Here's an assignment. Can you sum up in a sentence or two our best case for going after Iraq?"

Frum tells The Guardian that he found inspiration in Franklin Roosevelt because “On December 8 1941, Roosevelt had exactly the same problem we had. The United States had been attacked by Japan, but the greater threat came from Nazi Germany."

Frum attempted to tie Iraq to terrorism, and allegedly, Condoleezza Rice chose to add Iran to the equation. He does not explain when North Korea came in to play. Following the speech’s delivery, Frum’s wife revealed to friends that her husband had coined the phrase and the news spread. Frum would later leave the White House, but claims that it wasn’t because of the situation involving his wife, although he did indicate that the administration was not happy that the episode detracted attention from Bush.

Frum said he left the White House for a different reason. "As thrilling as it was, speechwriting is ultimately frustrating for someone who wants to be a writer," he said.

Christopher Buckley, a speechwriter for George H.W. Bush, described the art of speechwriting to the New York Times: “The trick of speechwriting, if you will, is making the client say your brilliant words while somehow managing to make it sound as though they issued straight from their own soul.”

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